Iran, not oil, is the main topic of Biden’s Mideast trip

Many in the United States are viewing President Biden’s trip to the Middle East, which began Wednesday, as a mission to bring down oil prices. But leaders across the region see it as an opportunity to settle disagreements over Iran.

There is general concern about the recalcitrant country’s nuclear program. And the United States this week accused Tehran of helping arm Russia in its invasion of Ukraine.

But the two countries on Biden’s four-day itinerary – Israel and Saudi Arabia – differ greatly from the administration on how to deal with these threats.

Despite diplomatic setbacks, the Biden administration wants to revise the 2015 multinational pact that restricted Iran’s ability to build nuclear weapons. Israel and Saudi Arabia strongly oppose the deal.

That opposition and a general concern about Iran’s behavior have brought the two longtime adversaries closer, part of a trend across the region that has helped Israel build alliances with its Arab neighbors after a long history of isolation and strife.

This shifting dynamic has complicated Biden’s diplomatic goals. He is trying to reassure allies that he shares their concerns about Tehran’s intentions and to promote Israel’s alliances in hopes of building a wall against Iran. But he also wants to keep a faint hope of reviving the nuclear deal, a hallmark achievement of the Obama administration that former President Trump has cheerfully dismantled.

“It’s all about addressing the strategic challenge that Iran poses, both for Israel and for Saudi Arabia and the other Arabs that President Biden will meet in Jeddah,” said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East and Ambassador to Israel. Biden arrives in the Red Sea coastal city on Friday for two days of meetings with leaders from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and six Gulf countries.

Indyk said Iran’s “problematic, menacing behavior” in the region is, paradoxically, the “glue” that binds Israel and the Sunni Arab states together.

But it’s a glue that has yet to solidify. The ultimate goal is to build broad strategic coordination, something close to an alliance in which countries would help each other to identify and counter threats from Iran. To that end, Biden toured a laser-based defense system designed to counter the threat of Iranian missiles in Tel Aviv on Wednesday.

But the dream of sharing such technology with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries is a long way off. Officials are hoping for a more modest move this week: that Saudi Arabia, which still does not officially recognize Israel, will agree to commercial flights between the two countries.

The agenda is an extension of the Trump administration’s work to win deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to recognize Israel. It’s also a reminder that despite sharp differences between governments, many of America’s broader goals remain the same.

President Biden watches as a wreath is laid.

President Biden attends a wreath-laying ceremony at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, on Wednesday.

(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

“It’s a bit uncomfortable for the United States, however,” because Israel and its neighbors have been working toward “a strategic consensus” without much input from Washington, said Steven Cook, a senior staffer specializing in the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations has specialized .

“Nonetheless, everyone agrees that the United States is crucial” to building a larger and stronger alliance, he said.

The Biden administration has sought to encourage cooperation on dealing with Iran while pushing for a nuclear deal that would allow the country to re-engage in the global economy.

It’s part of a delicate dance that began when the Obama administration first brokered the pact. The balancing act was demonstrated when National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan briefed reporters before Biden’s trip. Sullivan used harsh language when he accused Tehran of sending hundreds of weaponized drones to Russia. But he also kept the door open for a return to the negotiating table.

“Iran has a choice,” Sullivan said: it can either rejoin the deal or face more sanctions, pressure and isolation.

Speaking on Air Force One on Wednesday, Sullivan told reporters Biden would argue with Israeli leaders that diplomacy is the best way “to achieve the common goal of ensuring Iran never gets nuclear weapons.”

In an interview with an Israeli TV channel, broadcast here on Wednesday, Biden defended his position, calling Trump’s decision to withdraw “a gigantic mistake.”

“The only thing worse than the Iran that exists now is a nuclear-armed Iran,” he said.

When asked, Biden said he would keep the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on the list of terrorist organizations even if such a move nullified the deal. He also said he would use force to prevent Iran from acquiring a weapon “as a last resort.”

The Biden administration appears surprised by the difficulty of rebuilding the deal and is facing fresh pressure from Russia and China as they begin to play more active roles in the Middle East, said Cook, the Middle East specialist.

The French foreign minister stepped up the pressure in comments Tuesday warning that Iran had just a few weeks to return to the pact or lose the opportunity, according to Reuters.

Senior Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity on the eve of Biden’s arrival, argued that the Iranians are delaying as part of a ruse.

“Our basic position is that Iran is playing for time,” said an official. “And as long as Iran believes time is on its side, it will not back down and make concessions.”

Israel and Saudi Arabia are expected to sway Biden on a number of related issues, including what to do if Iran violates the terms of a potential deal and whether the government will try to stop Israel from doing so to take its own measures to deter Iran.

The mysterious deaths of several Iranian scientists and military commanders have already been blamed in some circles on Israel, which has not denied the allegations.

Israeli officials said Prime Minister Yair Lapid will sign a joint statement with Biden this week that “obliges both countries to use all elements of national power” to stem the country’s aggression and nuclear program.

“It’s important to have high-level engagement on these issues, but these countries are not going to convince the Biden administration that the Iran nuclear deal is a bad idea,” said David Schenker, the Trump administration’s top Middle East policy official State Department. “They’ve been trying to do that for a long time without success.” Iran, not oil, is the main topic of Biden’s Mideast trip

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