Many people are questioning the value (and even the purpose) of US president Joe Biden’s visit to the Middle East last week. While the trip’s objective was obfuscated by the White House, one thing is clear: while some part of the visit was about energy security for the West, much of it was about Israel.
It was clear beforehand that Biden wanted to repair the damaged relationship between his administration and Saudi crown prince (and effective ruler) Mohammed bin Salman (or MbS), in order to get the Saudis to increase their oil production and ease high energy prices in the US and Europe. But White House spokespersons sought to downplay the notion of a US president begging at the Saudi palace and said the trip was about normalising relations between Israel and Arab states, and particularly, Saudi Arabia. They hoped this would seem like a strong reason for Americans, given historical support for Israel in the US and within his Democratic Party. It was a miscalculation, but that the trip had a lot to do with Israel was true.
The more substantial stops on the tour were Israel and Saudi Arabia, with a brief visit to the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
In Israel, Biden did not mention anything about the expanding settlement project – illegal under international law and a violation of US policy. He reiterated support for Donald Trump’s relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem, which is not recognised as Israel’s capital under international law; made no comment about reopening the US consulate that had served Palestinians before Trump shut it down; pledged to continue the annual $3,8 billion military aid package to Israel; condemned Iran for wanting to develop nuclear weapons (Iran doesn’t; Israel is the only Middle East state with nuclear weapons); and signed an anti-Iran declaration with Israeli prime minister Yair Lapid.
In Ramallah, after a brief meeting with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, Biden declared that “the ground was not ripe” for peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis, pronouncing his verdict that Palestinians should remain under perpetual Israeli military rule in an apartheid state. That visit might as well not have happened; the Palestinians, to Biden, do not exist.
Though not the first US president to do so, Biden symbolically flew from Tel Aviv to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia to hint at a possible new relationship between the two capitals.
In Saudi Arabia, Biden met the heads of the Gulf Cooperation Council states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) and of Jordan, Egypt and Iraq. He had two objectives here: mainly to convince MbS to increase oil production (which he failed to do), and to nudge Saudi Arabia towards normalised diplomatic relations with Israel (which he failed to do, except to get the Saudis to open their airspace to Israeli flights, itself, admittedly, an advance in Israeli-Saudi relations). It was an interesting image of a US president, cap-in-hand, asking the Saudis for help, and a more spectacular brushing off of the request by the latter.
In his presidential campaign, Biden had pledged to make MbS accountable for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which, the CIA said, the prince had a role in, and to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah state” for its human rights abuses. He did raise Khashoggi with MbS but was brushed off, as he would be, considering he was doing the begging. And this effectively has closed the Khashoggi matter for the US.
The rhetoric of global human rights has featured a great deal throughout his presidency. Yet he legitimised and heaped lavish praise on two governments known for publicly and spectacularly murdering journalists (including US resident Khashoggi, murdered by the Saudis, and US citizen Shireen Abu Akleh, murdered by the Israelis). No mention of other – ongoing – Saudi human rights violations; no mention of repeated and ongoing Israeli human rights violations and apartheid (as described by human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as UN bodies). Indeed, he legitimised the human rights violations and crimes against humanity of Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as of other major violators such as the UAE and Egypt.
His attempt to portray the visit as building an anti-Iran alliance also fell flat. The Iranians (legitimately) accused him of spreading “Iranophobia”; the Saudis and Emiratis were not interested because they are in separate processes normalising their own relations with Iran and would prefer to do it without US interference; Egypt and Kuwait are quite happy nurturing their own relations with Iran on their terms. Only Lapid was thrilled with the anti-Iran rhetoric.
Biden also tacked on a promise that the US will not “walk away [from the Middle East] and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran”. Did he, perhaps, miss the fact that the states in the region (including Israel) have started “walking away” from the US, strengthening relations with Russia and China, attempting to restore relations with Iran (except Israel), and no longer believing in the US as a protector or patron?
By Zeenat Adam
The recent visit by US President Joe Biden to Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Saudi Arabia was underwhelming, but cast a spotlight on the unprecedented rapprochement underway between Saudi Arabia and Israel. In what appears to have been an entrenchment of the “deal of the century” and the Abraham Accords initiated by Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, the visit not only reinforced the “normalisation” of relations between various Arab states and Israel, but also took additional steps towards concretising an anti-Iran alliance, and endorsing closer security and military cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel’s occupation of Palestine was a marginal issue on the agenda, and Biden’s statement about a “two-state solution” and his assertion that “the ground is not ripe” for negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians reinforced the notion that he had no political will to end Israel’s colonialism, and that, in fact, he was content with a perpetual Israeli military occupation. Meanwhile, Arab states continue to abandon the Palestinians to a fate of apartheid and slow genocide.
In the context of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Biden had passionately asserted that Saudi Arabia was a pariah state, but his visit has exposed him as a geriatric figurehead for the US political machinery that has not deviated from its pro-Zionist positions, despite heightened expectations that emerging Democratic Party leaders such as congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar might shift US policies to a more balanced position in addressing human rights atrocities in the Middle East.
Biden’s statements indicated that journalists like Jamal Khashoggi and Shireen Abu Akleh, who were both vehement advocates for human rights, and who exposed the Saudi and Israeli regimes for their atrocities, are dispensable in the interests of US strategic considerations. The Biden administration makes no apologies or excuses for its hypocritical stance in relation to Khashoggi (who, at the time of his murder, was a resident of the US), despite a US intelligence assessment blaming the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), of possibly having authorised the killing. In preparation for his visit, his administration backtracked on its previous position on Saudi Arabia, including the 2021 freezing of sales of “offensive weapons” to the kingdom. The new soundbite of Biden’s team was “reorient — but not rupture — relations with a country that’s been a strategic partner for 80 years”. It is therefore unsurprising that Biden has shied away from raising matters of human rights concern with Saudi Arabia, praising that country for cosmetic changes, while MBS’s draconian policies continue with the unlawful and extrajudicial incarceration and execution of dissidents who he views as a threat to his authoritarian rule.
Saudi Arabia has refrained from any commitment to normalising relations with Israel, and has maintained that peace with the Palestinians would be a prerequisite, based on the Arab Peace Initiative that Saudi Arabia had championed. Biden’s visit has highlighted that the Arab Peace Initiative is dead, and the skies are clear for deepening relations with Israel.
Before Biden’s visit, MBS had embarked on a tour of the region that included cosying up to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ushering in a “new era of cooperation” that would include billions of dollars of Saudi investments into the struggling Turkish economy, and Saudi’s possible purchase of drone technology from Türkiye. Ahead of the visit, Erdogan controversially transferred the Khashoggi case to Riyadh, ending any possibility of justice and accountability for the journalist’s murder. These moves are largely seen in the context of Türkiye’s internal politics that will likely see Erdogan fighting for political legitimacy in next year’s election, in the face of growing opposition.
Türkiye’s relations with Israel have also transformed after Israeli the visit of the Israeli president, Isaac Herzog to Ankara in March 2022 – the first visit of its kind in more than a decade. Although Erdogan and Herzog announced a turning point in relations between their countries, they agreed that there was a divergence of views regarding Israel’s occupation and Türkiye’s support for Palestinian resistance movements. Nevertheless, it is clear that Türkiye has moved on from Israel’s attack on the Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, off the Gaza coast in 2010.
More significant cooperation in the context of regional relations was evident in June 2022 when Turkish authorities foiled a plan for Iranian attacks on Israelis ahead of the visit to Istanbul by Yair Lapid, then Israeli foreign minister (now prime minister). The arrests of Iranian agents happened as Iran-Israel tensions heightened, after the assassination of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) office, Colonel Hassan Sayyad Khodaei, in his Tehran home on 22 May; Iran blamed Israel for the killing. The arrests also followed Israeli air raids on Iranian military installations in Syria. The Türkiye-Qatar-Iran entente concretised during the four-year-long blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain, appears to be mutating amidst the changing landscape of the region. The trilateral alliance hinged on common cause regarding Palestine, and deterring the prospect of war with Iran.
Qatar paid the price then for not toeing the Saudi-led line on an anti-Iran alliance, being determined, instead, to craft its own foreign policy. It appears now that Qatar has been artful in its mediation, balancing along fragile fault lines and craftily supporting a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or Iran nuclear deal. Its shuttle diplomacy and hosting indirect talks between Tehran and Washington in Doha seeks to de-escalate tensions in the Gulf, where Qatar shares a lucrative and strategic gas field, the South Pars/North Dome Gas-Condensate field, with Iran. But these diplomatic manoeuvres are unlikely to steer too far from the trajectory that has been cast by larger powers in the region, including Saudi Arabia; the recent mending of Gulf relations with Qatar is still too fragile for the Qataris to rock the boat.
While Qatar’s efforts to mediate between the USA and Iran on a return to the JCPOA has not yet produced the desired results, Doha has proposed hosting a regional dialogue between Iran and the GCC+ nations (the six GCC members – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – together with Egypt, Iraq and Jordan), for which Iran has shown enthusiasm.
Concurrently, while Qatar may continue to be a firm critic of the Israeli military occupation of Palestine, and it repeatedly claims that it will not entertain the notion of normalisation with Israel while Palestine remains occupied, it does, however, maintain a “working relationship” with Israel in the context of negotiating aid for the besieged Gaza Strip. Publicly, though, tensions appear to have deepened after the murder of Al Jazeera journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, and previous attacks by Israel on Qatari assets in Gaza, including Al Jazeera offices and the Hamad Bin Khalifa hospital. Interestingly, earlier in July 2022, Israeli military officials were surreptitiously dispatched to Qatar’s Al-Udeid base, headquarters of the US Central Command (Centcom). Israel was included in Centcom in 2021, in line with plans for normalisation. In addition, it was recently reported that senior Qatari officials attended a secret meeting convened by US military officials in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, in March 2022, purportedly organised to explore coordination against the “Iranian threat” of improving missile and drone capabilities.
The Emiratis proudly boast of their love affair with Israel in the past two years. Emirati leader, Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ), has paraded Israeli delegations before the world’s cameras and has cultivated strong military ties with the Zionist state.
Although Biden’s visit is considered the first open acknowledgement of cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel, the two states have maintained in covert cooperation for many years, and steps towards overt diplomatic and intelligence ties were in the pipeline for at least two years. In 2019, the former Saudi intelligence chief, Turki Al Faisal, disclosed that clandestine relations between Israel and most Gulf States had been ongoing for at least 25 years. In November 2020 it was widely reported that Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, secretly travelled to Neom, Saudi Arabia, for the first known meeting between MBS and a senior Israeli official, signalling a potential breakthrough for Israel as it strives for acceptance in the region. Although the Saudis denied the encounter, Israeli media reported that Netanyahu spent many hours with MBS, and the two were joined by US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and Mossad director Yossi Cohen. MBS has even gone as far as calling Israel a “potential ally”.
MBS has used soft diplomacy tactics, welcoming Israeli visitors as tourists, businesspersons, and, more recently, military personnel. Through his modernisation drive and Vision 2030, he also touts Saudi Arabia as a futuristic destination that has transformed from its previous image as a conservative religious nation. His critics argue that MBS has abandoned core Islamic values by redesigning school curricula, promoting international music concerts, supporting Saudi social media influencers to praise Israel, appointing a pro-Zionist imam to lead the Hajj prayer in Arafat, and describing Palestinians as ungrateful.
Saudi defence expenditure since MBS’s rise has been superfluous. Had Saudi Arabia taken a different course and not proceeded to entertain relations with Israel, it could have provided some form of deterrence to the Zionist state, considering its prolific shopping spree of military hardware in the past five years. Under MBS’s leadership and ambition, Saudi Arabia’s defence expenditure reached an all-time high in 2015 at the apex of the war on Yemen. While there has been a considerable effort to decrease defence spending in recent years, the kingdom remains one of the largest arms’ importers globally. With new goals on the horizon, Saudi Arabia is now building its local military production capability. The military might has, however, not deterred drone attacks on Aramco oil infrastructure, allegedly by Iranian proxies. Israel has punted the notion of a Middle East Air Defence Alliance to act as an early-warning mechanism against potential Iranian threats. In addition, Israel is campaigning to sell its laser-powered air defence system to Arab states aligned against Iran. Israel’s other defence equipment is marketed as “battle-tested” or “combat-tested”, meaning that these sophisticated weapons have been tested against Palestinian civilians – in clear violation of international law, but this humanitarian tenet does not seem to bear any weight with megalomaniacs in the Gulf. Meanwhile, Iraq continues its efforts to bridge relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Since April 2021, the Iraqis have facilitated five sessions of talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with a public meeting expected soon.
In the early 2000s, following the American invasion of Iraq and the subsequent growth of Iranian influence in Iraq, Jordanian King Abdullah II raised an alarm for what he termed the “Shi’a crescent” of influence by Iran that needed to be counter-balanced by an Arab alliance. Almost 20 years since he coined the phrase, the perceived threat of Iranian hegemony in the region continues to dominate the political psyche. King Abdullah recently said that he would support the notion of a Middle East alliance, similar to NATO. The perceived Iranian threat seems to be a unifying force for some Arab States that fear growing Iranian influence through proxies and partners in Gaza, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Israel has already concluded military cooperation deals with Morocco, the UAE and Bahrain (where a military attaché has been deployed).
The Russia-Ukraine war has not only impacted on the exorbitant oil prices but is ushering in global polarity similar to that during the Cold War. Saudi Arabia was cautious in playing its cards and, stopped short of severing ties with Russia under duress from the USA. Russian and Chinese influence in the Middle East has strengthened. In 2021, the Saudis signed a military cooperation agreement with Russia. Interestingly though, Iran has now applied for membership of BRICS, suggesting that a dramatic shift in the balance of power in the region might be expected. A key outcome of the GCC+ meeting with Biden was an agreement to incrementally increase oil production to allay fears of a global energy crisis as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war. But this development is parallel to a Saudi-Russian deal in terms of which Saudi Arabia will import Russian oil and gas for local consumption while exporting its own oil produced by its Aramco corporation. This confirms that the Saudis will not sever ties with Russia despite considerable pressure from NATO, while also enabling Russia to break the sanctions on it.
Biden’s visit to the region, and the Saudi-Israel rapprochement, has not heralded any prospects for peace. Instead, it has entrenched polarities and ushered in an atmospheric shift toward tensions with Iran that serve to reinforce shadow and proxy wars. In the meanwhile, the Palestinian quest for self-determination, freedom and justice is more difficult than it has ever been, as these deals with the colonial occupier translate into impunity for war crimes and a perpetuation of apartheid.
* Zeenat Adam is the Deputy Executive Director of the Afro-Middle East Centre, a former diplomat, independent international relations strategist, political opinion writer and human rights activist
By Ramzy Baroud
Suddenly, the idea put forth by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, late last year no longer seems so far-fetched or untenable after all. Following the hurried and chaotic US-NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, European countries now find themselves forced to consider the once-unthinkable: a gradual disengagement from US dominance.
By Ali Fathollah-Nejad
On 4 January, a day after the one-year anniversary of the US assassination of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, Iran took two steps as a show of force, against the fallouts from the US ‘maximum pressure’ policy of then-outgoing US president, Donald Trump. First, Iran resumed uranium enrichment to 20 per cent, hugely exceeding the 3.67 per cent level allowed by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA or Iran nuclear deal), and notifying the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whose inspectors are monitoring Iran’s nuclear programme, of its decision. Second, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) seized a South Korean-flagged oil tanker in the Persian Gulf. Both actions, on the same day, were shows of force, with different rationales and intentions, but both part of an Iran counter-pressure strategy in the face of immense US-led pressure.
Iran's decision to enrich uranium to a level of 20 per cent (thus dramatically reducing the break-out time for developing a nuclear bomb, since 20 per cent enrichment constitutes nine-tenths of the enrichment work required to reach weapons-grade enrichment of about 90 per cent) represents the partial implementation of a law passed by the conservative-controlled parliament and quickly ratified by the hardline-dominated Guardian Council. The law demanded that the government of President Hassan Rouhani substantially boosts various components of the nuclear programme in order to force the USA to concede, in future negotiations, on the onerous sanctions it has imposed on Iran. On the same day, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted how Iran officially views this step: reducing its nuclear commitment as a legal response to the USA violating its JCPOA commitments, and its assurance that boosting its nuclear capacity was reversible once Washington recommits to its JCPOA obligations, and lifts re-imposed sanctions.
‘Our remedial action conforms fully with Para 36 of [the] JCPOA, after years of non-compliance by several other JCPOA participants,’ Zarif tweeted. ‘Our measures are fully reversible upon FULL compliance by ALL.’
Rouhani’s administration had, at least publicly, opposed the bill about boosting the nuclear programme, arguing that it would undermine prospects for renewed diplomacy after Joe Biden became US president on 20 January. It therefore passed a by-law to delay the implementation of the legislation. In fact, there are two layers – one primary, the other secondary – underlying Tehran’s decision to boost enrichment to 20 per cent.
First, despite factional infighting in Iran’s politics, it is important to note that Iran’s ‘maximum resistance’ strategy in response to the US ‘maximum pressure’ campaign is a product of cross-factional elite deliberations, and largely continues to be so. This strategy is centred on the core idea of resisting US pressure with counter-pressure (also referred to as ‘counter-containment’) by fortifying Iran’s deterrence strategy. This is to be achieved through a gradual (and reversible) reduction of Iran’s JCPOA commitments, and by its resistance to US policies in regional conflicts (such as in Iraq, Syria and Yemen), with concomitant shows of force and/or nuisances (such as the seizure of oil tankers since the US withdrawal from the JCPOA and displays of Iran’s ballistic missile and drone capabilities), thus signalling Tehran’s readiness for war. This calculation is also based on the assessment that Washington lacks the appetite for another large-scale Middle East war, while Iran regards war with the SA as too risky and possibly jeopardising stability amid massive domestic public dissatisfaction with the regime.
Iran’s accumulated deterrence power can then be translated, the argument goes, into bargaining leverage in eventual talks with the USA. Despite some official rhetoric to the contrary, there is no alternative for Tehran to such talks as Iran’s vital interests lie in stability-threatening sanctions being eased. Iran may, in fact, be willing in future to offer more concessions that could be proportional to the amount of US pressure. But Iranians expect that pressure to ease as Biden’s administration drops the ‘maximum pressure’ doctrine. The objective of Tehran’s current stance is to achieve a return to the position Iran had held before the 2013-2015 JCPOA negotiations when its advanced nuclear programme had offered the international community the bad choice between a rock (an Iranian nuclear bomb) and a hard place (bombing Iran). That scenario had helped – along with the Obama administration dropping its ‘zero enrichment’ demand – extract concessions from the West. Above all, it realised important sanctions relief. This was precisely the Iranian strategy preceding the JCPOA negotiations.
The secondary, yet considerably less crucial, layer underlying Tehran’s decision to boost enrichment to 20 per cent is domestic politics. The Rouhani administration (headed by a ‘lame duck’ president whose two-term limit ends in August) is pitted against more hardline rivals (whose camp is in charge of the nuclear programme and currently dominates the national security discourse) who seek to torpedo the government’s ability meaningfully to enter into talks with the USA ahead of Iran’s June presidential election. Barring a Rouhani diplomatic success with Biden, with consequent economic benefits for Iran, the June election is expected to be won by a conservative or hardline candidate. Many among the hardline establishment want to reap those economic benefits themselves after the election.
However, the problem with this counter-containment/counter-pressure strategy is that alarmism alienates western powers, whose domestic anti-Iran forces will be emboldened to put pressure on western capitals not to appease or engage in rapprochement with an Islamic Republic that is seen as increasingly belligerent and confrontational. This can be seen in European reactions to Iran’s 20 per cent enrichment; European governments condemned the move as a ‘considerable departure’ from Iran’s JCPOA obligations, saying this threatened the deal’s survival.
The other 4 January show of force, the seizure of the South Korean tanker, has less to do with the official explanation that its confiscation was due to the vessel polluting Persian Gulf waters with chemicals, but is, rather, related to the freezing of an estimated $7 billion worth of Iranian assets in South Korean banks since 2019. The funds are for crude oil imports from Iran. Due to US extra-territorial sanctions prohibiting bank transfers – especially in US dollars – to Iran in particular, and US pressure in general, South Korea blocked these funds. The tanker incident happened just ahead of a scheduled 10 January visit to Tehran by a South Korean delegation. That delegation then included First Vice Foreign Minister Choi, who joined in order to hold talks about the release of the tanker. South Korea, one of Iran’s top oil importers, had dramatically reduced and even halted its oil imports as a result of the pressure of US sanctions, since Washington is an indispensable ally of Seoul. Iran’s move was intended to put pressure on South Korea to release the Iranian assets amid recent talks involving the three sides over the fate of the funds. It is doubtful that the seizure will lead to Seoul releasing the Iranian funds, since Washington’s stance will ultimately be decisive. One possibility would be, as contemplated by Tehran and Seoul, that part of the frozen Iranian funds will be used to pay for Iranian imports of COVID-19 vaccines and equipment from South Korea. South Korea subsequently asked Qatar, which has relatively close relations with Iran, for ‘maximum support’ to help release its tanker, which Doha agreed to do. However, Iran’s attempts have been futile thus far. In any case, this Iranian tanker seizure has important side-effects: it undermines the image of Iran as a reliable and stability-seeking Persian Gulf power in the eyes of East Asian powers that have become increasingly important purchasers of Iranian oil over the past decade.
* Dr Ali Fathollah-Nejad is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Afro-Middle East Centre, and a former Iran expert of the Brookings Institution in Doha (BDC) and the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP)
By Ali Fathollah-Nejad
The November presidential election victory of Joe Biden against the incumbent Donald Trump raised alarm bells within the anti-Iran front in the Middle East – most notably Israel and Saudi Arabia. They reckon that the days of Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran are numbered, and fear that President-elect Biden will follow through on his campaign promise to return the USA to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or the Iran nuclear deal), which will include easing sanctions on Iran in exchange for the latter’s return to the limits and restraints imposed by the JCPOA on its nuclear programme.
With just over a month left for the Trump administration, there has been a sense of urgency among Iran’s foes not only to sustain but to increase the pressure on Tehran in this period, by creating new facts that the Biden administration would not be able to ignore, and which will complicate any smooth transition to a new US Iran policy. These new facts could be achieved through new sanctions on Iran, or through other means, such as covert operations against Iran’s nuclear programme intended to provoke an Iranian reaction. This last possibility reportedly featured prominently in a November visit to the region by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, especially in his meetings with Israeli, Saudi and UAE leaders. Given these attempts at increasing agitation by the anti-Iran front, as well as Trump’s unpredictability, concerns were raised in Tehran. Iran’s military leadership has, as expected and in its usual manner, reacted with a language of defiance and counter-threats.