Iran, not oil, is the main topic of Biden’s trip among Middle Eastern leaders

The threat of Iran is bringing former adversaries together, but allies disagree sharply with President Biden over the solution.

Many in the United States view President Biden’s trip to the Middle East that began Wednesday as a mission to lower oil prices. But leaders throughout the region see it as a chance to hash out disagreements over Iran.

There’s shared alarm over the recalcitrant country’s nuclear program. And the United States this week accused Tehran of plotting to help arm Russia in its invasion of Ukraine.

But the two countries on Biden’s four-day itinerary — Israel and Saudi Arabia — differ sharply with the administration over how to handle those threats.

The Biden administration, despite diplomatic setbacks, wants to revamp the 2015 multinational pact that limited Iran’s ability to build nuclear weapons. Israel and Saudi Arabia strongly oppose the deal.

That opposition, and a general concern over Iran’s behavior, has brought the two long-time adversaries closer together, part of a trend throughout the region that has helped Israel build alliances with its Arab neighbors after a long history of isolation and strife.

These shifting dynamics have complicated Biden’s diplomatic goals. He is seeking to reassure allies that he shares their concerns over Tehran’s intentions and to foster Israel’s alliances in hopes of creating a wall against Iran. Yet he also wants to maintain a slim hope of resurrecting the nuclear pact, a signature Obama administration accomplishment that was gleefully dismantled by former President Trump.

“It’s all about dealing with the strategic challenge that comes from Iran, both to Israel and to Saudi Arabia and the other Arabs that President Biden will be meeting in Jeddah,” said Martin Indyk, a former special U.S. envoy to the Middle East and ambassador to Israel. Biden arrives Friday in the coastal resort city on the Red Sea for two days of meetings with leaders from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and six Gulf nations.

Indyk said Iran’s “problematic, threatening behavior” in the region is paradoxically the “glue” that brings Israel and Sunni Arab states together.

But it’s a glue that has yet to solidify. The ultimate goal is building broad strategic coordination, something close to an alliance where countries would help one another detect and ward off threats from Iran. To that end, Biden on Wednesday toured a laser-based defense system in Tel Aviv that was developed to counter the threat posed by Iranian missiles.

But the dream of sharing such technology with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states is distant. Officials hope for a more modest step this week: that Saudi Arabia, which still does not formally recognize Israel, will agree to commercial flights between the two countries.

The agenda is an extension of the Trump administration’s work to win agreements from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to recognize Israel. It’s also a reminder that, despite sharp differences between administrations, many of America’s broader goals remain the same.

“It’s somewhat awkward for the United States, though,” because Israel and its neighbors have been working on “a strategic consensus” without much input from Washington, said Steven Cook, a senior fellow specializing in the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“But nevertheless, I think everybody agrees the United States is critical” to building a bigger and stronger alliance, he said.

The Biden administration has tried to encourage cooperation in dealing with Iran while also pushing for a nuclear deal that would allow the country to reengage in the global economy.

It is part of a delicate dance that began when the Obama administration first brokered the pact. The balancing act was on display when national security advisor Jake Sullivan briefed reporters before Biden embarked on his trip. Sullivan deployed tough talk as he accused Tehran of planning to send hundreds of weapons-capable drones to Russia. Yet he also kept the door open for a return to the negotiating table.

“Iran has a choice,” Sullivan said: It can either rejoin the deal or face more sanctions, pressure and isolation.

On Air Force One on Wednesday, Sullivan told reporters that Biden would make the case to Israeli leaders that diplomacy remains the best path “to reach what is a shared goal of ensuring that Iran never gets nuclear weapons.”

In an interview with an Israeli television network broadcast here Wednesday, Biden defended his position, calling Trump’s decision to withdraw “a gigantic mistake.”

“The only thing worse than the Iran that exists now is an Iran with nuclear weapons,” he said.

In response to questions, Biden said he would keep the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on the list of terrorist organizations, even if such a step kills the deal. He also said he would use force to stop Iran from acquiring a weapon “as a last resort.”

The Biden administration appears surprised by the difficulty of rebuilding the deal and is facing new pressure from Russia and China as they begin to play a more active role in the Middle East, said Cook, the Middle East specialist.

France’s foreign minister added pressure in comments Tuesday in which she warned that Iran had only weeks to return to the pact or face losing the opportunity, according to Reuters.

Senior Israeli officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity on the eve of Biden’s arrival, argued that the Iranians are stalling as part of a ploy.

“Our basic position is that Iran is playing for time,” said an official. “And as long as Iran believes that time is on its side, they will not give in and will not give any concessions.”

Israel and Saudi Arabia are expected to lobby Biden on a range of related issues, including what to do if Iran violates the terms of a potential deal and whether the administration will try to constrain Israel from taking its own action intended to deter Iran.

Already, the mysterious deaths of several Iranian scientists and military commanders have been blamed in some quarters on Israel, which has not denied the allegations.

Israeli officials said Prime Minister Yair Lapid would sign a joint declaration with Biden this week that “commits both countries to using all elements of the national power” to constrain the country’s aggression and nuclear program.

“It’s important to have a high level of exchange on these issues, but these countries aren’t going to convince the Biden administration that the Iran nuclear deal is a bad idea,” David Schenker, the top official on Middle Eastern policy in the Trump administration State Department. “They’ve been trying to do that for a long time, unsuccessfully.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.


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