A better, brighter future in the Middle East if Biden can maintain the gains

Will the Biden-Harris Administration abandon the failed policies of the Obama-Biden Administration and instead build on Trump’s success?

We, the undersigned, recognize the importance of maintaining and strengthening peace in the Middle East and around the world based on mutual understanding and coexistence, as well as respect for human dignity and freedom, including religious freedom.”

Thus begins the Abraham Accords, the Trump Administration’s signature achievement in the Middle East.  The strategic approach behind these Accords is a radical break from the past:  Rather than seeking some grand agreement in the region that addresses Palestine and all of the players, Trump sought unilateral agreements between each independent state and Israel while placing “maximum pressure” on Iran.

The results to date have been beyond what anyone would’ve believed possible four years ago.  Morocco was the most recent country to sign the Accords this week, following the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan earlier this year.  Each of these countries has normalized relationships with Israel, acknowledged Israel’s right to exist, and committed to combatting terrorism.

“We encourage efforts to promote interfaith and intercultural dialogue to advance a culture of peace among the three Abrahamic religions and all humanity…We seek to end radicalization and conflict to provide all children a better future.  We pursue a vision of peace, security, and prosperity in the Middle East and around the world.”

These are words that have rarely been spoken in the Middle East for almost 50 years.  The last time a Middle Eastern country normalized relations with Israel was Jordan in 1994.  The only other country to do so was Egypt in 1974.

The Accords have also been accompanied by positive developments between Israel and Saudi Arabia.  While the gulf state has yet to formally sign the peace agreement, relations between the two countries are measurably improving.   On November 23, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhayu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman held the first known meeting between their respective leaders.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in attendance as well. Though neither party has fully acknowledged the meeting, Yoav Gallant, part of Netanyahu’s security cabinet, said, “The very fact the meeting happened, and was outed publicly, even if half-officially right now, is a matter of great importance.”

Also on November 23, Google announced plans to build a fiber optic network to connect Saudi Arabia and Israel.  The Times of Israel reported, “The network will, for the first time, link two nations that have no official diplomatic connection but are showing signs of warming relations.”  Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia allowed commercial flights from Israel to cross their airspace for the first time.

These positive developments between Israel and Arab states have occurred while Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terror, continues to suffer from a weakened economy and the loss of key leaders, another pillar of Trump’s overall strategy.

Iran’s gross domestic product peaked in 2012 at $599 billion and has since plummeted to $440 billion, an almost 22% drop.  On November 29, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated, possibly by a remote controlled machine gun, outside of Tehran.  Earlier this year, a US drone attack took out Qasam Soleimani, leader of Iran’s elite Quds force and a master of terror around the world responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers.

The continued normalization of Arab States with Israel is likely to further isolate Iran as a coalition of mutual economic gains and cooperation reduces their influence.  This will not be an easy or altogether smooth process, a crumbling state is likely to lash out, and Iran continues its proxy wars in Yemen and Syria.  The creation of a Palestinean state remains elusive as well.

Regardless, the pressing question is obvious:  Will the Biden-Harris Administration abandon the failed policies of the Obama-Biden Administration (and others before them) and instead build on these successes?

Trump’s gains in the region have not come easily and were not without massive pushback from the establishment at every turn, including from Joe Biden himself and other members of his team.

Trump first signaled his new approach to the Middle East by announcing the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and that the US embassy would relocate from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on December 6, 2017.

Although recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has been official US policy since the Clinton Administration, the condemnation from around the world was swift:  The United Nations Security Council convened an emergency meeting where 14 out of 15 countries opposed the move, including traditional allies like Britain, France, Sweden, Italy, and Japan criticizing the decision.

Even long before the announcement, then Secretary of State John Kerry warned, “You’d have an explosion” if the US were to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.  In an interview with CBS in January 2017, he explained, “You’d have an explosion – an absolute explosion in the region, not just in the West Bank and perhaps even in Israel itself, but throughout the region.”

John Kerry is now expected to be a part of the Biden Administration as a Special Climate Envoy.

Talk of potential conflict continued after the killing Qasam Soleimani.  Then Presidential candidate Joe Biden warned that Trump had “tossed a stick of dynamite in a tinderbox,” adding that “We could be on the brink of a major conflict across the Middle East.”

Neither was the reaction positive to Trump pulling the US out of the Obama Administration’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, a deal that supposedly limited Iran’s ability to acquire a nuclear weapon.  “It is clear to me that we cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of this deal,” Trump explained.  “The Iran deal is defective to its core.”

Trump’s key complaints were that the deal only limited Iran’s nuclear capability for a fixed period, did nothing about ballistic missiles or exporting terrorism, and it boosted Iran’s economy by a hundred billion dollars which was used as “as a slush fund for weapons, terror, and oppression.”

Obama himself called the decision “misguided.”  The leaders of France, Germany, and the UK said they “regret” the decision.  Russia was “deeply disappointed.”  Obama offered more detail, “Walking away from the JCPOA turns our back on America’s closest allies, and an agreement that our country’s leading diplomats, scientists, and intelligence professionals negotiated.”

Of course, none of them bothered to respond to Trump’s substantive criticisms.  In addition to receiving over a billion in cash, Iran’s GDP rose from $385.9 billion in 2015 to $454 billion in 2017 after the sanctions were removed, a 17.6% increase, money even John Kerry admitted was likely to fund terrorist activities.

“I think that some of it will end up in the hands of the IRGC or other entities, some of which are labeled terrorists,” Kerry said in an interview, referencing Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. “You know, to some degree, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that every component of that can be prevented.”

Nor did Iran meaningfully change its behavior in other ways.  For example, they continued to invest in ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead in violation of UN Security Council Resolutions.  There were launches right after the deal was inked on March 8 and 9 of 2016.  The tests continued into the Trump Administration including January 29, 2017, and September 23, 2017, well before the United States pulled out of the deal.

Ultimately, all of the Trump naysayers refused to understand the strategy behind moving the embassy to Jerusalem and putting maximum pressure on Iran. These two changes in our approach lead directly to the Abraham Accords.  Thomas Friedman, no fan of Trump, described it quite colorfully:

“I can best explain it with a soap opera analogy: It is as if Jared Kushner was a lawyer who set out to arrange a divorce between a couple, ‘Mrs. Israel’ and ‘Mr. Palestine.’ In the process, though, Kushner discovered that Mrs. Israel and Mr. Palestine were so incompatible that they couldn’t even sit in a room together, let alone agree on his plan for separation.

“But along the way, Kushner discovered something intriguing: Mrs. Israel was having an affair with Mr. Emirates, who was fleeing an abusive relationship with Ms. Iran.”

At the risk of repeating myself, the question Joe Biden faces now is not an easy one:  The Middle East has fundamentally changed since he’s been in office, but many of the same failed players like John Kerry are part of his team, are they capable of recognizing the error of their ways and building a lasting peace or will they revert to courting Iran?

I hate to say it, but the early signs aren’t good.  The word is Biden plans to rejoin the Iran deal as soon as possible, though that might be more difficult now with changing alliances in the Middle East prompted by Trump.  We can only hope…

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