Three major developments took place in the Middle East last week. Taken together, they transform the region from a strategic point of view.
The first was a declaration by the Saudi foreign minister that relations between his country and Israel would be of “great usefulness” to the Middle East, adding, unsurprisingly, that Saudi Arabia would normalise relations with the Jewish state when the “Palestinian problem” was solved.
Middle East watchers have been more interested in the first part of this statement than the second. Since the signing of the so-called Abraham Accords with some other Arab states in Washington last September, speculation has abounded about the timing of a normalisation agreement between the two countries. Reports of secret meetings at the highest levels between the two and security talks between them have become standard fare in major newspapers, particularly American and Israeli ones, and they have been neither confirmed nor denied by either government.
If and when Saudi Arabia and Israel sign such an agreement, this will be tantamount to a major strategic development, not only in Middle Eastern relations, but also across the Arab world. It would be a major foreign-policy triumph for the Israelis. How the Arabs and the Saudi people would react to such a deal before the resolution of the Palestinian problem according to the Arab Peace Plan, which is Saudi-inspired, is anybody’s guess.
The main driver behind the test balloons launched by the Saudis is Iran and how to form a strong regional alliance to contain Iranian overreach in the region, the Gulf and the southern tip of the Red Sea, in addition to cooperating to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
The second development was the announcement by the US administration that it is redeploying six Patriot missile batteries in Saudi Arabia elsewhere, probably in the Far East. Washington sweetened the decision by stressing the very close security relations between the US and Saudi Arabia, saying that the former would always stand by the latter to deal with any outside threat to its security. But make no mistake about it: the decision is part of a major redeployment of American military assets in the Middle East in pursuit of ending America’s “forever wars” in the region that have lasted more than 17 years.
The third major development was the announcement last Friday by the remaining signatories to the Iranian nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the 5+1 formula – that the US would join in the talks with Iran that have been scheduled for 6 April. These talks are not direct, but are rather a kind of indirect proximity talks. The EU has played a significant role in bringing the two to agree to hold discussions, with the aim of the US rejoining the JCPOA from which former president Donald Trump decided to withdraw in an ill-considered decision back in May 2018. This was followed by the adoption of a failed “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, the result of which has been a gradual Iranian disengagement from key parts of the nuclear deal.
During the American presidential elections campaign last year, the Democratic presidential candidate, now US president Joe Biden, promised that if he was elected the United States would rejoin the JCPOA under certain conditions. The idea was not only Iranian re-compliance with the original limits on its nuclear programme, but also the curtailment of Iran’s ballistic missile programme and the containment of Iran’s “destabilising” activities in the wider Middle East.
A US state department spokesperson in a press briefing last Friday called the decision to hold indirect talks with Iran a “healthy first step forward.” As to the objective sought by the Biden administration, the spokesperson added that “when it comes to the issues that are discussed, we are going to talk about the nuclear steps that Iran would need to take in order to return to a compliance with the terms of the JCPOA. And we won’t preview any specific sanctions, but we will definitely say that the sanction-relief steps that the United States would need to take in order to return to that compliance…will be up for discussion.”
From an American perspective, the ultimate goal is a “mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA,” according to the state department spokesperson. Discussion on Iran’s missile programme and its “destabilising activities” would be for another day.
Both the US and Iranian governments have changed their initial positions. The Iranians had insisted that the total lifting of the US sanctions inherited from the Trump administration should be done before it re-complies with the JCPOA. And the US had conditioned sanctions relief with Iranian re-compliance. Seemingly, the two governments are now eager to close the chapter. However, the two will face domestic problems in doing so.
In Washington, Republicans and Democrats have warned against undue concessions to Iran . Last March forty Senators from both sides signed a letter to President Joe Biden in which they stated that , “Iran should have no doubt about America’s policy. Democrats and Republicans may have tactical differences but we are united on preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon and addressing the wide range of illicit Iranian behaviour.” Similarly, 140 members of the House of Representatives from both parties signed a letter calling for addressing the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran and other destabilising activities in the region. In the meantime, Tehran is holding its presidential elections in June, and the odds are that an “extremist” candidate could win, giving a boost to the “radicals” in the country. Be that as it may, the final arbiter will be Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme guide. A face-saving formula, in the parallel approach, would be acceptable to him. A senior US official told the UK Financial Times on 2 April that “Iran wants [now] to talk about full compliance – which suits us well since it is consistent with our original stance.”
These three major strategic shifts in the regional landscape could redraw the map in the Middle East, and the Arab and regional powers will have to come to a modus vivendi of sorts in the light of a reduced American military presence in the region.
A new balance of power is in the making. The hope, however slim, is that the Arab powers will have a determining say in the destinies of the redrawn Middle East. The overarching test will be if the two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is honoured. If it is not, some will probably say “a pity for the Arabs.”
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly