US Diplomacy with Iran Is Needed to Achieve Security in the Middle East

Now that President Joe Biden has completed his trip to the Middle East, his administration will likely make one last bid to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Such an effort could take place in Doha, Qatar, where two days of indirect talks between Washington and Tehran in June failed to yield a successful compromise. It is difficult to read whether Washington and Tehran are seriously interested in reaching an agreement that has repeatedly run into roadblocks, not least of which is the Trump Administration’s last-hour designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist group. It will take an enormous amount of political will on both sides to devise a formula for finessing this difficult issue.

However, the critical question is not the JCPOA’s fate, but rather how it will fit into the larger arena of geostrategic conflict and cooperation in the Gulf and the wider Middle East. Biden’s trip was ultimately not about getting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to sell more oil. Rather, its purpose was to advance a regional economic, diplomatic, and military alliance between Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. Building on the previous administration’s “Abraham Accords” initiative—and on Riyadh’s policy of “tacit normalization” with Israel—these states have forged networks of cooperation over the last two years in an effort to deter Iran and its allies in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

The conventional wisdom on this matter holds that all of the states that have signed on to the Abraham Accords would be happy to see the JCPOA collapse. But with most of the accords’ provisions set to expire in two years and the “breakout time” it will take for Iran to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one nuclear device currently down to about one month, even Israeli leaders reportedly believe that reviving the Iran nuclear deal may buy a crucial two years before a more decisive military confrontation with Iran unfolds. The prospect of a Republican-led US administration in 2024 would work nicely with this schedule.

Biden and Israeli Leaders Diverge on Iran

Biden’s trip demonstrates just how hard it is to transform the president’s success in mobilizing western states to confront Russia’s invasion of Ukraine into political and diplomatic clout in the Middle East. While all of the key players who attended the meetings Biden held in Israel and Saudi Arabia certainly want to contain Iran, this desire is not a sufficient enough basis for forging an effective or sustainable entente, especially since there is still no consensus on how deterrence could fit into a wider strategy.

From the Biden Administration’s point of view, the purpose of a regional alliance is to push back against what some have called Iran’s “malign” regional behavior. But US foreign policy leaders from the secretary of state on down hold that the only way to stop or reverse Iran’s nuclear program is via a compromise that will require suspending program-related sanctions, thereby giving Iran the means to freely export oil and gas. As for deterrence, the administration insists that policies meant to hinder Iran or regional allies will not stop Tehran from pursuing a nuclear weapons program. The White House assumes, probably correctly, that any US policy that does not include diplomacy with Tehran will eventually invite a military confrontation that could throw the entire Middle East into chaos.

For the Israelis, Biden’s assertion that deterrence and diplomacy must go hand in hand is in effect a US formula for avoiding using military force with Iran.

Israel’s leaders appear to see things very differently. In late June, Zohar Palti, a veteran Israeli security official, argued that the only reason to save the JCPOA was that it would give Israel time “to better prepare for a potential reckoning with an Iran bent on achieving military nuclear capability.” This breathing space, he said, could help Israel pursue a “policy of pressure,” targeting “the very stability of the regime.” But such a strategy, he continued, can “only be achieved if America can instill a sense of fear in Iran.” The path to compromise, Palti said, requires that the US “get its hands dirty” by “restoring deterrence to its relationship with Iran” in ways that would signal a “US commitment to act militarily” to prevent Iran’s military progress. While it is possible that Palti’s views may not reflect the current Israeli position on Iran, it is still likely that Israel remains intent on escalating the use of force against the Islamic Republic, as is clearly demonstrated by its numerous attacks on what it describes as Iranian and pro-Iran targets in Syria.

Some observers might argue that a formula resting on both deterrence and the deployment of military pressure to threaten the Iranian regime’s very survival conflates two different strategies. But whatever one’s judgment of the ideas espoused by Palti, they underscore the key hopes animating Israeli policy, namely that the US will eventually have no choice but to physically destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, or to use military force to compel Tehran to voluntarily dismantle its nuclear program. Israel is setting the stage for this policy by pursuing what former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has called an “Octopus Doctrine.” Using covert attacks, cyberwarfare, and direct assaults on Iranian and Iran-backed groups, this strategy is designed to strike at both the “tentacles” and “head” of the Iranian “octopus.”

Presumably, one of the goals of Biden’s Middle East trip was to underscore US support for this strategy and to secure the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s support for the campaign. But from the very start of his visit to Israel, Biden signaled that deterrence and diplomacy must go hand in hand. His related assertion that military force would remain a “last resort” disappointed Israeli officials. For the Israelis, such a statement is in effect a US formula for avoiding using military power. The July 14 Jerusalem US-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration papered over these differences by asserting that the United States will “never…allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that it is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome.” These grand, if vague, assurances belie a fundamental US-Israeli strategic disagreement regarding Iran, one of which all of the region’s key players—including Iran—are aware.

Biden, Israel, and Gulf Leaders Both Converge and Diverge

Biden’s July 15 visit to Riyadh, meanwhile, unfolded against a very different and far more challenging background. For the leaders of the UAE and for Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), one purpose of the trip was for the US to make amends for past slights and insults, not least of which was Biden’s campaign promise to treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah.” But the ultimate strategic purpose of the trip from the Gulf’s point of view was to move beyond hurt feelings to achieve an exchange of views regarding the evolution of regional security cooperation. Iran and its regional allies loomed large in the ensuing talks, while Russia and China’s growing footprints in the region formed an important, if more implicit, concern that animated the administration’s outreach to Gulf leaders.

Biden’s assertion that America is remaining active in the region was meant to herald the return of the US to a position of leadership in the Middle East. But it is unclear which states are actually setting the agenda for a new regional security architecture and which are simply following the others’ lead. And it is also unclear whether Gulf leaders even agree on the ultimate goals of this emerging structure. On that score, it is interesting to note that on June 20, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced that Israel is working with several Middle East states to create the new, US-led Middle East Air Defense Alliance (MEAD). Given that efforts to form this alliance have reportedly been underway for some time, Gantz’s statement before the Israeli Knesset’s Foreign Policy and Defense Committee may have constituted an effort to openly affirm and thus anchor the participation of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in advance of Biden’s Middle East trip.

It is hard to tell whether Saudi and Emirati leaders appreciated the attention. But regardless, major hurdles to creating MEAD exist, some of which are technical, including the integration of defense systems and information sharing. To be sure, the most critical hurdle is geostrategic since, as Gantz made clear, the purpose of MEAD is to counter Iran and pro-Iranian forces. Houthi drone attacks on the UAE in February 2022 provided a crucial if paradoxical impetus for Gulf states to speed up security cooperation with the US and Israel. But because Israel sees deterrence as a tactical means of advancing a military strategy to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and weaken the regime, it is not certain that the UAE and Saudi Arabia, not to mention other Gulf states, would back a strategy containing risks that could soon surface.

Indeed, Gantz alluded to the increasingly likely prospect of military confrontation when he noted the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) June 8 condemnation of Iran over its noncompliance with investigations and inspections. Israel clearly hopes, and Iran probably worries, that the IAEA’s statement will galvanize international support for putting greater economic, diplomatic, and even military pressure on Iran. But do the UAE and Saudi Arabia share Israel’s hopes or Iran’s fears? The answer is probably a qualified yes. For their part, UAE leaders are accentuating the positive while avoiding an open discussion of details. Thus, in their July 16 joint statement, Biden and UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed declared their “commitment to deepening the extensive security cooperation that has…been a major contributor to regional peace and stability,” while bin Zayed confirmed that “the United States is the primary security partner for the UAE.”

The fact that MBS would brazenly undercut a US president illuminates the enduring challenge of bringing Saudi Arabia into any US-backed security alliance with Israel.

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince also avoided details, but took a more circumspect position when he met with Biden. His position echoed statements by Saudi officials, who have not only reiterated that Riyadh will not normalize relations with Israel absent a two-state solution and the creation of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, but have also downplayed the issue of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s 2018 murder and even challenged Biden for having raised the issue. The fact that MBS would brazenly undercut a US president illuminates the enduring challenge of bringing Saudi Arabia into any US-backed security alliance with Israel. Still, Riyadh is now linked to this project, even if Saudi leaders are unwilling to fully commit, and despite the fact that the costs of the kingdom’s remaining a partial freeloader could soon escalate. Such a prospect helps explain why Riyadh recently pledged to intensify reconciliation talks with Tehran. Like the UAE, which has also pursued talks with Iran, Saudi Arabia is hedging its bets. But such efforts may not be sufficient given the absence of sustained diplomatic engagement between the US and Iran.

Iran’s Leaders Are Bracing for Conflict

Iran’s leaders are bracing themselves for a wider regional conflict, even as preparations for a resumption of JCPOA talks are getting underway. But there are at least three reasons why Tehran is unlikely to offer concessions. First, despite sanctions, Iran’s oil income has increased due to the Russian war in Ukraine and the resulting spike in oil prices. Despite inflation, rising unemployment, and a spate of strikes by public sector workers, the Iranian regime does not currently feel heavy financial pressure to make concessions. Second, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is taking a “low-key” approach to managing factional differences in the government, a development that has been welcomed by hardliners. Whether this stance has improved the prospects of Raisi taking over Khamenei’s position once he passes away is unclear. But Raisi, who had previously advocated sustaining talks with the US, is now on the same page as other, far more powerful figures, including Khamenei and IRGC leaders, who attach little importance to resuscitating the JCPOA. Finally, Iran has increased uranium enrichment levels to 60 percent, in clear violation of the now-defunct JCPOA. While this move was initially designed to put pressure on the US and its allies to make concessions at the Vienna nuclear talks, it has effectively boxed Tehran in. With Iran now within quick reach of 90 percent enrichment, hardline advocates of repudiating the JCPOA are well-positioned to oppose any compromise and thereby scuttle the agreement.

With Iran now within quick reach of 90 percent enrichment, hardline advocates of repudiating the JCPOA are well-positioned to oppose any compromise and thereby scuttle the agreement.

These developments crystalized in June, when the IAEA assailed Tehran for failing to explain the presence of traces of enriched uranium in three undeclared sites. Iran retaliated on July 1 by removing 27 cameras from enrichment facilities and declaring that they would not be put back without a satisfactory deal on restoring the JCPOA. Alarmed, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi asserted that “for almost five weeks I have had very limited visibility, with a nuclear program that is galloping ahead” and that even if an agreement were reached it would be “very difficult…to reconstruct the puzzle of this whole period of forced blindness.” Such remarks will likely discourage concessions if and when the Doha talks resume. And Iran’s subsequent July 25 announcement that cameras will remain shut off until an agreement is reached is certain to further complicate negotiations.

As dark clouds gather, Iran has taken steps to strengthen its hand on both the domestic and international fronts. At home, the Supreme Leader forced IRGC intelligence unit head Hossein Taeb to resign and replaced him with Mohammad Kazemi. This dramatic move was apparently prompted by concerns that Israel was making gains in its ongoing “shadow war” with Iran. On the international front, Iran recently replaced its UN ambassador, Majid Takht-Ravanchi, one of the last high-level members of former President Hassan Rouhani’s foreign policy team. He has been replaced by Saeed Iravani, a veteran intelligence officer who led the country’s 2021 Baghdad talks with Saudi officials. Iravani’s top priority will be to prepare for the real possibility that when the IAEA’s governing board meets in September 2022, it will refer its Iran nuclear file to the UN Security Council. Iranian hardliners have warned that such a move could prompt Tehran to leave the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). And while Iranian leaders have made such threats before, they are now doing so in a regional and global context that could pave the way for a major military confrontation between Iran and its adversaries.

Too Late for Cogent Diplomacy?

Given that one possible alternative to reviving the JCPOA is war, the case can be made that for all key parties involved, a compromise that leads to a deal would be better than no deal at all. But even if an agreement is reached, it may only postpone the inevitable. The basic problem is the effort to advance a US-backed regional security structure in the absence of a cogent and robust engagement strategy. For now, the US and its Middle East allies prefer to pretend that they agree on the goals of this structure when in fact they actually disagree. While one of the purposes of diplomacy can be to mitigate such divergent views, when it does so in ways that invite conflict down the road, it is not successfully providing a cogent path forward.

Nor, for that matter, does the Biden Administration appear to have made much headway in convincing Gulf states not to expand relations with China. The region’s actors are clearly setting the agenda, a point that is underscored by reports that Iran will resupply Russia with drones to support its war in Ukraine. The White House has decried such a move, but the challenges and exigencies of a global order consisting of multiple power poles are frustrating the Biden Administration’s efforts to make good on its promise to restore US leadership in the Middle East. The clock is ticking, especially with Biden’s political fate at home up for grabs, and this dangerous moment will likely grow even more so in the coming weeks and months.