Biden, Iran, and the Crown Prince

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman


bandar al-jaloud/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

President Biden is visiting Saudi Arabia this weekend to meet with Gulf Arab leaders, including the Saudi crown prince, whom he once promised to isolate. America’s left grieves the President over meeting Mohammed bin Salman, the one-time “pariah,” but realpolitik has its demands. The US needs a better relationship with the Saudis for regional security as much as it does for oil.

The journey so far is proving to be good news in more ways than one. During his stopover in Israel, Mr. Biden showed little of the hostility toward the Jewish state that has characterized President Obama’s tenure. Mr. Obama and his Secretary of State, John Kerry, wasted years and political capital trying to force a Palestinian-Israeli solution that stood no chance while Hamas and other radicals vow to destroy Israel. The Biden White House is not giving up hope but has other priorities.

One of them, believe it or not, seems to build on Donald Trump’s 2020 Abraham Accords, which marked a breakthrough in diplomatic relations between Israel and some Arab states. Saudi Arabia has not joined the accords, but events are moving in that direction. Israel on Thursday agreed to a diplomatic deal on two islands in the Red Sea that could pave the way for a normalization of Saudi-Israeli relations. Team Biden has quietly played a part in the talks in his favor.

The Saudi visit will be a more difficult affair. The President must defend his meeting with the Crown Prince, known as MBS, despite what the CIA says was complicity in the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Mr. Biden sought to punish MBS when he took office, end support for the Saudi war in Yemen, halt an arms sale and spark fresh talks with Saudi opponents in Iran over a nuclear deal.

Now he must take back most of it while begging the Saudis to expand oil production. Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries that has excess production capacity, but not enough to cause a sharp drop in oil prices, which are now around $96 a barrel. The world’s replacement oil suppliers today are the Saudis, Iran and Venezuela, and the Saudis are St. Francis of Assisi in this crowd.

The other country that could produce more? The United States. Mr. Biden wouldn’t have to beg MBS if he shed his climate obsession and unleashed American oil production. As with the Saudis, Team Biden took office in 2021 to turn the US oil and gas industry into a pariah.

That was a catastrophic miscalculation — economically for energy prices, strategically for Europe’s vulnerability to Vladimir Putin, and politically for the Democrats who face angry voters in November. If Mr. Biden can meet MBS face-to-face, why not do the same with US oil and gas executives, promising them new leases on and offshore, faster permits, and an end to the regulatory war over pipelines and the provision of capital ?

In the private talks in Israel and Saudi Arabia, the big topic is Mr. Biden’s ongoing dream of a new nuclear deal with Iran. Its diplomats have been making concessions for 18 months without good results. Both the Saudis and Israelis understand that Tehran will not stop seeking a bomb with or without a new deal, and they are wary of new US concessions that would net Iran tens of billions of dollars to launch more terrorism in the country to fund the region.

The fastest way to better relations with the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs is to end the diplomatic dance with Iran and return to Mr Trump’s maximum pressure campaign. We don’t expect that, but Mr. Biden still has two and a half long years in his presidency. They will work out better for him and for US interests if he makes more concessions to reality.

Wonderland: As ex-PGA Tour pros follow the money to LIV, the new Saudi golf league gets the sport talking about scandal, shame and murder. Images: AP/AFP/Getty Images/Reuters Composite: Mark Kelly

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Appeared in the print edition on July 15, 2022. Biden, Iran, and the Crown Prince

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