As President Joe Biden arrived in Israel Wednesday, he did not rule out the use of force as a last resort to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons.
However, in the bigger scheme of politics in the volatile region, analysts disagreed over whether his Mid East tour was a move to reshape regional politics or a doomed exercise to keep down oil prices.
Ahead of Biden reaching an Arab summit Friday in Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, president of the United Arab Emirates, said in a televised address Wednesday that the UAE would extend a “hand of friendship” to all countries seeking peaceful coexistence.
Friday’s meeting of the six-country Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan has been widely billed as a means to take forward shared air-defense measures between Gulf Arab states, Israel, and the US to counter any threat from Iranian or Iranian-supplied missiles and drones. Biden also told Israeli Channel 12 that the US would if needs be use force to preclude Iran developing a nuclear weapon.
The statement underlined the dimmer prospects of an agreement to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, and a tougher posture by Biden.
Incremental measures are also expected between Saudi Arabia and Israel, including overflight rights but stopping short of Israel’s ‘normalization’ agreements with the UAE and Bahrain brokered by the Trump administration in 2020. Saudi Arabia has so far upheld Arab League policy, dating to 2002, that normalization required Israeli acceptance of a viable Palestinian state.
American media meanwhile are interested in whether Biden can persuade the Saudis to pump more oil and ease inflationary pressure at US gas stations currently selling at near $5 a barrel.
US President Joe Biden lays a wreath of flowers as Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Holocaust survivor and Chairman of the Yad Vashem Council Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz, Israel's caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Israel's President Isaac Herzog look on at the Hall of Remembrance of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem, July 13, 2022.
Arriving at Ben Gurion Airport, Biden bumped fists with Israeli caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid and proclaimed, “not all Zionists are Jews.” Arguing the visit flew in the face of Palestinian rights despite Biden’s formal commitment to a “two state” future, Wasel Abu Youssef, an executive member of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), said the trip aimed at “integrating the occupation state in the Arab region and…[building] a new alliance against Iran.”
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi was reported to tell the cabinet Wednesday that Iran was “watching the region closely” as Biden’s trip developed.
“If the American officials’ visits to the regional states are aimed at strengthening the position of the Zionist regime and normalizing its relations with certain countries, their efforts will not in any way bring about security for the Zionists,” Raisi said. “Tehran has repeatedly told those who convey US messages to Iran that the slightest move against Iran’s territorial integrity will face a decisive response.”
In a Washington Post opinion piece ahead of his visit headlined ‘Why I’m Going to Saudi Arabia,’ Biden suggested he wanted human rights upheld in the Middle East and any US combat role ended. He claimed that the “frequency of Iranian-sponsored attacks compared with two years ago” had “dropped precipitously” and that the region was less pressurized, partly due to Iraq mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The build-up to Biden’s trip has seen widely different assessments by analysts. Criticizing the president, Daniel Levy, president of the US Middle East Project and a senior advisor in the prime minister’s office under Ehud Barak (1999-2000), accused Biden of “jumping on the normalization bandwagon.” Writing on the Responsible Statecraft website July 12, Levy said Biden was working to “give Israel a freer hand in trampling Palestinian rights and to advance a militarist zero-sum approach to regional ‘diplomacy’.”
By contrast, Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute, wrote July 11 for Bloomberg that Biden wanted extend to the Middle East his “success in reunifying and revitalizing the alliance of Western democracies..[by giving] Washington its most dynamic international leadership role in decades.”
Ibish urged Biden to offer the Saudis “some carrots, mostly in terms of military hardware,” while working to “reinforce the primacy of countering Iran,” while the Saudis “seriously undertake aiding the US to manage energy pricing, beyond the modest production increases reached by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries…”
In the Middle East, Ibish wrote, “the common adversary is Iran, not Russia…” All six Arab states at Friday’s summit should acknowledge they are “best protected through a US-led grouping aimed at maintaining regional order and stability, to which they can each contribute and from which they will all benefit.”