As the Biden administration enters office, several assumptions about the Middle East will have to be abandoned.
The arrival of a new administration in the United States has created a sense in the Middle East that much is about to change. Such a U.S.-centric view misses the point that Washington’s impact on the region lately has come more by omission than by action.
The Middle East spent Barack Obama’s two presidential terms and Donald Trump’s single term adapting to U.S. disengagement from the region. This has generated new regional dynamics that have called into question many of the assumptions that were taken as givens not that long ago. That is why several previous certitudes are no longer true, and there may be something liberating in that.
Take the normalization that occurred last year between several Arab states—the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco—and Israel. The reason for why each Arab state chose such a path varied, but collectively the agreements effectively collapsed the idea that an Arab-Israeli conflict still exists. Even countries that have not opened official channels with Israel, such as Saudi Arabia and Oman, have already done so in everything but name. What does this new context mean for the wider region?
One can surely lament the fact that the Palestinians have been abandoned by their Arab brethren. But in many regards this may benefit them as it will force a new generation of Palestinians to rethink their approach to Israel, away from Arab manipulation. The two-state solution, according to its critics, would have created a Palestinian Bantustan, not peace based on mutual parity and respect. Now Palestinians have little choice but to tell the Israelis that in the absence of a state they are entitled to rights in a binational state.
Demographically, this may be the worst possible outcome for Israel’s Jewish population, but it is one that its leadership has made almost inevitable. It’s either a binational state or Israel will have to expel Palestinians from the West Bank and Jerusalem or prepare to forever suppress them. One or the other will shatter the allegedly virtuous foundations of the Jewish state. By normalizing with Israel, Arab countries have dumped this enormous problem entirely in the lap of the Israelis, for which they simply have no easy solution.
But just as the Arab-Israeli conflict has been redefined out of existence, so too has the idea of resistance, and even more so the group of states and parties calling itself the Axis of Resistance—Iran and its regional allies, above all Hezbollah, the Syrian regime, and Hamas. If Palestinians resist in the future, they will do so in pursuit of achievable objectives, such as equal rights in a state with Jews, rather than to secure an independent Palestine. Therefore the nature of their resistance will surely not be of the kind the Axis of Resistance favors—armed resistance. It will be nonviolent. Palestinians still need to agree to a common strategy before this can happen. However, they are already reassessing what resistance actually means.
The Axis of Resistance is today a coalition built on sand. Everywhere, the partners in this axis are operating in environments that limit their ability to combat Israel or America: Syria is destroyed; Hezbollah sits atop a Lebanon that has crumbled economically and where hostility to the party and its agenda is profound; the corrupt and dysfunctional Iranian-dominated order in Iraq is rejected by an increasing number of youths, as well as by senior government and religious figures; the Houthis in Yemen preside over a disjointed, devastated country; and Hamas controls a territory, Gaza, that is a giant prison, whose only practical outlet is toward Egypt, whose regime is deeply suspicious of the movement.
In other words, belonging to the Axis of Resistance is synonymous with political, economic, and social ruin. This stricken confederacy survives only because Iran and its allies will resort to violence to keep it in place. But by doing so they have guaranteed that the very notion of an Axis of Resistance fighting oppression is without merit, since adopting the same actions as oppressors is sublime hypocrisy.
A third assumption that has changed is that Iran has a legitimate claim to exercising power in the Arab world. Recall, even former U.S. president Barack Obama seemed to believe this, as he explained to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic in 2016: “The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians, which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen, requires us to say to our friends, as well as to the Iranians, that they need to find an effective way to share the neighbourhood and institute some sort of cold peace.”
With Obama’s vice president now in the White House, that premise will need to be fundamentally reconsidered. On what basis is such a belief true, since Iran offers no acceptable model to the Arabs? In fact its regional promise is almost Orwellian in its implications if resistance means desolation and liberation means repression.
Iran has exploited divisions in those Arab states where it has made inroads. Iranian allies have undercut their national institutions to expand Tehran’s power, contributing to these states’ disintegration. Iran has much to offer culturally, yet has no soft power in its playbook today. For all its vaunted ingenuity and patience as a nation of carpet weavers, it offers Arabs only a dreary menu of martyrdom, conflict, poverty, and perennial sacrifice, with fierce retaliation against those who challenge the political forces that Iran sustains.
However, Tehran’s flaws do not necessarily reflect favorably on Arab states. As many governments in the region prepare for the post-Trump era, they too have nothing to propose. The Arab world is devoid of big ideas, and has been for decades. While the uprisings of 2011 removed authoritarian regimes, leaders in virtually all Arab countries have, since, suffocated democratic aspirations. Now the main driver of action is the pursuit of national interest, usually in the way of greater power, without consideration for what took place a decade ago. Constructing a functional regional order on the back of the current Arab leadership is as foolish as doing so on Iran’s.
If the Arab-Israeli conflict is no more, if resistance no longer means much, and if the Arab states and their Iranian rivals offer no credible governing templates for the future, then the region is ripe for radical reinvention. The new administration in Washington cannot help, so implicated was the United States in the old order that generated stagnation and resentment. While the countries of the Middle East may gain by tearing down the certainties of the past, their biggest trial will be showing that they can build on that.