Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 24 November 2020

If other world leaders could vote in the US election, who would they have picked?

President Vladimir Putin walks out of a voting booth. AFP
President Vladimir Putin walks out of a voting booth. AFP

A great deal of decision-making on the part of world leaders is on hold until the result of the US election becomes clear.

The camp rooting for Democratic candidate Joe Biden is led by China, Iran and Venezuela. It is joined by several European countries, who see Donald Trump’s presidency as a menace to Nato. A number of Arab states, on the other hand, were reassured by the Trump administration’s reset of their traditional relationship with the US, which was restored after former president Barack Obama’s U-turn in favour of Iran, Turkey and their common project to impose religion on the state.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could never forget the support afforded by Mr Obama, Mr Biden (who was then vice president), and former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton for his project to install the Muslim Brotherhood in power throughout North Africa. However, in spite of the venomous rhetoric frequently traded between Turkey and the US, he has also enjoyed a close personal relationship with Donald Trump, which has saved him more than once. It saved him even when he sought to acquire the S-400 missile defence system from Russia, much to the US government’s ire, and forged personal relations with the Russian leader Vladimir Putin, though these recently deteriorated.

Israel, for its part, receives preferential treatment from the US no matter who is in the White House.

Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan owes a great deal to former US president Barack Obama. AP
Former US president Obama was a help to Turkey's Erdogan in various (military) campaigns. Credit: Turkish Presidency via AP

Mr Putin prefers Mr Trump to Mr Biden, who the Russians see as a threat for the likelihood that he will reinvigorate Nato. The likelihood that Mr Biden could lift sanctions on Iran could also impact oil prices in a way that could hurt the Russian economy further. Fear of the Democrats’ retribution for Russia’s alleged role in meddling in the 2016 US elections also looms large.

All of these leaders build their policies, to a great extent, based on a US president’s identity and character. At the same time they have to balance that strategy with an awareness that the US and its foreign policy are led not only by the presidency, but also the legislative branch. There is also the rest of the US establishment and even Wall Street, which this year remarkably dropped their traditional support for the Republican Party in favour of Mr Biden.

Why is Iran more invested in a Biden presidency? That answer lies in the JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran, which was agreed along with European powers. The Obama administration had made the JCPOA one of its top priorities at a heavy cost, including the deliberate abandonment of Syria to Iran, Russia, and Turkey.

Mr Biden and much of his team, who were complicit in Mr Obama’s abandonment of Syria, have said that they would automatically return the US to the JCPOA and undo Mr Trump’s withdrawal from that deal. The Biden camp believes this is the easiest and quickest foreign policy victory it could achieve – a “master stroke” that would restore warmth to US relations with Europe.

One problem, however, lies in the question of how to resume negotiations with Tehran in a way that takes into account recent advancements in Iran’s ballistic missile programme and its regional role in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. A Biden administration must also assess how it could lift or ease sanctions on Iran when they have been enshrined in Congressional bills, given the likelihood that Republicans will continue to control the Senate. The Biden camp’s interest in returning to the JCPOA without thinking too hard about these issues is good news to Iran. That’s why Tehran sees value in “strategic patience”, waiting for Mr Biden’s time in the White House to arrive.

A billboard in Iran reads: 'Whoever comes [into office] they bring evil. America is still America.' Even so, Iran might be something of a 'blue state'. AP
A billboard in Iran reads: 'Whoever comes [into office] they bring evil. America is still America.' Even so, Iran might be something of a 'blue state'. AP

The Biden camp’s interest in returning to the JCPOA without thinking too hard is good news to Iran

The same could be said of China, a tentative ally of Iran. Beijing sees defeating Mr Trump as a strategic goal and sees Mr Biden a softer alternative. The socialist tendencies of some sections of the Democratic Party also bodes well, even while Mr Biden has the backing of Wall Street. While New York’s financiers are no ideological bedfellows with Beijing, they have been disturbed by Mr Trump’s open hostility to Chinese investment and the unpredictable impact of his capricious tweets on US financial markets.

Russia, which prefers Mr Trump to Mr Biden even though it is a signatory to the JCPOA, is concerned about the prospect of sanctions relief for Iran. Allowing Iran to resume pumping oil into global markets could push Russian oil prices down. Mr Putin also sees Mr Trump’s shakedown of Nato as a positive. Moscow has also found itself trapped in multiple quagmires around the world, including in Syria, and does not trust Turkey’s designs there or in Libya and elsewhere. In other words, while the Russian relationship with Mr Trump’s America is difficult and complicated, but it would be even more difficult with a Biden administration.

Kevin Rudd, Australia’s former prime minister and a studied expert on Chinese affairs, recently remarked that, in his view, China is hedging its alliances between Arab states and Iran. “Its strategy is along these lines: be friends to all, be enemies of none until someone finds you out and then duck for cover,” Mr Rudd said.

Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki al-Faisal flipped that logic on its head. “What I’m afraid of is that actually…the Iranians will two-time the Chinese, in the sense that they will get all the benefits and the Chinese will get nothing in return for that strategic engagement”.

Russia is the quintessential 'red state'. AFP
Russia is, in a sense, the quintessential 'red state'. AFP

Prince Turki also said that the Arab Gulf countries will not be radically impacted by either Chinese-Iranian relations or the outcome of the election in the US. “Arab countries,” he said, “will have to take into consideration that a Biden administration is emanating from an Obama administration, but not necessarily bound by Obama's implementation of his of his foreign policy, particularly on issues like the JCPOA and other issues in the area.

“Biden has said that he will go back to the JCPOA, but that he will have conditions…We still don't know what those conditions are, but he talked about Iranian missile production and also Iranian malign activity in the area.”

World leaders are thus awaiting the outcome of the US election, but at the same time are drawing various scenarios. Either way, Donald Trump will remain president until January, and a lot could happen until then. In the meantime, the presidents, prime ministers and supreme leaders of other nations will continue to hold their breath.

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute and a columnist for The National

Updated: November 8, 2020 02:27 PM

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