As US President Joe Biden unveils his foreign policies under the banner “America is back”, analysts are concerned he will jeopardize America’s interests by rolling back engagement in the Middle East, including with key regional allies. At the same time, Biden plans to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal and work more directly with its regime, which many say will allow Tehran to act with impunity and continue destabilizing the region.
Biden’s predecessors took a hard stance against Iran’s belligerence and began a series of key Middle East policy initiatives to counter Iran’s rising influence. By normalizing relations between Bahrain, the UAE, Morocco, Sudan, and Israel, the US sought to promote stability and security. Biden already appears to be diverging from this plan launched by Jared Kushner and others in the last administration.
If Biden focuses on direct engagement with Tehran while ignoring long-time allies, it will jeopardize regional stability and allow Iran to gain a foothold. The current White House claims it will not lift sanctions on Iran until it sees "some movement" from leaders in Tehran, but as former White House envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt puts it, Iran does not act like most nations.
“The Iranian regime is an enemy of the United States, they’re an enemy of our closest ally in the Middle East, Israel, and they’re an enemy of all of our allies in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia, UAE and others,” Greenblatt told Just the News. “We can’t pretend that this regime is interested in acting like a normal nation.”
If Washington walks back its engagement in the region, Greenblatt says Tehran will step in and continue expanding its influence. In February, when a militia with ties to Tehran launched a rocket attack against coalition forces in Iraq, Biden let others take the lead in responding. Nearly a month after taking office, he had made only a single call to a head of state in the Middle East, to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. One adviser close to Biden said he wants to avoid being “dragged into” the Middle East. But if the US backs out of its commitments in the region, it will only lead to further crises that will demand a more costly response.
“You have to treat Iran by showing them strength, not weakness, and not by ignoring or pushing aside our allies like Saudi Arabia,” said Greenblatt, who served as chief legal officer and advisor on Israel for President Trump.
As Biden sets the tone for his administration’s presence in the Middle East, he has failed to realize that Iranian proxies, finance, and forces present a growing threat. Tehran continues to back Yemen’s Houthi faction as they launch attacks on Saudi Arabia, including against key oil infrastructure. Iran has ramped up Hezbollah activities in Lebanon to exploit the country’s ongoing crises. In Syria, the Palestinian Territories, and Iraq, Iran has similarly scaled up its operations.
Biden’s response to this aggression is, apparently, to sideline the US relationship with its most important Arab ally, Saudi Arabia. As White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki put it, Biden will “recalibrate our engagement” with the kingdom. In early February, Biden moved to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen, calling it a “strategic catastrophe”. This ignores the vital importance of military partnership with Saudi Arabia and fails to recognize how the reversal will impact regional security.
As Greenblatt put it, “Treating Saudi Arabia with anything other than respect for the powerful and important nation that it is will only lead to problems in the Middle East and it is not going to lead to a proper, thorough, and appropriate deal with the regime in Iran.”
The Biden administration also appears ready to dismantle much of its alliance with Saudi Arabia over smaller bilateral issues. As a candidate, Biden said there was “very little socially redeeming value” in the government of Saudi Arabia.
The US has long relied on Saudi Arabia as a regional ally, working with the kingdom to modernize and address domestic issues. The kingdom has successfully controlled the spread of COVID-19 and still has one of the lowest case rates in the Middle East, if not the world. Gender equality is improving, as women now have the right to drive, and the country is opening up to foreign tourism.
Saudi Arabia plays a vital role in resisting Iran’s growing efforts to further destabilize the region. The kingdom needs continued commitment from all of its allies if the region is to avoid becoming a network of Iranian proxies and patrons. Greenblatt says that acknowledging and respecting Saudi Arabia’s role is fundamental and that failure to do so could undermine regional stability and progress. He says that if the US pushes away, Saudi Arabia could seek other allies who may not share America’s values.
On the Iran nuclear deal, the Biden administration will be working with the UK, France, Germany, China, and Russia. But Greenblatt notes the folly of Europe's influence on the Iran negotiations. "These European nations are not at risk from Iran the way our Middle East allies are,” he said. “Some of these European nations act purely out of naked economic self-interest, irrespective of the security concerns of the United States and our allies."
By sidelining Saudi Arabia and engaging with the Iranian regime, the Biden administration’s approach only serves to undermine security in the Middle East. European nations have the right to build economic ties with Iran, but the US must realize that any deference to Tehran will erode Middle East security. For now, Biden is on track to burn bridges with key regional powers while working with Iran, in a kind of back-and-forth that offers no clear gains and risks ceding the region to extremists.