Iran is likely to be a central issue in United States President Joe Biden’s mid-July Middle East tour – with differing expectations as to what he may achieve.
Biden’s trip, July 13-16, has reportedly put on hold until later this month further talks to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), pushing them beyond a related four-week deadline announced early June by Rafael Mariano Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), for the agency’s ability to certify the peaceful natureof Tehran’s atomic program.
By the last quarter of 2022, Biden’s leeway could be restricted by Democratic Party losses in mid-term Congressional elections. The continuing expansion of Iran’s nuclear program beyond JCPOA limits, including the enrichment of uranium to 60 percent purity, has led many of the deal’s US critics, Democrats but especially Republicans, to call failure on Biden’s approach.
Some speculation over Biden’s Middle East trip – which will take in Israel, the occupied Palestinian West Bank, and Saudi Arabia – centers on whether he will meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, whom Biden criticized on coming to office after US intelligence implicated him in the 2018 murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudis’ Istanbul consulate.
‘Not about Saudi Arabia’
Biden told reporters at the Nato Madrid summit last week that his visit to Riyadh was to a summit of Gulf nations. "It’s in Saudi Arabia, but it’s not about Saudi Arabia,” Biden said. “And so there’s no commitment that is being made or – I’m not even sure; I guess I will see the king and the crown prince, but that's – that’s not the meeting I'm going to. They’ll be part of a much larger meeting.”
The president will meet leaders of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain – as well as the leaders of Egypt, Iraq and Jordan.
US officials have suggested the president’s visit will take forward plans for closer military co-operation between Israeli and the Arab Gulf States, aimed at thwarting Iranian and Iranian-supplied missiles and drones, and building on the US-brokered 2020 Israeli ‘normalization’ agreements with the UAE and Bahrain.
Pumping more oil?
Biden said in Madrid that the Israelis had “come out so strongly for my going to Saudi.” But it remains unclear whether a new defense arrangement would make JCPOA revival harder or help make its revival more palatable to Saudi Arabia and Israel.
While pragmatists have argued Biden should seek Saudi agreement to pump more oil and curb cost-push inflation that has sent gasoline prices in the US to around $5 a gallon, human-rights advocates say he should concentrate on holding the Saudis and others accountable over human rights. Supporters of the JCPOA, meanwhile, argue the deal’s revival would ease oil prices by easing US sanctions restricting the flow of Iranian crude.
King Salman, now 86, is widely reported to oppose ‘normalization’ with Israel ahead of the acceptance of a viable Palestinian state, in line with Arab League policy since 2002. In 2008, according to cables unearthed by Wikileaks, King Salman urged the US to “cut off the head of the snake” with military strikes on Iranian nuclear sites.