November’s presidential election will be dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the White House’s handling of it and the subsequent economic fallout. However, it is easy to forget now, what with the rollercoaster year we have all experienced, that it was America’s relationships in the Middle East, and particularly with Iran, that dominated the early 2020 headlines.
Back then, it was natural to think that America’s post-Iraq role in the region would be a leading election topic. Just because it no longer is, does not make it any less important.
The Trump White House’s relationship with Iran has rarely been far from the headlines throughout his presidency. Tearing up the Obama-era JCPOA was a bold, long-overdue move. While it angered some, the action finally shone the spotlight on the deal’s flaws, namely it’s permissive approach to terror funding, it’s silence on Tehran’s rocket program and a failure to recognise their generally destabilising impact. The future of this relationship is seen as the defining feature of U.S. Middle East policy for years to come.
However, COVID-19 may finally achieve a necessary step towards regional stability by pulling Iran back from the billions of dollars and resources it lavishes on violent proxies across Middle Eastern hotspots. The devastation the disease has wrought across the country will hopefully see a necessary turn inwards and recognition of the need to re-allocate those resources towards domestic rebuilding. This unforeseen pandemic may finally starve the likes of Hezbollah and Hamas of the funds they have taken for granted for so many years now.
For whoever is president in January, therefore, perhaps Iran won’t be the front and center foreign policy running sore that it has been. That doesn’t mean that the United States can afford to avoid a reappraisal of its Mid-East relationships. In Turkey, they find a long-time ally instigating an increasingly reckless and destructive foreign policy running counter to American interests. Whilst much has been made of Trump’s apparent admiration for President Erdogan’s strongman tactics, it is clear that America’s once staunch NATO ally is treading a path that renders it an increasingly unreliable partner.
The United States and the wider western world has long been able to depend on Turkey as it’s most powerful security ally in the Middle East, dating back to the start of the Cold War. Its presence in NATO was an indispensable source of stability and partnership in the West’s wider Middle Eastern policy, a constant during times of broader instability. Alas with Turkey’s descent into Islamism with its increased taste for repudiating the West and secular values, Erdogan has been taking a hammer to this once ironclad relationship.
One need only look at the overtures Turkey is making to Iran, Russia and China to see where it’s international relations priorities lie. Elsewhere, Turkey is exporting former Jihadi extremists from Syria, lured by the promise of Turkish citizenship and financial reward, to Libya in the thousands to add fuel to the fire of that already destructive civil war. This is in stark contrast to America’s active role in calling for peace and negotiation.
Whilst the need for a reevaluation of U.S – Turkish relations is gradually more understood, Ankara’s close relationship with Doha and how together they are increasingly operating counter to Washington’s foreign policy agenda is less so. Last week, disturbing reports emerged that Qatar financed weapons deliveries to Hezbollah, a U.S. designated terrorist organisation. This is despite the tiny emirate playing host to other 10,000 American troops.
Qatar is, on paper at least, a staunch U.S. ally, yet is shown once again to be funnelling resources to groups who consider the United States their sworn enemy. Arguably Doha is playing an even more duplicitous game in its relations with the West than Ankara, putting on the veneer of friendship whilst engaging with hostile elements.
In 2009, then Secretary of State Clinton presented her somewhat infamous “reset” button to Russian President Medvedev, indicating a desire to recalibrate relations.
Despite the opprobrium this gimmick received, a similar, more substantive approach must be taken by the Oval Office occupant come January. It is imperative the United States review previously close alliances with those who now appear to be working directly against its interests.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a business strategist, Harvard -educated scholar, board member of Harvard International Review, an Iranian-American political scientist and president of the International American Council.