Washington’s tightrope in the Middle East

Manal Lotfy , Thursday 4 Mar 2021

US President Joe Biden is struggling to shape a consistent policy on Saudi Arabia and Iran

Washington’s tightrope in the Middle East

Resetting America’s Middle East policy is proving to be a very tough task.

This week, US President Joe Biden found himself face-to-face with the complexities of Middle East politics and the conflicting priorities of how to protect America’s strategic and economic interests in the region, maintain good relations with regional allies and partners, create workable relations with foes and promote values such as the rule of law, democracy and human rights.

Achieving these goals has always been like walking in a minefield, and Biden’s first month in the job has proved just that.

Since he took office on 20 January, Biden has pledged to pursue a policy towards Saudi Arabia and Iran different from that of his predecessor former US president Donald Trump.

However, the events of the past few days have showed that the similarities between Biden’s and Trump’s policies are more than Biden would like to admit.

There is no doubt that Biden has moved away from the direction of his predecessor. He published a long-awaited CIA report on the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a step Trump refused to take during his years in office, for example.

The publication of the report was quickly followed by a US State Department announcement of sanctions and visa bans on 76 Saudi nationals. The move is part of what it called the “Khashoggi ban,” which will be used in future to sanction people who try to silence dissidents abroad in the Middle East or worldwide.

These decisions, combined with the end of US support for Saudi operations in Yemen and a freeze on weapons sales, are meant to “recalibrate,” not “rupture,” US-Saudi relations, Biden administration officials said.

Before releasing the CIA report and in a sign of the tightrope that Biden is walking in his bid to reshape the relationship with Saudi Arabia, he appeared to have attempted to reassure Saudi King Mohamed Bin Salman in a phone call last Thursday.

According to the White House, Biden noted the “historic nature” of the relationship, welcomed the recent release of jailed Saudi activists and pledged to help Saudi Arabia defend itself.

The US announced an end to US offensive arms sales to Riyadh, but said it would continue to supply Saudi Arabia with defensive weapons.

Biden is thus realising the difficulty of moving unpredictable pieces on the complex map of the Middle East. His decision to release the report in the first weeks of his presidency fulfills campaign promises to reassess ties with Saudi Arabia after critics accused Trump of neglecting the human costs of the war in Yemen and human-rights violations.

Biden, however, is seeking to address those issues without completely breaking off a core US relationship in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia is one of the main American allies in the region. It hosts five US military bases, and in addition to cooperating with the US against Iran and in counterterrorism activities, it also supports stability in international oil markets.

It has also played a behind-the-scenes role in fostering relations between Israel and the Arab world.

So, rocking the boat is not an option for any US administration. Officials in the State Department have argued that major sanctions could rupture a relationship the US still sees as crucial for its regional priorities, including ending the war in Yemen and re-engaging with Iran.

“Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is important,” Spokesperson Ned Price told reporters on Monday.

White House Spokesperson Jen Psaki said in an interview on Sunday that “we believe there are more effective ways to make sure this doesn’t happen again and to also be able to leave room to work with the Saudis on areas where there is mutual agreement – where there are national interests for the United States. That is what diplomacy looks like.”

Saudi Arabia has said repeatedly that the killing of Khashoggi was a crime carried out by rogue individuals without orders from the authorities.

Saudi Crown-Prince Mohamed Bin Salman said in 2019 that he took “full responsibility” for the killing since it happened on his watch but denied ordering it.


Saudi Arabia was not the only challenge facing the Biden administration in its first month in power, as policies towards Iran are also facing difficulties.

Biden had hoped for a smooth path to the revival of the Iran nuclear deal, but thus far the path has been anything but smooth.

During his election campaign, he told an audience in New York in July 2019 that “if Tehran returns to compliance with the deal, I would re-join the agreement and work with our allies to strengthen and extend it, while more effectively pushing back against Iran’s other destabilising activities.”

Those activities include Iran’s missile programme and its support for proxies and terrorist groups.

After almost six weeks in office, Biden and his team are keeping to the same line: for the US to re-join the nuclear deal and lift all the sections, Iran needs to first come back into compliance with the deal’s limitations on its nuclear development.

Despite the differences between Tehran and Washington over conditions for reviving the nuclear deal, the US administration has not objected to holding informal preliminary talks to bridge the gap brokered by the European Union.

Iran, however, has showed less willingness to engage in the talks. Tehran said the US had to lift sanctions before it would discuss America’s re-joining the pact. The “time isn’t ripe for the proposed informal meeting,” tweeted Saeed Khatibzadeh, spokesperson of Iran’s Foreign Ministry.

The diplomatic efforts turned bloody when Iran-aligned proxies fired rockets at coalition forces outside Erbil in Iraq, killing a Filipino contractor and injuring US troops.

In response, Washington struck nine facilities in eastern Syria in a message to Iran that it could expect consequences for supporting militia groups threatening US interests and personnel.

“You cannot act with impunity. Be careful,” Biden said when asked what message he intended to send with the airstrikes last week on Syria’s eastern border with Iraq. Satellite images showed a group of buildings before the airstrike and the obliteration of most of them afterwards.

The Pentagon said the strikes by two F-15E aircrafts using seven missiles destroyed nine buildings and heavily damaged two others in eastern Syria that were used by Iran-backed militias.

Democratic members of Congress blamed Biden for striking sites in Syria without congressional permission and following the same policy as his predecessor Trump. Biden argued it needed to be done to send a message of US resolution to Iran.

While most experts believe Washington and Tehran will eventually go back to the negotiating table and revive the nuclear deal, the new administration has learned that the best-laid plans need retooling in the ever-moving sands of the Middle East.

While the US is trying to reshape its policies towards Saudi Arabia and Iran, Europe is watching for America’s next move. The silence of the UK, France, Germany and other European countries over the CIA report is telling.

Many European countries are waiting to see how the Biden administration will act. But as the US has not changed course, the Europeans did not find it necessary to act.

During the Trump years, the talk in Europe was of “strategic independence” from the US in foreign policy. But at its first test, the continent has failed to demonstrate how it can take a different approach.

The stance has left many observers disappointed and officials in a defensive mood.

A British foreign office spokesperson told the Al-Ahram Weekly that “the UK has always been clear that Khashoggi’s murder was a terrible crime. We called for a thorough, credible and transparent investigation to hold those responsible to account and imposed sanctions against 20 Saudis involved in the murder,” referring to a decision last July when Britain subjected 20 individuals suspected of involvement in the murder to economic sanctions.

“The foreign secretary raised the issue during his visit to Riyadh last year, and we continue to raise it in our engagements with the Saudi government,” the spokesperson said.

However, Tobias Ellwood, Conservative chairman of the UK defence select committee, reiterated a call for the UK to follow the US in halting Yemen-related arms sales. “The CIA report is unambiguous in its conclusions, and this will inevitably be an embarrassment and shame to the wider country,” he said.

But the UK has otherwise maintained close diplomatic and military ties with Riyadh and is the second largest arms exporter to the country after the US. When sales of weapons that could be used in the conflict in Yemen were restarted by the UK last summer after a court-imposed review, it emerged that £1.4 billion worth of bombs, missiles and other arms had been exported to Saudi Arabia.

President Biden’s first month in office has showed the limitations every American president has faced in dealing with the Middle East over the last 40 years.

On the one hand, there is the difficulty of shaking the terms of engagement with historic allies. The obvious case for Biden is Saudi Arabia. The diplomatic, economic and security ties between Washington and Riyadh are deep and stretch back decades. A swift, dramatic change in the relationship is unlikely.

On the other hand, it is apparent that changing relations with an old foe like Iran is challenging. Long decades of hostility and distrust cannot be circumvented with good faith alone.

The new US administration has thus succumbed to a classic dilemma: plans and promises made during an election campaign hardly ever survive once in government.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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