The Middle East could be part of Biden's focus on great power rivalry
Joe Biden might bring 'unity' – to the Middle East
President Joe Biden says he will bring "unity" to America, but he might inadvertently bring it to the Middle East instead.
Biden's staff is reportedly talking to Iran about a U.S. re-entry to the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, but with new conditions. The Iranians say no new conditions, so we'll see who's most anxious to get the U.S. back in the tent.
The Trump administration helped secure the Abraham Accords, the normalization of relations between Israel and Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Trump policies created "a clear division between moderate, progressive states that are seeking to build a brighter future for the region, and rejectionist regimes such as Iran and Turkey that are only interested in promoting division and conflict." The Biden administration has indicated it wants to return the Middle East peace process to a Palestine-centric approach, but many Arabs view dealing with the Palestinian Authority as a waste of time.
The Palestine-first approach has a powerful advocate in the region - Saudi Arabia's King Salman - and that's only as long as the ailing monarch clings to life. So, will the physically frail American president and the physically frail Saudi king return the Middle East to the same-old, same-old?
They might, but if Biden rushes to rejoin the JCPOA without involving the Israelis and the Sunni Arabs in the negotiating process, he may create a soft bloc of the Abraham Accord states plus Saudi Arabia to cooperate against Iran - and hopefully in line with U.S. interests, but that's not assured as the U.S. is far away and Iran is close-by for them.
The U.S. has credibility in the region thanks to the Abraham Accords and the recent thaw in relations between Qatar and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Though the Biden administration will likely return to an interventionist foreign policy, local U.S. troop presence has dwindled, so U.S. options will be bounded. The Americans will have to attempt the novel approach of negotiating towards their goals.
The Biden administration wants back into the JCPOA, but it doesn't understand - or doesn't wish to understand - why Iran wants nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in the first place.
Since the 1979 revolution, Iran's leadership has been clear that its goal is the destruction of Israel. It has said this consistently, through both hardline and "reformist" governments, so it isn't just rhetoric "for domestic consumption only." Since the mullahs think they are doing God's work, how will the U.S. justify giving the capability to make the world's most dangerous weapons to a state that has already declared a U.S. friend as its #1 target?
After eight years as Barack Obama's understudy, Biden wants to show he is just as good as the younger man - and rescuing JCPOA, Obama's Nobel Prize homework assignment, will do the job. But the JCPOA was always a vanity project as all it does is tinker with the date when Iran can make good on its declared eliminationist policy.
The U.S. has been down this road before. The Nixon administration's "Twin Pillars" policy deputized Iran and Saudi Arabia as the guardians of U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf as the U.S. retrenched following the Vietnam War. It ended badly in Iran, but Obama thought supporting Iran to balance against Saudi Arabia, via the JCPOA, would work as the U.S. again pulled back from the region.
The Saudis have funded their share of mayhem in the region, but Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman is reducing the influence of the religious authorities and focusing on job creation and the concerns of youth, not a 72-year-old conflict he probably wishes his grandfather had settled. The Iranian regime, on the other hand, is proving you can stay in power a long time if you kill enough people.
To Israel and the Sunni Arabs, Iran is a concern and the Palestinians a distraction.
Israel and the Arabs should insist on a role in the Iran negotiations as they - not the Europeans or the Americans - will be the targets of those nukes. And if the U.S. insists that negotiating with the Palestinians is the priority, not normalization of relations between Israel and the Arabs, Israel will have to again embark on the whole dreary process. Israel should plan to make progress, but the only likely beneficiaries are the owners of high-end hotels in Geneva and foreign envoys whose careers never suffer even after decades of "no sale."
Concurrently, Riyadh and Jerusalem should start a round of Track II diplomacy with an eye to connecting young Israeli and Saudi leaders. This will keep their own interests on track while they satisfy Washington.
The U.S. probably doesn't understand that its apparent obsession with rescuing the Iranian regime and the Palestinian leadership will increase cooperation between Israel and the Arabs as a counter to U.S. pressure. Encouraging more engagement, à la the Abraham Accords - rather than another forced march through the peace process - will increase Arab influence with Israel that will help secure that long-sought settlement for the Palestinians.
James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC, a supply chain consultancy. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority. He served afloat as Supply Officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).