A viable long-term strategy for Iran and the Arab Gulf states is critically dependent on the US administration securing regional and international buy-in, and bipartisan support in Congress.
The outcome of the 2020 US presidential election will have significant implications for the direction of US, UK and EU policy in the Middle East. Over the past four years, transatlantic divisions and conflicting objectives in critical Middle East policy areas have brought greater instability to the region. President Trump’s formal announcement, in May 2018, that he would withdraw the US from the Iran nuclear agreement – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), reached in 2015 under the Obama administration – and his administration’s imposition of a sanctions-based campaign of ‘maximum pressure’ against Tehran, have exacerbated regional tensions and brought about the acceleration of Iran’s nuclear programme. Through his calls for increased burden-sharing and the drawdown of US troops, grandstanding on a new Israel–Palestine peace deal, and inconsistent response to Iranian provocation in the Persian Gulf, Trump has stoked anxiety and confused the US’s long-time partners in the region.
Without effective and collaborative US engagement on Middle East policy, relations with Europe have become strained, and this has limited both sides’ effectiveness in promoting stability across the region. Wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya continue unabated. Tehran’s support for non-state actors remains a destabilizing influence; and the rift in the GCC and now three-year blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt is unresolved. Russia, China and Turkey have taken stronger economic and security positions in the Middle East, complicating regional dynamics and adding a layer of geopolitical competition to the fragile interlay of regional and international challenges. Added to these factors, and playing out in advance of the US presidential election, are the impact of, and economic fallout from, the COVID-19 pandemic, and heightened US–China tensions, all of which are contributing to even greater regional insecurity.
US policy towards the Middle East under the Trump administration has, notwithstanding the rhetoric of the last four years, yet to bring Iran to the negotiating table. Nor has it delivered the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), or the promised ‘deal of the century’ between Israel and the Palestinians. The signing of US-brokered agreements to normalize relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, in September 2020, is a positive step forward, but any meaningful realignments will be contingent on mutual commitment to a longer-term process.
Managing relations with countries on both sides of the Persian Gulf will remain a principal foreign policy challenge for either a second Trump administration or a new administration under a Biden presidency. Rather than treating Iran and the Arab Gulf states as separate policy areas, the next administration would be better advised to regard the JCPOA, Tehran’s regional interference, its ballistic missile programme, the lack of a regional security architecture, and US support for the Arab Gulf states in Yemen and Libya as all interlinked. Attempting to deal with all these aspects of a wide Middle East policy without a holistic, long-term strategy, involving multilateral collaboration, will see the further disintegration of the region. For such a strategy to take shape, a domestic consensus within the US political establishment is urgently needed. Working multilaterally with the EU and the UK would help to advance US objectives, and could simultaneously further progress on mutual security concerns in the region, including promoting peace and stability, nuclear non-proliferation, counterterrorism, energy and maritime security, and stemming refugee flows. An integrated approach would also contribute to managing the growth of Russian and Chinese influence in the region.
The US, Iran and the Arab Gulf: the Obama record
What President Trump has in common with his predecessor is that each has made efforts – as part of a larger US strategy focused on managing geopolitical competition – to resolve regional challenges and redress US security dynamics across the Middle East. Under the Obama administration, the calculation was that drawing down US resources in the Middle East would allow it to prioritize geopolitical challenges in Asia. As part of this strategy, the Obama administration devoted its attention to steering through multilateral negotiations to constrain Iran’s nuclear programme. Linked to this was Obama’s ambition to create a greater balance between Iran and the Arab Gulf. Interviewed for The Atlantic in 2016, he stated: ‘The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians … requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.’
The JCPOA, concluded in 2015 by Iran, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the UK and the US), plus Germany and the EU, provided for restraints on Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief. The agreement, hailed by its proponents as a significant multilateral achievement, was strongly opposed by Republicans in the US Congress, by the Arab Gulf countries and by Israel. Opponents of the deal saw its specific focus on Iran’s nuclear programme, and the concessions on sanctions, as an approach that would serve to encourage Iran’s interference in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, and allow the further development of its ballistic missile programme.
Arab states regarded the spread of Iran’s external influence – which grew in Iraq following the US-led intervention against the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and subsequently through its military intervention in the Syrian civil war and the fight against ISIS in Iraq in 2014 – as clear evidence of its role in driving sectarianization across the region. The course of the 2011 Arab uprisings had meanwhile also caused alarm among Arab Gulf leaders. When the Obama administration did not actively defend Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, a long-time US ally, the Gulf monarchies concluded, with great concern, that they could no longer rely on Washington as a consistent partner. This perception was reinforced with the outbreak of the civil conflict in Syria in 2011, and particularly when President Obama did not act on his stated commitment to enforce his ‘red line’ on the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war in 2015, unchecked by the US, was regarded among the GCC states as further evidence that the US was no longer willing to protect Arab Gulf security interests. One outcome of this assessment was a growing trend of regional adventurism on the part of Arab Gulf states, as seen in the 2011 intervention in defence of the Bahraini monarchy, in the Yemen war from 2015, in the 2017 Qatar blockade, and in the civil war in Libya. (It is important to note, however, that such interventions have not been collectively supported by the GCC, but led more proactively by the UAE and Saudi Arabia.)
Despite the Obama administration’s commitment to the multilateral effort that achieved the Iran nuclear deal, it ultimately failed to assemble a coalition of supporters of the deal both across the Middle East and at home. Congressional backing for the JCPOA was clearly impacted by the strong opposition to the deal of key US allies in the region, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Although the agreement was eventually approved through a compromise arrangement, Republican hostility to the deal was a central theme in US election campaigning in 2016, including as part of Donald Trump’s presidential bid. Those Arab states that had opposed Obama’s Iran strategy now embraced the Trump campaign, and the eventual policy of maximum pressure adopted by his administration against Tehran.
The US, Iran and the Arab Gulf: the Trump approach
Trump’s campaign threat to withdraw the US from the JCPOA took formal shape in May 2018. The stated aim of his administration’s Iran policy was to roll back Tehran’s regional influence. It also sought to compel Iran, through maximum economic pressure, to return to negotiate a new, comprehensive deal. Such a deal would not only increase the scope and scale of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme; it would also require concessions and impose export controls on its ballistic missile programme, and stem its support across the region for Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Syria, Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militia groups in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen.
The US’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA and reversion to a sanctions-based strategy was unanimously rejected by the other parties to the agreement.
The US’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA and reversion to a sanctions-based strategy was unanimously rejected by the other parties to the agreement. In the US, too, the Democrats – who regarded the deal as a significant nuclear non-proliferation achievement – denounced the Trump administration’s actions. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel, along with many congressional Republicans, supported Trump’s action. France, Germany and the UK (collectively termed the E3), having failed to dissuade Trump from going ahead with the withdrawal, now consistently warned of the risks of instability while promising to shepherd new negotiations with Tehran. The ramping up of US sanctions forced the withdrawal of most international business from the Iranian economy, and effectively blocked Tehran’s access to the international banking system. The Trump administration, surprised by the level of international compliance with the sanctions, viewed maximum pressure via punitive economic constraints as effective in promoting US foreign policy objectives.
From May 2019, having extracted no concessions from Tehran, Washington imposed additional penalties against Iran. These aimed first at cutting off oil exports; and, subsequently, sanctioned almost all Iranian trade and industry; designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a foreign terrorist organization; and also directly targeted Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif (who had been instrumental in negotiating the JCPOA), among other senior figures. In retaliation, Iran shifted away from JCPOA compliance towards its own ‘maximum resistance’ strategy, designed to increase leverage and force a policy shift in Washington. Notably, Tehran made efforts to transfer the costs of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure to the wider region, as seen in an increase in missile attacks via its proxy groups in Iraq and Yemen, in alleged attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf, and in the missile attacks on Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais in September 2019. Tensions were further raised, in June, by the shooting down of a US drone by Iranian forces over the Strait of Hormuz, with each side disputing the circumstances of the incident. Escalation also increased on the nuclear front: having consistently been verified by the IAEA as being in compliance with the terms of the JCPOA, from May 2019 Tehran announced a series of incremental breaches of the deal.
In the period following the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, the international community, including many of the US’s Middle East partners, directly and indirectly lobbied Washington for a shift in strategy. However, diplomatic efforts led by France failed to bring Trump and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, together at the UN General Assembly in September 2019. Tellingly meanwhile, the UAE undertook a discreet bilateral de-escalation with Tehran. There was a significant ramping up of tensions following a rocket attack by Iraqi militias on a military base near Kirkuk, in December, in which an American civilian contractor was killed and several US service personnel were injured. In January 2020 the head of the IRGC Quds Force, General Qassem Soleimani, was targeted and killed in a US drone strike near Baghdad Airport. Iran countered with ballistic missile attacks against US assets at airbases in Iraq. That no casualties were immediately reported as a result of the retaliation gave rise to speculation that temporary mutual deterrence had been established in advance of the attacks, implying that both sides were willing to ‘draw a line’ and avoid further escalation at this point.
Rather than alter the course of its maximum pressure strategy, the Trump administration has doubled down on sanctions since 2018. In the meantime, Washington has been seen not to adequately defend Arab Gulf security interests; nor has it sought E3 support for a new multilateral approach to addressing regional tensions. Indeed – notwithstanding Brexit dynamics, and doubtless with an eye on a possible change of administration in the US after 2020 – the E3 has remained united in its commitment to shielding the JCPOA from further damage. At the UN, France, Germany and the UK have resisted US pressure tactics on the extension of the Iran arms embargo, due to expire in October 2020, or to accept the reimposition of snapback sanctions. The E3 remains deeply concerned about these issues, and about Iran’s regional interference, but has pursued its own regional track, including a maritime security initiative for the Persian Gulf, in an effort to carve out space for regional discussions.
Steps to a multilateral future
The US – whether under a second Trump administration or a new one under a Biden presidency – would be well advised to heed the lessons of these continued regional policy failures. Foremost among these is the importance of reaching both domestic and international consensus around any future regional policy coordination. US policymakers will have to recognize that France, Germany and the UK are critical actors whose support will be essential to achieving a meaningful shift in the current balance of tensions. Drawing on the E3 as interlocutors with Iran in order to stabilize the JCPOA must be a priority. Because the E3 countries are perceived as more balanced actors in the region, their involvement would help create assurances for all sides in a regional security dialogue.
The recent trajectory of US Middle East policy under both Republican and Democratic administrations suggests that a regional drawdown will remain the goal whoever is in the White House over the next four years. The EU and the UK would be wise to look beyond the outcome of November’s election, and to create their own joint roadmap for this process and prioritize their own security interests, rather than relying on the US to take the lead. Maintaining E3 unity in defending the JCPOA and sharing concerns over regional security serves as a good model for the bloc’s future. Moreover, a post-Brexit UK that is truly committed to a role as ‘Global Britain’ can serve as a critical bridge between Europe and the US. All the same, it is hard to see the E3 as being effective without the support and participation of the US. The bloc, despite its efforts to protect the JCPOA, has been repeatedly pressed by Tehran and Washington to do more.
Should President Trump win a second term, his administration would benefit from objective reflection on the limits and challenges of maximum pressure. Not only has Iran not returned to the negotiating table, but despite the further constraints on its resources Tehran continues to support a wide array of regional militias and proxy groups: its deep commitment to its regional interests remains unchanged. Testifying before the Senate in July 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged that while sanctions against Iran ‘have clearly had an impact’, in terms of diminishing its capacity to finance Hezbollah and Shia militias in Iraq, they have not ‘achieved the ultimate objective, which is to change the behavior of the Iranian regime’. This recognition could provide the administration with an opportunity to reassess its unilateral sanctions-based approach, especially if Trump’s offer of a deal with Iran remains on the table.
If the current policy trajectory is maintained under a second Trump administration, this will mean the US exerting more of the same pressure vis-à-vis Iran. There is an alternative scenario, in which the Trump administration attempts to rebuild trust with the E3, and through them engage in renewed nuclear negotiations with Tehran. Four years of transatlantic tensions will not be easily brushed aside, however; and the E3 will demand safeguards to protect the JCPOA. Washington would need to provide some sanctions relief for Iran to return to the negotiating table. Tehran is most certainly going to seek compensation for the economic impact of the US withdrawal, and in this respect all sides should consider what face-saving incentives could be offered to ease tensions and build trust. Arab Gulf states, for their part, could be expected to welcome renewed negotiations if they too were consulted through the process this time. Notably, too, Trump would likely have greater ease in obtaining congressional approval for a new deal with Iran. But Iran’s Supreme Leader has repeatedly affirmed that Tehran will not negotiate with Trump, and the hardening domestic climate in Iran, and the probable election of a conservative president there in 2021, make it unlikely that the Trump administration could shepherd through wider negotiations on regional issues. At best, then, through a shift in strategy a second Trump administration could stem the tide of a nuclear crisis. It is unlikely to achieve the president’s sweeping aim of meeting the Iranian leadership ‘anytime they want to’.
In contrast, a Biden administration may be tempted to immediately return to the JCPOA – not simply to reverse Trump’s Iran policy, but also to halt Tehran’s nuclear advancements. Tehran and the E3 would no doubt back renewed US engagement. However, any attempt to re-enter the JCPOA without first building congressional support would likely be counterproductive and lead to repeated partisan policy swings. The approval of Israel and the Arab states, however difficult to achieve, would also be necessary to a sustainable outcome: their participation in the process would help build confidence. To get their buy-in, therefore, a Biden administration would be advised to move beyond the immediate nuclear focus and instead lay out a detailed roadmap for a regional security process that would seek to lessen Iran’s regional interference and manage Arab Gulf security concerns. An inevitable part of this discussion would also be acknowledgment of Iran’s threat perceptions, alongside resolution of the rift between Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Here, a Biden presidency would have a unique opportunity to use the US’s return to the JCPOA as leverage for wider negotiations with Iran and the region. To do so effectively, his administration would need to think holistically about Iran and Arab Gulf security challenges. In close coordination with the E3, the US should develop a multilateral process that can, over time, through confidence-building measures and international oversight, balance the security needs of all parties. This process critically requires high-level buy-in, and can succeed only if all regional players participate. Each of the regional and external countries involved would be advised to appoint a non-partisan special envoy to manage the negotiations, which would include bilateral as well as multilateral tracks. Securing the support of Russia and China would be important to the success of this project.
As a first step, the process would need to arrive at a shared set of principles to guarantee the objectives, and to commit to non-aggression and non-interference. The specific circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic provide a level playing field for health and humanitarian collaboration that could in turn foster the goodwill that may enable progress in tackling more contentious issues. Working groups will need to be convened on essential areas: arms control, nuclear security, maritime security, environmental cooperation, cultural exchanges, communication channels, etc. The US and the E3, as external guarantors of the process, should aim to put in place timelines and incentives, such as sanctions relief for Iran and security guarantees for the GCC countries, alongside pressure to keep the process on track. Resolving GCC tensions, including the Qatar dispute, addressing individual security concerns among the smaller GCC states, and stemming the growing militarization of the wider region – from the Persian Gulf to the East Mediterranean and North Africa – will also be critical elements in achieving greater symmetry in the regional balance of power, and in stabilizing conflict zones in Yemen, Libya and Syria. The complexity of these conflicts necessitates winning Russian and Chinese support, too.
If this opportunity is to evolve into a defined process, all parties will need to abandon zero-sum thinking. The GCC should thus focus on the objective of a reduction in Iran’s military support for non-state actors; while Iran must be equally modest in its aims, and resist demanding the removal of US troops from the region. A conservative shift in Iranian politics could very well obstruct this process, as could a potential succession in Saudi Arabia. Participation by Israel is necessary to the process, but the political sensitivities mean that this will need to be brokered bilaterally with the E3 and the US. Here, the UAE could also serve as a backchannel interlocutor.
The barriers to such an ambitious multilateral and multi-track process are great, and progress will not be achieved in the absence of committed leadership not just on the part of regional governments, but from the US and Europe. But without some movement towards dialogue and process-building, the Middle East’s interlocking tensions and crises will continue to be a source of instability. Ongoing conflicts, and Iran’s support for non-state actors across the region, alongside nuclear proliferation threats and growing regional militarization trends, will continue to draw US, EU and UK resources away from their own domestic and wider international security priorities.
The US administration would, above all, need to secure bipartisan support for a sustained diplomatic investment in what will inevitably be a long-term process. Committed EU and UK participation would further increase the chances of sustainability. If it does take hold, such an endeavour could in time stabilize the conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen, begin the reconstruction process, and help foster good governance, prosperity and greater regional security for the long term.