President Joe Biden touches down in Saudi Arabia today aiming to balance various United States policies and interests.

The United States commentariat have focused both on a possible plea to the Saudis to pump more oil to ease American gasoline prices now near $5 a gallon and on the president’s shift from shunning Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman as a pariah after the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

A summit on Saturday of the Gulf-Cooperation Council (GCC) – the six Gulf nations broadly led by Saudi Arabia – alongside Egypt, Iraq and Jorden is widely expected to recognize, and perhaps enhance, existing air-defense cooperation with Israel, under US supervision, against Iranian and Iranian-supplied missiles and drones.

Israel’s 2020 ‘normalization’ agreement with Bahrain, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates have encouraged talk of ‘friendship’ and warm relations. In Israel, Biden made great play of his regard for Zionism, making scant reference to Israeli occupation of the West Bank and none to May’s killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Aby Akleh.

He also said clearly for the first time that use of force against Iran remains on the table “as a last resort” to prevent Tehran to produce nuclear weapons.

‘Gigantic mistake’

But Biden also stressed in an interview with Channel 12 television his support for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Diplomacy remained the best way to preclude Tehran from developing a weapon, Biden argued, and called predecessor Donald Trump’s taking the US out of the deal, a move backed by Israel, as a “gigantic mistake” that meant Iran was “closer to a nuclear weapon now than they were before.”

Biden meeting Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on July 15, 2022

While Saudi Arabia remains open, like Israel, to further US arms supplies, there is clear skepticism in Riyadh over US intentions and a continuing reluctance to pivot too far in Washington’s direction. Analysts differ over Saudi’s practical ability to boost oil production, but even so Riyadh appears committed to the approach of the Opec+ grouping led by the Saudis alongside Russia, which agreed a modest increase in August after cutbacks at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Saudis wary, UAE rules out ‘Middle East Nato’

Saudi Arabia is wary over Biden’s commitment, following Trump, to downscale US involvement in the Middle East. Riyadh last year opened an Iraqi-mediated dialogue with Iran, from whom it broke diplomatic relations in 2016. Iraq will be the only majority-Shia and broadly Shia-led state at Friday’s GCC-plus-three summit.

The UAE is also hedging. The president’s diplomatic adviser Anwar Gagash said Friday that the Emirates did not support a confrontational approach to Iran and was working to send an ambassador to Tehran, filling the currently vacant post.

Gagash downplayed talk of a ‘Middle East Nato’ – built up from air-defense cooperation – as a “theoretical” concept. “We are open to cooperation, but not cooperation targeting any other country in the region and I specifically mention Iran,” he said. “The UAE is not going to be a party to any group of countries that sees confrontation as a direction, but we do have serious issues with Iran with its regional politics.”

In Tehran, following President Ebrahim Raisi’s warning of a “harsh” Iranian response to any “mistake” by the US and its allies, Brigadier General Abolfazl Shekarchi mocked Biden Friday for his “sleepiness” when threatening force to halt the Iranian nuclear program. Iranian TV Friday announced Tehran’s first drone division in the Indian Ocean.

Some analysts have suggested in recent weeks that Iran stiffened its approach in JCPOA-revival talks with the US in Doha last month in part because of wariness that US mid-term elections could result in Republican Congressional majorities that would immediately undermine any agreement.

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