Biden should heed Arab concerns over the danger from Iran
Ahead of his visit to Saudi Arabia, US President Joe Biden has contributed an encouraging op-ed to The Washington Post, underlining the importance of the Middle East for US national security and the Kingdom’s vital role in regional stability.
He has promised to “start a new and more promising chapter of America’s engagement” in the region and “strengthen a strategic partnership … based on mutual interests and responsibilities” with Saudi Arabia.
However, Biden still hopes to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal by increasing “diplomatic and economic pressure until Iran is ready to return to compliance.” He claims the credit for internationally isolating Iran but overlooks the mounting concerns of the International Atomic Energy Agency about Tehran’s nuclear program.
The article makes only a passing reference to Iran’s proxy warfare, an issue that is of utmost concern to the Arab leadership, from the Gulf to the Levant.
The US president may get a fair idea about this unfortunate reality even before he lands in Jeddah on a direct flight from Tel Aviv. Israeli and Palestinian narratives on the Palestine conflict differ, but he may find their leaders on the same page on the role of Hamas as its current instigator.
This Iranian prodigy recurrently fires Iranian-made munitions from the Gaza Strip into Israel, inviting disproportionate Israeli retaliation and causing irreparable loss of precious lives on both sides.
While in Saudi Arabia, Biden will meet the Kingdom’s leadership and attend a summit of the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council plus Egypt, Iraq and Jordan. The interactions on this occasion may enable him to learn more about the gravity of the danger that Iran’s proxy warfare and pursuits of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons pose to the region.
The turmoil caused by the Iraq war and worsened by the so-called Arab Spring has aggravated this danger. A series of US miscalculations amid this turmoil have also played their part. It is a familiar tale, for the people of the region at least.
With “Death to America” as their professed goal, Iran and its proxies have caused havoc in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Egypt have all suffered dearly at their hands. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah, its Lebanese proxy, directly attacked US interests in the region and were also responsible for a spate of international assassinations and kidnappings.
Despite this, when proof started to emerge that Iran was developing nuclear weapons, the Obama administration rewarded Tehran with a nuclear deal in 2015.
The war in Yemen started the same year, as Iran instigated the Houthi militia to rebel against its legitimate government and endanger Saudi security in the years ahead. Yet, instead of helping the Kingdom to protect its critical infrastructure from the Houthi missile and drone attacks, the Biden administration chose to delist this militia as a terrorist organization. It also put a tab on the US Patriot missile defense system in Saudi Arabia.
The emboldened Houthis thus extended the Iranian-sponsored aggression to the UAE early this year. Even the Trump administration, despite renouncing the nuclear deal, did nothing in response to the 2019 Iranian missile and drone attack on the Kingdom’s key oil refineries in Abqaiq and Khurais.
Saudi Arabia and the US have a proud history spanning eight decades, which has produced consequential outcomes in world politics, from defeating Soviet communism before and global terrorism more recently.
The Kingdom hence naturally expects the US to join hands in facing the mortal danger from Iran, which is not limited to proxy warfare but also extends to ballistic missile and nuclear weapons pursuits. As the IAEA recently reported, Iran is now closer than ever to nuclear breakout and is also openly violating its monitoring regime.
Iran’s aggressive regional and international behavior over the last four decades is based on its clerical regime’s structural nature and ideological roots.
Therefore, Biden’s aim of reviving the nuclear deal without effective curbs on Iran’s ballistic missile capability and malign activities in the region is highly misplaced. He is, though, right in appreciating the promising “new vibe” in the Middle East in his op-ed.
These positive developments include the growing affinity among Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar, the normalization of Turkey’s hitherto sordid relations with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and the resumption of dialogue between the UAE and Syria.
In Yemen, the Saudi-led political transition, ceasefire enforcement and humanitarian relief efforts have also increased the prospects of ending the seven-year war. The Abraham Accords have widened the scope of the regional security structure in the Middle East, thereby reducing the security burden upon the US.
A comprehensive strategic defense agreement would be the right step to ensure there is zero scope for Iran to endanger the peace and progress of its Arab neighbors.
Dr. Ali Awadh Asseri
Thanks to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia has also changed drastically since Biden’s last visit in 2015. Reforms have touched almost every aspect of social life and are weaning the economy off its heavy dependence on oil.
Other Gulf nations are also pursuing their own national visions of social liberalization and economic diversification. This collective Arab desire for peace and progress is in sharp contrast with Iran’s reckless ambition for war and regression.
The Saudi-US relationship has been resilient enough to overcome temporary glitches such as the 1973 oil embargo and the recent friction. Vision 2030 provides enormous opportunities for US private-sector financing and expertise on large-scale infrastructure, development and entrepreneurship.
Beyond cementing the economic bond, developing a consensus on global issues such as energy, climate and food security is also no issue. The real challenge, however, is how to deal with the lurking danger from Iran, which is on the edge of the nuclear threshold.
The Jeddah summit, which brings the US, GCC and Arab leaderships together on the same platform, will make history by taking a tangible step to effectively nudge Iranian militarism, proxy warfare and nuclear threat.
The conclusion of a comprehensive strategic defense agreement would be the right step to ensure there is zero scope for Iran to endanger the peace and progress of its Arab neighbors. This is the primary condition for a stable and integrated Middle East, which Biden also aims for and which may very well define his presidential legacy.
This is not to suggest that the Arab world must foreclose the option of diplomacy with Iran. However, at least the Saudi experience in this regard is not so rewarding. There have been times when Iran was led by supposedly reformist political leadership.
The Kingdom extended an olive branch each time, but to no avail. The problem is that the levers of power in Iran really lie with the supreme leader and the IRGC. Saudi Arabia and Iran have held five rounds of security talks in Baghdad since last year, but without any positive outcome. In fact, the Iranians unilaterally walked out of these talks before the fifth round, only to rejoin at a time of their own choosing.
No dialogue can succeed unless each side is honest, transparent and willing to compromise and resolve differences. Too often, Iran has been interested in talking to neighbors only when faced with international isolation.
The interest in dialogue wanes as soon as the global pressure is off. In the currently stalled nuclear talks, the obvious approach of Iranian negotiators has also been to buy time while pretending to talk; or demand concessions that are impossible to meet, such as their last demand that the US delist the IRGC as a terrorist organization.
The only lesson we can draw here is that the Iranian leadership still prefers war over diplomacy, as it has since 1979. It is not immune to persuasion and only succumbs under maximum pressure.
Still, as Biden may insist at the summit, diplomacy must be given a chance. The test case could be Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has facilitated the UN-sponsored ceasefire and political transition and, together with the UAE, provided due financial and humanitarian support to the war-torn nation.
By aiding and arming the Houthi militia, Iran has not only ignited the fire in Yemen but also disrupted the Kingdom’s peace with missile and drone attacks. Iran should leave Yemen for the Yemenis to sort out their problems amicably and establish a government of their choice. The question is, will it?
• Dr. Ali Awadh Asseri served as ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Pakistan (2001-09) and Lebanon (2009-16) and is a board member at Rasanah — the International Institute for Iranian Studies in Riyadh. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from Beirut Arab University and has authored a book titled “Combating Terrorism: Saudi Arabia’s Role in the War on Terror” (Oxford University Press, 2009). The article reflects his personal views.