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Is the Biden administration about to put the Abraham Accords at risk?

Ebrahim Raisi
AP Photo/Vahid Salemi
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi addresses the parliament in a vote of confidence session for his proposed labor minister in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 4, 2022.

Which is more important to President Biden, rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or strengthening the Abraham Accords between Israel and its Arab neighbors? There should be little doubt that Biden has shown he prioritizes the Iran nuclear agreement. But does that mean the death knell for the two-year-old Abraham Accords if the Iranians finally say yes to the American offer after the U.S. midterm elections?

Despite the protests for regime change running rampant through the Islamic Republic, the Biden administration has signaled to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that it desires a return to the JCPOA — no matter what Iran’s “morality police” may do to their citizens. Although it is not a binary choice, a Biden foreign policy triumph with a return to the nuclear agreement would profoundly affect the sustainability of the groundbreaking Abraham Accords.

The impetus for the Accords in 2020 was mainly the threat of an expansionist Iran. However, America’s return to the nuclear deal without considering Iran’s aggressive behavior, or its breaches of the JCPOA since 2015, undermines the Abraham Accord signatories’ trust in America and the sustainability of that agreement.

One way to understand the relationship between the JCPOA and the Abraham Accords is through the prism of American politics. The Biden administration sees a return to the JCPOA as indispensable for Middle East stability. Yet, the bipartisan U.S. Senate Abraham Caucus co-chair, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), called the Accords — not the JCPOA — the “most significant peace agreement of the 21st century.”

Except for the Iranians and Palestinians, most people welcomed the Abraham Accords as a substantial development. However, many in Congress, including members of the president’s party, see an Iran nuclear deal as the ultimate force for securing regional stability.

According to Ben Weinthal, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “there are question marks over whether the Biden administration’s overtures to Tehran are now encouraging the demise of the accords. … Are Sunni Arab nations hedging their bets and engaging in a rapprochement with Tehran, leading to a deterioration of the normalization process?” In fear of a potential (nuclear) deal, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) recently sent their ambassador back to Iran after a six-year hiatus to appease the ayatollah.

Although technically unrelated, the success or failure of the Iran deal and the Abraham Accords is interconnected. The ascendency of one agreement may mean the withering of the other. The Biden administration has tried to have it both ways. In March 2022, Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined six Arab foreign ministers for a summit in the Negev, providing a public display of support for the Abraham Accords.

Yet, the Biden administration has chosen not to use diplomatic capital to bring other Arab nations into the accord, lest it antagonize the Iranians and dissuade them from rejoining the JCPOA. Blinken’s Negev summit cannot be a one-and-done.

As Ambassador Aaron David Miller said, “If you plant a garden [Abraham Accords] and go away … what have you got when you come back? Weeds. Having deprioritized the Middle East … the weeds grew.”

A foundational block of the Accords was the shared anxiety of an empowered and threatening Iran. However, with America withdrawing from the region and offering hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions relief to Iran, the logic for remaining in the Abraham Accords diminishes. As a senior adviser to the previous U.S. ambassador to Israel wrote, “Failure to enhance and advance these accords could leave the region as it has always been: a series of bifurcated and fractured relationships, leaving a vacuum for China, Iran and Russia to grow and spread their influence.”

The Sunni nations are in a wait-and-see approach — waiting to see whether the Iranians rejoin the JCPOA. If they do, it may spell the end for the Accords. New nations won’t want to join. Current governments will move away from normalization with Israel, in order to not antagonize the Iranians, who will have nearly $1 trillion over the next 10 years to undermine their neighbors’ regimes. They will do anything not to become Iranian satrapies.

So, what did President Biden accomplish this summer in what the Woodrow Wilson Center referred to as his “Abraham Accords trip” to the Middle East? The answer depends on your political party or the newspaper you read. CNN reported: “Biden and his team were enthusiastic when they boarded Air Force One in Saudi Arabia, congratulating each other on what they viewed as a successful four-day swing through the Middle East.” The left-leaning Brookings Institution said, “The summit of the nine Arab leaders is a clear accomplishment.”

However, the most important goal — to convince Saudi Arabia to increase fossil fuel production — was wholly rebuffed this autumn by the Saudis, making the trip a definitive failure.

American foreign policy specialist David Wurmser wrote, “Virtually nobody was pleased by the outcome of the trip. … The regional countries most critical to the U.S. position in the region — Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates — were the biggest losers. … The Arab states were falling all over themselves in the 24 hours after President Biden left to appease Iran. … The message they received from the United States was disconcerting. … They measured up Washington, heard weakness and are now reacting accordingly.”

Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Gen. Michael Herzog, says it best: “[The] Abraham Accords offer a better future for the Middle East and are one of the best answers to Iran.” If only the Biden administration saw it that way. American national security interests would be strengthened, and the focus on Ukraine and China would be more manageable.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides. He is the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report. Follow him on Twitter @MepinOrg

Tags Abraham Accords Biden Iran aggression Iran nuclear deal Iran sanctions Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Joni Ernst
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