As Britain’s involvement in the Middle East began to decline after the Second World War, the US’s role in the region started to gradually increase. Today, the Middle East has become a cornerstone of American foreign policy and in many ways, an American president’s approach to the region can define his presidency. For example, Jimmy Carter’s short presidency was centered on two issues surrounding the Middle East, namely the Iran hostage crisis and the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel. Furthermore, a new presidency can cause monumental shifts in American policy towards the Middle East, while Obama tried to normalize relations with Iran, Trump has been reinstating sanctions on the Islamic Republic in fear that it might obtain nuclear weapons which could further its region destabilizing activities.
As the US is poised for a presidential election in a year’s time, a nominee from the Democratic Party is set to take on Trump for the highest office in the country. If Trump is to lose the upcoming election, then we might witness another shift in the US’s Middle East policy particularly when it comes to the controversial JCPOA deal with Iran. However, not all Democratic nominees share the same opinions on the region and, for better or worse, the more progressive candidates present the prospect of more radical changes US-Middle East relations, meanwhile the more establishment nominees will likely tread on familiar ground to previous democratic presidents from the past 20 years.
BERNIE SANDERS: THE ANTITHESIS OF DONALD TRUMP
In many ways, Bernie Sanders is the antithesis of Donald Trump when it comes to the Middle East. Back in November 2018, Sanders along with Senator Chris Murphy (Dem) and Senator Mike Lee (Rep) proposed a bipartisan resolution in Congress which would end the US’s support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Sanders would propose the resolution again in March of this year, which passed in the Senate 54-46 and 247-175 in the House. Trump would eventually veto the resolution, but if this resolution indicates anything it’s that a Sanders presidency would likely not come in Saudi Arabia’s favor.
Sanders has been vocally critical of Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the JCPOA and is in favor of returning to the deal, on May 8, 2019, he tweeted:
“Trump has isolated the U.S. from its closest allies and put us on a dangerous path to conflict. We should rejoin the deal and work with allies to effectively enforce it.”
Furthermore, in a June 21 article he wrote for The Guardian he stated that Iran’s increase in its uranium stockpile was a response for Trump’s maximum pressure campaign. It should be noted in the same article he stipulated that Iran pursues a number of bad policies such as supporting extremist groups around the region, which he thinks should be dealt with diplomatically and by working with allies.
TULSI GABBARD: THE CAUTIOUS (CONTROVERSIAL) VETERAN
The Hawaii House Representative is an army veteran who has previously served in Iraq, and as such has had her experience influence her Middle East policy. Like her Democratic colleagues, she is critical of Trump’s decision to pull out of the JCPOA, and has stated that the move can result in unwanted consequences such as Iran restarting its nuclear weapons program. She has also said that the deal was not perfect, but was better than alternatives that seek to block Iran’s nuclear weapons program. She further warned against a confrontational approach to Iran and is fearful of an armed conflict with the Islamic Republic and warned that a war would potentially have worse effects than the Iraq war. In her opinion a war with Iran would cause pointless loss of soldiers’ lives, civilians’ lives, the worst refugee crisis in Europe’s history and would give leverage for terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS to expand.
Gabbard is not the anti-war candidate she leads us to believe though, for instance back in 2018 she voted for increasing the defense budget. Moreover, she is also for the limited use of drones in the region, as she thinks that the method is a quick and efficient way of attacking terror cells without any long-term deployment.
Her views on Syria have proven to be the most controversial; in November 2015 she introduced a bipartisan bill to end the war in Syria. She has expressed her disdain for US’s involvement in the Syrian civil war and has said that her country is waging an illegal war to overthrow Assad; something she thinks would be counterintuitive to the fight against ISIS. Even more controversial was her January 2017 visit to Syria, where she met with Bashar Al-Assad. Democratic leadership was not informed of her plans to visit Syria, and she was subsequently met with criticism from both Democrats and Republicans.
ELIZABETH WARREN: THE PSEUDO-PROGRESSIVE
Elizabeth Warren, the Senator from Massachusetts, has been vying to become the progressive candidate for the Democrats. While she has shown similarities with Sanders when it comes to domestic policies, her foreign policies are much more of a mixed bag. For example, she has opposed the US’s involvement in Yemen and has been fairly consistent on that stance. But, she has shown to change her views on other issues, for example she initially supported Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, but she later voted in favor of a sanctions bill against Russia, North Korea and Iran.
Despite her seemingly inconsistent stances, she seems to have taken a much more condemnatory position on Trump’s Iran policy. In June of this year, during a town hall meeting in Florida, she vocally censured Trump’s actions toward Iran: “He has created a crisis that has taken our country to the brink of war; he has not made us safer. He has made the United States more at risk. He’s made the Middle East more dangerous. He has made the entire world a more dangerous place.” Like Sanders, she favors working with allies to find diplomatic solutions to the crisis.
JOE BIDEN: REHASH OF OBAMA’S POLICIES
Depending on which polls you’re looking at, the former vice president is the frontrunner of the Democratic Party. Unlike, Sanders, Warren and Gabbard Biden is seen a return from the anti-establishment wave that started since the 2016 election and many older democrats see him as the ideal candidate to take on Trump. Biden’s voting record on the Middle East has been mixed, for instance, he voted against the Gulf War, but voted for the Iraq war nearly a decade later. Like Obama, he has a strained relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but that is unlikely to translate into strained US-Israeli relations should he become president. Having served as Obama’s Vice President, he has naturally defended the JCPOA and attacked Trump on multiple occasions for pulling the US out of the “hard-won nuclear agreement that the Obama-Biden Administration negotiated.”
In spite of his defense of the JCPOA, he has admitted that under his presidency the US would only return to the deal of Iran goes back to the commitments that it has violated, such as increasing its enriched uranium stockpile. He also addressed some of the issues that critics have of the deal, for example he stated that he would work with allies to improve the deal by making it more effective in halting Iran’s other destabilizing activities.
Like the rest of the democratic caucus, he is opposed to the US’s involvement in the Yemen war and has vowed to end support for the Saudi-led coalition in the conflict.
KAMALA HARRIS SHARES VIEWS WITH BIDEN
Like the rest Democratic nominees, Kamala Harris has expressed a desire to rejoin the JCPOA, and like Biden, she said that she would seek to expand upon it so that it prevents Iran from carrying out ballistic missile tests. She criticized Trump for pulling out of the deal stating that it was working, and she is not in favor of the unilateral manner in which Trump walked away without consoling the rest of the P5+1. She has also been vocal against the US’s role in the Yemen war and voted for Sanders’ resolution to end US involvement in the conflict.
IMPLICATIONS OF A DEMOCRATIC VICTORY
Thus far, the Iran nuclear deal has taken center stage of the nominees’ Middle East policies. Should a democratic candidate win the upcoming election, then it is likely that the US might return to the JCPOA, despite opposition from other key allies in the region. Naturally, the Iranian leadership is hoping for Trump’s defeat in the upcoming elections and is probably trying to endure the sanctions as much as it can, since it probably favors returning to the negotiating table with a democratic president rather than Trump. Furthermore, a democratic victory might signal trouble for Saudi Arabia as most leading candidates have called for an end to US support for its efforts in Yemen.