See James F. jeffrey**
Joe Biden’s first presidential visit to the Middle East is framed as a potential shift in US actions and attitudes toward the region. A few months ago, the cover of “Foreign Affairs” magazine announced: “The Middle East is on the Move: In Search of a Post-American Order.”
A reasonable explanation for the July visit is that much of the Middle East actually wants to stick with Washington. The administration, initially reluctant to engage beyond returning to the Vienna Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA), is clearly listening.
The president’s ambitious plan with Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia will culminate in a meeting between him and the heads of nine Arab states, four of which (UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Egypt) already have ties to Israel. He will also meet with people from Iraq, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and hold an innovative virtual summit with the leaders of the United States, Israel, India and the United Arab Emirates, which will highlight the administration’s “decisions. -end” security ties with key regional players, Israel included.
This significant shift in the administration’s perspective was prompted by the conflict in Ukraine, which demonstrated both the inseparability of global security and threats to it. The United States has a particular need for the support of regional states in this conflict, whether in the form of oil exports or votes in the UN, but those same states demand that Washington take their security needs seriously. Meanwhile, the failure of the JCPOA talks is prompting everyone to seek a more tightly knit regional security framework. Ultimately, however, while the visit will drive home the message of cooperation, a revitalized joint security arrangement between Washington and the region will have the following key questions.
The trip builds on the 2020 Abraham Accords, which the Biden administration has recently begun to talk about in earnest. Israel’s further integration into a region with extraordinary military, diplomatic, intelligence, technological and energy resources strengthens overall collective security. It may also reduce traditional Arab wariness of Israel stemming from its policy on the Palestinian issue: first, by focusing on more pressing security threats, which Israel is better placed to address; Second, by opening the door to increased cooperation on Palestinian issues, as demonstrated by the UAE’s successful advocacy against Israeli territorial annexation.
The fact that Biden will travel directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia shows the progress of the Abraham Accords to be discussed at follow-up meetings in Israel in early 2022, first with regional foreign ministers (including Tony Blinken) and then with military commanders. The only countries that recognize Israel’s missile defense are Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Real progress, such as Saudi recognition of Israel, is unlikely during this trip. King Salman has made it clear that he wants further progress on the Palestinian issue, given his kingdom’s role in the Arab and Muslim world. So the Saudi position is clear: “We will not be the last to replace Israel”, but, implicitly, “not immediately”. The visit could see a breakthrough in bilateral negotiations over the transfer of two Red Sea islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, but this requires coordination with Israel and the United States to guarantee Israel’s freedom of navigation. The various points mentioned below should encourage the already well-developed regional military cooperation and covert sharing of intelligence.
The biggest question surrounding the visit: Is the Biden administration truly committed to leading regional collective security against the myriad threats posed by Iran and its many proxies, Russia, Syria and terrorist groups? The administration’s regional force presence and military-to-military ties remain strong. However, this is not enough, as vague pledges of stability and a national will to do more than respond to challenges with rhetoric are required. Given this strong military cooperation, political signaling using military, sanctions, counterterrorism, and diplomatic tools is more important than resource-intensive measures. But years after Washington’s call for a “look to Asia” and a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States must more resolutely resist the inevitable advance of Iran, a most pressing concern for its allies.
The administration argues that it is pushing back against Tehran’s activities in the region, citing those strong security ties, particularly growing regional defenses against Iranian missiles and drones, and its role in the current ceasefire in Yemen. These are important, but still irrelevant to the question of Iran’s competence. The reality is that Iran and its proxies have rained down missiles and drones on Israeli, Emirati, Iraqi and Saudi targets and have carried out 29 attacks on US facilities since October, according to NBC News. Apart from the limited damage so far caused by these attacks, the fact that not only Iran but also its proxies have resisted any retaliation is widely seen as a US weakness. A passive US presence is certainly better than withdrawal, but it does not prevent further provocations, reassure partners or reduce risks of escalation.
The ceasefire in Yemen is a plus, but it was largely brokered by concessions from Saudi Arabia, not Iran or its Houthi allies. This was made possible by the unexpected success of the Yemeni government, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in capturing the strategic city of Marib and intercepting Houthi missile attacks.
The administration, in addition to providing humanitarian aid, openly handed over Lebanon to Hezbollah, thus handing over Iranian control. On the other hand, it maintains its overall presence in Syria and Iraq, ostensibly against the Islamic State but on the other hand not ceding ground to Iran and its allies. Yet Washington has not held back against Iranian diplomatic, economic, political, and military activities aimed at undermining American partners in both countries and directly pressuring the United States. The risks posed by Iran to Washington’s (and Turkey’s) key Iraqi ally, the Kurdistan Regional Government, range from military attacks and support for the PKK to legal attacks on key Kurdish oil production.
More radical moves against Iran by Washington and its allies will not be formalized in travel documents or reports. Some of Washington’s partners at the Jeddah summit, including Qatar and Iraq in particular, will not make a formal deal against their dangerous neighbors. But common measures, including missile defense and defense of sea lanes, including at least informal Israeli participation, are possible and welcome; However, the president’s body language and his behind-the-scenes engagements will determine the region’s assessment of his determination to contain Iran.
The fate of the nuclear deal with Iran will be a major sub-theme of the Iranian negotiations. If a relapse is imminent, the region will simultaneously sigh with relief and tremble with anxiety. Deterring a nuclear or near-nuclear Iran for a few years is worth the effort. More generally, they fear joining the accords would put themselves “out of the woods” with Iran, despite White House rhetoric. On the other hand, if the JCPOA seems certain to be dead, regional leaders will demand how Washington intends to prevent Iran from using nuclear weapons and ask bluntly whether the United States will destroy any weapons.
Diplomatic and economic issues
The president is said to have caved in to the Saudis by insisting on higher oil sales and granting ‘persona grata’ status to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. However, these questions are overblown. The Saudis have already made some concessions on the oil boom, but their oil economic model will limit further. Also, the administration has already made it clear that it appreciates the Crown Prince’s work on Yemen and other issues, and does business with him at all levels. It is critical to enhance the spirit of the Abraham Covenant through economic, technological and cultural integration in the region, building on recent trade and investment initiatives between Israel, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates that include energy, information technology and tourism. In particular, the progress of the UAE-Jordan-Israel agreement on water and electricity and at least recognition of the plight of the Palestinians will increase the attractiveness of the agreements among the regional population.
* Article published in English by American forum “Wilson Center”.
** Head of the Middle East Program, senior member of the Slater family, former US Ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, and Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS
N/B: This paragraph was translated by the editorial staff of Article 19
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