On 6 November, more than 130 million Americans are expected to vote to elect the country’s president. The electorate will either decide to give the incumbent Democrat President Barack Obama a second and final term, or will select the Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, to rule the world’s last remaining superpower until 2016.

The Arab world will be keeping an eager eye on the results of the election. The US president remains a key figure in international politics, and the geopolitical and strategic importance of the Middle East means the region continues to form the main pillar of US foreign policy. From the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to the overthrow of Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Washington is a crucial player in the region’s political and diplomatic landscape.

Middle East policy

Barack Obama’s stance towards the Middle East during his first term has been markedly less interventionist than that of his Republican predecessor, George W Bush. Obama’s approach has largely been made on an ad-hoc basis, with the US joining the Nato coalition during the uprising in Libya, but refusing to extend action beyond sanctions on Iran and Syria. While Bush’s intervention in Iraq proved highly damaging for the US’ reputation in the Middle East, Obama’s failure to exert greater pressure on Iran or Syria or progress with the Arab-Israeli peace process has proven a disappointment to many.

“Gulf countries have felt Obama has been weak and passive, and that often his foreign policy team are not in-sync with him,” says Riad Kahwaji, chief executive officer of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis (Inegma).

If elected, Romney has proposed a more aggressive approach to US strategy in the region. The Republican has frequently criticised the president for his cautious reaction to events in Libya and Iran, and has spoken of the need for the US to be more proactive in the Middle East to protect its interests.

Regardless of who wins the election, the big foreign policy priority for the US is dealing with the prospect of a nuclear Iran. Obama has played a crucial role in enforcing tougher sanctions against Iran’s trade and oil exports. The burden of sanctions and the collapse of the rial in September have taken a toll on the Iran’s economy, escalating pressure on beleaguered president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In September, Iran’s oil exports fell to 860,000 barrels a day (b/d), a 60 per cent fall compared with the 2.2 million b/d it was exporting towards the end of 2011.

“I think if Obama is re-elected, the US will continue to put economic pressure on Iran,” says Jean Francois Seznec, visiting associate professor at Georgetown University in the US.

“The collapse of the Iranian riyal in the past couple of weeks shows that the sanctions are biting hard. The government has little reserves left and they are selling their oil at a significant loss.”

Romney supports further tightening of sanctions on Iran, but has set a lower threshold in terms of military intervention should Tehran fail to return to the negotiating table. While Obama has said military intervention would be employed if Iran were to develop an atomic weapon, Romney has stated that a military response would be used if Iran developed “nuclear capabilities” alone.

Military intervention in Iran

“A Romney administration would be much more likely to use force in Iran than if Obama was re-elected,” says Gregory Gause, professor of political science at University of Vermont in the US.

“I think Obama really does not want to be involved in another war in the Middle East,” says Seznec. “I think Romney would be more likely to bring the US back into war over Iran [and] over Syria.”

Romney openly advocated a tougher stance in recently televised US presidential debates, rejecting Obama’s suggestion that his proposed foreign policy in the Middle East was unclear. “My [Middle East] strategy is pretty straightforward; to go after the bad guys, to do our best to interrupt them and kill them, and take them out of the picture.” 

Iran’s Gulf neighbours remain divided over whether military intervention is the best way to resolve the situation. “There isn’t a unified stance. Although most Gulf [governments] believe there should be a tougher approach to dealing with Iran, there is no unity on the choice of war and whether it would be the best option,” says Kahwaji.

Alongside the question of Iran, many Gulf policymakers have been disappointed with the lack of US action in response to the conflict in Syria.

“I think everybody in the Gulf would like to see the US get more involved in Syria, a little bit like in Libya, and I am not sure we are going to see that under Obama,” says Seznec. “The US is worried about having anti-aircraft missiles passed on to Al-Qaeda. They will probably stay away and will let the Turks and the Saudis carry the ball for them.”

More than 30,000 Syrians are estimated to have been killed since an uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011. The issue of intervention in Syria is a delicate one. The conflict has spilled into neighbouring Lebanon, as demonstrated by the recent assassination of an anti-Al-Assad minister in Beirut. Although both Obama and Romney have publicly rejected direct US military intervention in Syria, the question of arming the opposition is one that has divided the candidates.

A Romney administration would be much more likely to use force in Iran than if Obama was re-elected”

Gregory Gause, University of Vermont

Since October 2011, Obama has enacted stringent sanctions on Damascus and the Syrian leadership, and has also provided non-lethal aid, such as communications equipment, for the opposition. The president has drawn the line at providing heavy weaponry to rebel groups, saying during the final US presidential debate that he wished to avoid “putting arms into the hands of folks who could eventually turn them against us”.

In contrast, Romney has talked of Syria as an “opportunity” for the US and said his administration would ensure the opposition “have the arms necessary to defend themselves”.

During a foreign policy speech in early October, he said he would support the Syrian rebels to ensure a “strategic defeat” for Iran, Syria’s major ally.

A conclusion to the Arab-Israeli peace process has proved a fruitless aspiration for various US administrations over the years. Obama’s efforts in trying to find a solution to the Middle East’s longest running conflict have been widely criticised, within both the Middle East and US policymaking circles.

“Obama hasn’t done anything to solve the peace process. It’s been an appeasement; the administration just decided to ignore it,” says Kahwaji. Obama made an effort to broker negotiations between Israel and Palestinian representatives in 2010 with the aim of forging a framework for an agreement within a year. The talks stalled when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to put a freeze on building new settlements in the West Bank.

Obama supports a two-state solution and an independent Palestinian state along the 1967 lines, but with the caveat that US “commitment to Israel’s security must not waver”.

Palestinian issue

During his term in office, Obama has both clashed with Israel over the settlement issue and criticised the Palestinians for their attempts to gain statehood through the UN.

Romney’s Middle East strategy has been labelled “Israel-centric”, with the alliance forming a central part of proposed US policy in the region. Romney has repeatedly criticised Obama’s administration for distancing itself from Israel and has pledged, if elected, to form a closer relationship with Netanyahu and his government.

Although publicly supportive of a two-state solution, Romney was controversially recorded at a private campaign fundraiser in September saying that Palestinians “have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace,” and that the “pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish”.

Political commentators have little faith in a Romney administration finding a peaceful solution to the 60-year conflict.

“There would be more of an effort from an Obama second term than Romney to push forward the peace process with Israel. Even a small effort from Obama would be more than Romney would do,” says Gause.

While the Middle East may have been left disappointed with Obama’s foreign policy, Romney does not offer an attractive alternative. The Republican is more likely to take decisive action in Iran and Syria, however, there would be little effort to push for an independent Palestinian state. Regardless of who is elected, many in the Middle East are prepared for another four years of disappointment.