Biden's Middle East Balancing Act: Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia

I was in Saudi Arabia in September 2019 when drone strikes, almost certainly instigated by Iran, hit major Saudi oil facilities. From the balcony of my hotel, I could see the smoke rising in the distance. I talked it over with the U.S. ambassador at the time, retired General John Abizaid, and we agreed that the Saudis were facing an existential threat from Tehran.

Nothing has changed: I recently spoke with retired General John Allen — a former commander of the U.S. Central Command and U.S. envoy to the coalition against the so-called Islamic State — who tells me, “Iran remains the top threat in the region.”

Iran has no interest in arriving at an accommodation with the Saudis and other Gulf Arab states. Last month’s missile attacks on the Kingdom’s capital of Riyadh by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen underscored that conclusion. Fortunately, they were thwarted by Saudi defenses.

The Israelis take a similar view of Iran as an existential threat, and fear its gradually increasing military capability (notably in cyber warfare, unmanned vehicles and ballistic missiles). During all of my visits to Israel, including discussions with Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz (who was the chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces during my time as supreme allied commander at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and remains a good friend), the Iranian threat hovered over all other concerns, and justifiably so.

The mutual loathing and distrust of Iran on the part of America’s two most militarily capable allies in the region has increased quiet cooperation between them. It was this fundamental geopolitical shift that allowed President Donald Trump’s administration to bring about the Abraham Accords, gaining recognition for Israel by several Arab states. Although the Saudis have not made that final step of recognition, it seems likely to happen soon — and will provide a strong bargaining chip with President Joe Biden’s administration.

Whenever I talk to senior Israelis, they reiterate their belief that Iran will eventually successfully build a nuclear arsenal unless it is stopped by direct military intervention. They point to how the world treats North Korea, failing to take any military action despite the Kim Jong Un regime’s nuclear detonations and long-range ballistic missile tests. Little surprise that Iran has begun enriching uranium up to 20% (well above the limit under the 2015 nuclear deal, but short of the 90%-plus needed for a weapon). 

The Iranians appear to be playing a bit of “good cop, bad cop” with the Biden administration. They are willing to put additional pressure on the international system, as witnessed by their seizure several weeks ago of a South Korean tanker in an attempt to extort $7 billion in funds frozen by Seoul. It was a bad-cop warning to the Biden administration that Iran could easily shut down the Strait of Hormuz, seize additional tankers and disrupt oil flows globally. 

On the other hand, the Iranians are playing good cop by indicating a willingness to return to the nuclear deal and to stop enriching uranium if the U.S. will drop sanctions, which have devastated the nation’s economy. Yet they are strongly opposed to any changes or additions to the existing deal, as indicated by an article in Foreign Affairs by Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister, who negotiated it with Barack Obama’s diplomatic team.

Many of the key actors involved in that negotiation — Jake Sullivan, Ambassador Bill Burns, Ambassador Wendy Sherman and former Secretary of State John Kerry — are in senior roles under Biden. This experienced group was enhanced by the selection of retired General Lloyd Austin as defense secretary. He, like Allen, is a former head of U.S. Central Command, which includes the Middle East, and has served multiple tours in the region.

It seems likely that the Biden administration will reach out slowly to Iran, avoiding the impulse to jump back quickly into the existing treaty. Biden’s officials are working to line up support from the European partners to create a better long-range agreement. But it seems unlikely anything substantial will be concluded before the Iranian elections in June. Look for a slog, not a sprint, with Tehran.

In terms of Israel, which is preparing for its own elections next month, the Biden White House will not be as totally supportive as Team Trump was. But the new president has a long and good history with Israel, and will push for teamwork against Iran rather than military strikes. The administration will also be more accommodating — at least publicly — of the Palestinian Authority, and opposed to further legalization of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. There will be more friction between the U.S. and Israel, but ultimately the relationship will be strong.

The most problematic pairing will be Washington and Riyadh. There will be criticism from Congress on the war in Yemen and the humanitarian pain there; ongoing calls for justice over the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi; disagreement over the best approach to Iran; and competition in energy production. But the long-term alignment will probably prevail, especially since the U.S. will want to forestall Russian influence in the region, seek continued cooperation against the remnants of ISIS, and look for Saudi-Israeli cooperation to keep pressure on Tehran.

Balancing relations between Israel and the Gulf Arab states will be key challenge for Biden, along with collective pressure from EU partners get Tehran back to the table in constructive ways. For now, however, there is smoke on the horizon, and Iran is behind it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also an operating executive consultant at the Carlyle Group and chairs the board of counselors at McLarty Associates.

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