Biden will Contend with Divergent Middle East Preferences on Iran

The Middle East is experiencing a period of diplomatic and strategic readjustment that will create both challenges and opportunities for the Biden Administration and its friends in the region. These shifts are partly a consequence of major diplomatic initiatives, the most dramatic of which were  the so-called Abraham Accords between Israel and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Special Envoy Jared Kushner assumed that these agreements—which were backed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia—would stymie any effort by a Biden White House to revive diplomacy with Iran. But such hopes will probably not be borne out. Indeed, despite their shared distrust (if not hostility) toward Tehran, it is very likely that Israel, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia will adopt different positions as they adjust to the Biden Administration’s emerging diplomacy.

The unfolding reconciliation between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors—which Pompeo encouraged with the expectation that it would bolster an anti-Iran front—is accentuating these differences. The task for both the United States and its regional friends is how to recalibrate their relations as a new administration defines a strategic regional vision that is forged more in Washington rather than in the Middle East.

No Simple Return to the JCPOA

The tricky task may have been on the mind of the newly confirmed Secretary of State Antony Blinken when, during his Senate confirmation hearings, he declared that the United States would not “rush” to reach an agreement with Tehran. Tactically speaking, this position makes sense. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also emphasized that Iran is not in a hurry to get back to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Still, there is more to the US position than signaling that it will not give Tehran unwise concessions. Addressing the wider strategic terrain, Blinken has promised that the White House will consult with all its Middle East friends and with Congress. The administration’s challenge (and dilemma) is how to honor this pledge without giving Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, or Saudi Arabia––and Congress––an opening to undermine or even scuttle any new talks.

The White House’s effort to manage this dilemma will be tested by the public steps Iran has taken to increase uranium enrichment well beyond the level set forth by the JCPOA. As Blinken noted during his testimony, Iran is some three months from the “breakout” point whereas it was a good year away before the Trump Administration withdrew from the agreement in 2018. Having recently announced that it has moved to enriching uranium at 20 percent, Iran now has far more cards to play in any negotiation and thus has more, rather than less, leverage. Of course, the Biden White House also has more cards to play, including the additional sanctions imposed by the Trump Administration. Tehran is demanding not only that these sanctions be lifted but also that it be compensated for lost oil and gas revenues. If the Biden Administration wants to set the agenda, it will have to respond to these demands in a manner that does not provoke the fears of its friends in the Middle East.

Although tricky, the challenges will certainly not preclude a deal to revive the JCPOA. Zarif insists that the Biden Administration “should begin by unconditionally removing, with full effect, all sanctions imposed … In turn, Iran would reverse all the remedial measures it has taken in the wake of Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal.” This sentence seems cleverly pitched to leave open to negotiation the politically difficult question of “who goes first.” The Biden Administration will insist that “in turn” should mean a near simultaneous set of actions from both Washington and Tehran. However, while Iran can still walk back its uranium enrichment program (which Zarif refers to as its “remedial measures,”) Tehran’s announcement that it has already produced 30 tons of concentrated uranium powder or “yellowcake” is seen by Israeli leaders and their allies in Washington as proof positive that Iran’s ultimate aim is to create offensive nuclear capability, and that no deal will stop Iran from pursuing this outcome.

Tehran’s announcement that it has already produced 30 tons of concentrated uranium powder or “yellowcake” is seen by Israeli leaders and their allies in Washington as proof positive that Iran’s ultimate aim is to create offensive nuclear capability.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE do not appear to share this perception of Iran’s intentions. Still, Tehran’s actions could reinforce their resolve to link any deal on returning to the JCPOA to a pledge from the Islamic Republic to begin talks on ballistic missiles and its military support for the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza. Tehran has dismissed any notion of such linkage, thus underscoring the rough seas that await a US bid to revive the JCPOA, much less move beyond it.

The Region’s Shifting Tides

The Biden Administration’s efforts to navigate these choppy waters will depend in no small part on whether its regional friends conclude that their respective interests will be best served by a united front or by going their separate ways. The prospects for the latter are now increasing as the leaders of Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain discover that the leverage that they hoped to gain from the Abraham Accords––from which Saudi Arabia hoped to benefit as well––cannot compensate for their diverging regional and global interests.

Israel

Assuming that its ongoing political upheaval produces some version of a hard-line coalition similar to those that have constituted its governments in recent years, it is very likely that Israel will emerge as the most ardent Middle East opponent of any return to the JCPOA. Its position reflects the conviction of Israeli leaders––and the wider populace—that until Iran is compelled to fully and permanently dismantle its enrichment program, it will present an existential threat to Israel.

This position was reiterated in a recent article in The Atlantic, coauthored by Yossi Klein Halevi and Michael Oren, the latter a member of the government and a former ambassador to the United States. The article––whose publication was surely timed to send a clear signal to the Biden foreign policy team—reiterated the long-standing view of Israel’s government that the JCPOA is a flawed agreement that will ultimately abet Tehran’s drive for a bomb. While the article pointed to numerous holes in the agreement, it did not hide the fundamental position that Israel and its allies in Washington have always championed: whatever its terms, no agreement that permits any enrichment by Iran is acceptable.

The problem is that the “zero enrichment” demand cannot provide any basis for a negotiated solution. Surely aware of this point, the Halevi/Oren article suggests that Israel will oppose any opening to Iran—a position that was effectively echoed in a recent report by the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a pro-Israel think tank. The latter’s bottom line stance is that the only path to stopping Iran’s nuclear program is regime change. Whether Israel ultimately agrees with this position or not, the Atlantic article provided zero basis for narrowing the gap between Israel and the Biden Administration on the specific question of Iran’s nuclear program.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE Grapple with a New (or Old) Reality

Because the political stability of Iran and its Gulf Arab neighbors depends on oil and gas revenues, both sides have an abiding interest in diplomacy, a point that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has made himself. In recent years, this basic fact injected a measure of dissonance into US-Gulf relations because despite the shared distrust of Iran of Gulf leaders and Trump, the latter was neither ready to risk a sustained military conflict with the Islamic Republic nor had a clear diplomatic path to a deal with it. This ambivalence—and as one analyst has noted, perhaps even an abiding fear that “Trump doesn’t have their backs”–– probably played a role in the decision of the UAE and Bahrain to normalize relations with Israel. While not wedding them to Israel’s hard-line position on Iran, the Abraham Accords enhanced the capacity of the UAE and Bahrain––and Saudi Arabia as well––to shape a regional order without depending on Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” to secure their interests. Underscoring this fact, in late summer and fall 2020 the UAE and Saudi Arabia held talks with Iran on a host of issues. These initiatives suggested that there may be more room for a convergence of views and interests between the Biden Administration and Gulf states than some observers believe.

MbS Makes Nice

Saudi Arabia’s outreach to the White House faces enormous hurdles, the most significant of which is Biden’s statements criticizing the Saudi government and its leaders. With the administration about to review these relations, MbS has reason to show that he is pursuing policies that are consistent with the Biden Administration’s strategic priorities and with Biden’s pledge not to give dictators a “blank check” on the issue of human rights and democracy.

Saudi Arabia’s outreach to the White House faces enormous hurdles, the most significant of which is Biden’s statements criticizing the Saudi government and its leaders. 

In the Saudi domestic arena, there are some signals of greater tolerance. For example, several US-based institutions that monitor government-sponsored hate speech report that Riyadh has eliminated much of the anti-Jewish and anti-Christian language that had been a typical feature in its school textbooks. On the human rights front, the number of Saudi citizens subject to capital punishment dropped dramatically in 2020, a development that was cautiously praised by human rights groups. The recent decision to reduce the draconian sentences that had been imposed on two Saudi citizens (Walid Fitaihi and Loujain al-Hathloul) seem aimed at lowering possible tensions between the Biden Administration and Riyadh. But such steps are hardly sufficient to rehabilitate a crown prince who US intelligence agencies assert was directly implicated in the October 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Indeed, MbS still has much to do if he is going to convince the Biden Administration that he is moving away from a ruling strategy that relies on arbitrary justice, intimidation, and repression.

On the strategic front, MbS has taken steps that suggest a shift to a policy that might favor diplomacy over his demonstrated preference for blunt force and threats. His most dramatic move came on January 5, when he hosted the 41st summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council in al-Ula. That meeting produced an announcement that Saudi Arabia and Qatar would reestablish diplomatic relations, and that further steps would follow to end the 2017 boycott imposed on Qatar. The Biden Administration will welcome this development even if, as is probable, differences between the key parties are unlikely to recede any time soon. Riyadh will also likely show support for what administration officials have promised will be a determined effort to resolve the Yemeni civil war. With the State Department announcing a review of the Trump Administration’s January 11 designation of the Houthi militia as a “terrorist” organization—a move that was clearly designed to complicate life for the new administration––Saudi Arabia will probably look to renew talks with Houthi representatives that got underway in Spring 2020 but had made little progress. Indeed, given Blinken’s assertion that the Saudi intervention in Yemen “contributed to … the worst humanitarian situation anywhere in the world,” Riyadh has every incentive to show that it wants to advance a peace process.

The UAE Reaches Out

Four days after the US presidential elections, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash stated that “Further escalation at this point serves no one and we strongly believe that there is room for collective diplomacy to succeed.” Warning against what he claimed was a “false choice” between war and a “flawed” deal (referring to the JCPOA), his words suggested that the UAE would work with the next administration on renewing talks with Iran. But his statement was probably pitched as much toward Saudi Arabia as toward the Biden foreign policy team. The UAE’s July 2019 decision to begin pulling its troops out of Yemen telegraphed a clear signal to its Saudi allies that from the Emirates’ vantage point, the time had come to begin searching for a regional political solution to the Yemeni civil war—a point that Gargash has been championing for nearly two years.

The UAE’s July 2019 decision to begin pulling its troops out of Yemen telegraphed a clear signal to its Saudi allies that from the Emirate’s vantage point, the time had come to begin searching for a regional political solution to the Yemeni civil war.

The somewhat diverging perspectives of the UAE and Saudi Arabia were also on display at the January 5 GCC summit. If, as was reported, the UAE was a “reluctant” signatory to the deal to begin ending the boycott of Qatar, its decision seems to have been impelled––as one Gulf expert put it––by the realization that the “Saudis would do it with or without them. They didn’t want to be left out and appear isolated.” Indeed, with Biden’s inauguration two weeks away, the UAE was apparently positioning itself to be the Gulf Arab interlocuter with the new administration––a position that Saudi Arabia probably covets as well.

All Eyes on Biden?

As the Gulf Arab states jockey for influence, the Biden Administration is being courted by several would-be suitors, all of whom want to serve as the gatekeepers as the White House pushes for renewed talks with Iran. Qatar’s recent offer to broker talks between the Gulf states and Tehran suggests that the region’s shifting strategic sands could enhance the Biden Administration’s leverage as it strives to lead on the Iran nuclear issue while consulting with all the key players. On this score, the new administration will probably prioritize its relations with the European Union countries. A common US-Europe position could prove crucial as the White House looks to show that US leadership and multilateral diplomacy go hand in hand. Middle East states––which are striving to pursue their own priorities—are now paying close attention to changes in the regional and global arena that require a nimble diplomacy in both Washington and the capitals of the region.

Daniel Brumberg is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Daniel and read his publications click here