The US elections of November 2020 will cast a long shadow in the Middle East. But elections in Israel in March, Iran in June, and Turkey in a couple of years from now will also have significant geopolitical impacts in the region in 2021.
The Biden administration will be overwhelmed by domestic concerns related to the pandemic, the socio-economic crisis, and political extremism. Foreign affairs will focus on global issues such as climate change, rebuilding traditional alliances in Europe and Asia, and confronting the rise of China. Biden wants to restore the nuclear deal with Iran that he and President Obama negotiated in 2015; his administration says they also want to discuss Iran’s missile systems and its regional interventions. But once they get their restored—and maybe slightly reinforced—nuclear deal, other matters are much lower down in the priority list. Washington is moving to restore relations with the Palestinians, and will try to revive Israeli-Palestinian talks, but with very little hope of actual progress.
In terms of geopolitics, while Trump sided heavily with Israel and the Gulf countries and used many of America’s levers of power—sanctions, cyber and covert attacks, assassinations of top figures like Qasem Soleimani and Mohsen Fakhrizadeh—Biden’s team will have a more distanced approach. While they will maintain a number of sanctions against Iran—indeed many are hard to remove without Congress’s approval—their attitude is likely to resemble Obama’s attitude toward the end of his term, namely that the powers of the region are going to have to figure out how to “share the region.” And that could be a formula for more proxy war and regional power grabs.
Upcoming Knesset elections in Israel
Israel is holding its fourth Knesset election in a span of just two years. But the March 23 elections are unlikely to dramatically change the political landscape in Israel, or alter Israel’s geopolitical alignment. Israel has “succeeded” in weakening and undermining the Palestinians, and is well on its way to trying to maintain an apartheid state for the next decades of the 21st century. Regionally, it achieved a major breakthrough during Trump’s term represented in the historic normalization agreements with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan. The new Israeli-Gulf axis (of which Saudi Arabia quietly approves) will represent a new economic and technological juggernaut in the world, and also creates a strong Israeli-Gulf-American alliance close up against the southern flank of Iran. Whether this will deter Iran from more adventures or trigger a new round of escalation in the region will be revealed in the coming months.
A key dynamic in these questions are the Iranian presidential elections scheduled for June 2021. Although these are not free and fair elections Editor’s note: According to international democratic standards], and although the president does not command Iran’s military or foreign policy, the process does indicate the direction in which the Supreme Leader and increasingly the Revolutionary Guards want to take Iran. The new president is very likely to be a hardliner, and not anyone of Rouhani’s profile, but there is vigorous debate even among the hardliners whether it is wiser to negotiate with the US and slightly moderate Iranian foreign policy in order to save the economy, and thus save the future of the regime, or whether to double down on defiance and escalation. The Biden administration is really only interested in reviving the Obama-era nuclear deal, with some revisions; Iran wants to restore the deal also. How Iran will behave after that will be largely decided in Tehran, but will have consequences from Beirut to Sanaa and beyond.
Consequences of upcoming elections in Turkey
The Turkish elections, although scheduled for 2023, are already having a transformative effect on the region. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been fighting for his political life for some years now, as he and his family have been mired in corruption scandals, the Turkish economy has lost its dynamism of years ago, and his election results have grown increasingly precarious. In 2019, he lost key municipal elections in Turkey’s main cities of Istanbul and Ankara. As a former mayor of Istanbul, he knows what such a loss means. In order to shore up his domestic support, he has found that pursuing an aggressive geopolitical foreign policy gains him the important support of Turkey’s hardline nationalists. This aggressive foreign policy includes a sustained war against the Kurds, military interventions in Syria and Libya, standing up to the US and NATO by purchasing Russian S-400 systems, and deploying Turkish naval forces to stake out Turkey’s interests in the eastern Mediterranean. Erdogan has seen how Iran has built a major sphere of influence through militias and proxy presence. As US power ebbs and regional powers scramble for their spheres of influence, Erdogan has gotten into the game.
The Middle East is settling into three competing axes. An Israel-Gulf-Egypt axis which enjoys support from a disengaging US. An Iranian axis that boasts strong influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, and enjoys Russian encouragement. And a Turkish axis with influence in the Levant, the Gulf and North Africa, and a leading role in sponsoring Sunni political Islamic movements.
Whereas the Middle East, especially in the wake of the pandemic and other looming crises, should be moving toward dissolving axes, de-escalating conflict and building regional cooperation, it seems to be moving in the opposite direction. And as great power competition increases between a declining US, a rising China, and a struggling Russia, the Middle East risks being an arena of their competition as well.