For the first time since Joe Biden became president, Washington launched a military attack against Iran-linked Iraqi militias – Kataib Hizbullah and Kataib Sayed Al-Shuhada – on the Syrian-Iraqi border. That was 36 days into Biden’s term. A day later, on Friday 26 February, a newly declassified Director of National Intelligence (DNI) report on the Saudi government’s involvement in killing Jamal Khashoggi was released, however reluctantly, and Washington announced its willingness to resume talks with Iran about its nuclear programme on Thursday 18 February. The three developments will no doubt shake the region, generating questions about US Middle East diplomacy and the challenges that face Washington on its quest to maintain relations with its regional allies and partners in a positive and consistent way.
Worth noting is that Biden promised to consult and coordinate with said allies, including Israel, before negotiations with Iran begin. So far, Iran has not responded on the European Union invitation to hold talks on the future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iranian nuclear deal, signed in July 2015 by the P5 +1 and Iran.
According to senior Iranian officials, the United States should take the first step, rejoining the deal and lifting sanctions, before Tehran starts rolling back the measures that it has been taking to scale back its commitments to the JCPOA. For its part the American administration has left no doubt that its top strategic priority in the Middle East is to pursue diplomacy, warning that it will not allow Iran to manufacture a nuclear weapon. In this context, Washington believes that the breakout time for Iran (the time needed to have fissile materials and manufacture an atomic bomb) has been shortened to three-four instead of 12 months, a fact that puts the entire Middle East on edge.
State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said on Thursday 25 February, “Iran today and Iran at the end of the Trump administration... was much closer to a nuclear weapon if it chose to develop one than it was on the first day of the last administration.” He stressed diplomatic engagement, which should not be limited to the nuclear programme but should deal with its ballistic missile programme as well as its “malign activities” in the region. He summed up the administration’s strategy as seeking “to have verifiable permanent constraints on Iran’s ability to build or acquire a nuclear weapon”.
In any future renegotiations related to the JCPOA, what is more, the United States will have to consult with the Saudis and the Emiratis as well as the Israelis besides the other five countries that are signatories to the Iranian nuclear deal (the UK, France, Russia, China and Germany). But with the release of the report of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on the presumed role of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman in the killing of Khashoggi in October 2018, Saudi-American relations go through a major rough patch, unprecedented even compared to the oil crisis of the 1970s.
How might American diplomacy deal, at the same time, with such challenging renegotiations with Iran on three highly sensitive matters while managing the fallout from the DNI report. Joint efforts to overcome the impact of the report and restore trust will be required. In a press conference on Friday, the day the report was released, Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged the importance of the American-Saudi relations, pointing out that the two countries have “significant ongoing interests” and that the United States remains committed to the defence of Saudi Arabia. He mentioned that President Biden had made it clear on previous occasions that American-Saudi cooperation should reflect American interests and values.
Mr Blinken added that the aim is not to “rupture” the relation but “to recalibrate it to be more in line with our interests and values.” He talked about reviewing the relation in its “totality” and how to “make sure that it goes forward in a way that better reflects our interests and values”. Observers and leaders who see themselves as allies of Washington’s will nonetheless question America’s diplomatic engagement with Iran and its impact on the regional balance of power.
They will also suspect the timing of the DNI report’s release to coincide with those overtures. Their fear is that, by entering into negotiations with the signatories of the JCPOA, including the United States, Iran might be in a position of strength due to the rift in America’s relations with its closest Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia, especially in the light of decisions that have disadvantaged the Saudis and their Yemeni allies in the Yemen war.
From an Egyptian point of view, to reopen the JCPOA negotiations is not a bad idea, especially now that the Iranians have cleverly used the failed “maximum pressure” strategy of the Trump administration to scale back their commitments in the framework of the nuclear deal, a strategy that enabled them to come closer acquiring an atomic weapon. But it would have been preferable for this renegotiation to be conducted while American-Arab relations were on a more solid footing. In any case, America’s Arab allies and strategic partners too should reassess future relations in the light of their own interests and values.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly