President Joe Biden‘s foreign policy has displayed a confusing mix of obsessions, from Afghanistan to Ukraine. But one consistent theme has been the attempt on the part of many Obama administration alumni to revive their old boss’ pivot in the Middle East away from longtime allies in Israel and Saudi Arabia to a new alignment based on a rapprochement with Iran.
That’s the context for last week’s news that China has brokered a peace deal, of sorts, between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The two longtime foes will reestablish diplomatic relations and the Saudis have received promises, in theory guaranteed by China, that Iran will cease trying to undermine and overthrow the monarchy via its terrorist auxiliaries in the region.
That’s a coup for Beijing that further reinforces its effort to establish itself as a global superpower to rival the United States. But it’s also a sign that the Saudis understand their traditional alliance with the Americans, which was predicated on getting security in exchange for oil, is meaningless under a president like Biden, whose combination of weakness and prejudice against their country left them vulnerable to the Iranians.
The Saudis, like the rest of the Middle East, know the United States is no longer, in the parlance of the region, the “strong horse” whose enemies fear it.
By contrast, Iran regularly shows its contempt for the United States. It thumbed its nose at Biden by coming to the aid of Russia after the latter’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. Tehran is supplying Moscow with drones that have been among its most effective weapons.
More importantly, Iran thwarted Biden’s quest for a new nuclear deal which would, like its 2015 predecessor from which former president Donald Trump withdrew, more or less guarantee that Tehran would eventually get an atomic weapon. But the Iranian regime quickly realized it could become a threshold nuclear power without the West’s official acquiescence and need not fear any repercussions from Biden.
A more sensible White House would understand that rebooting the alliance with the Saudis was just common sense after Iran’s rebuff. Following up the Trump administration’s success with the Abraham Accords would have been even smarter. Helping the Saudis to normalize relations with Israel—with which it already had a tacit alliance against Iran—would help constrain Tehran’s efforts to foment unrest throughout the region and make it easier for Washington to turn to Riyadh for more oil production during an energy crunch.
Instead, Biden’s open contempt for Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the willingness of Democrats to treat his autocratic regime as a unique threat to human rights—while seeking to enrich and empower a far more dangerous tyranny in Tehran—sent a clear message to MBS that doing the Americans’ bidding when the Ukraine-Russia war led to an energy shortage was not in his country’s interests. Now he’s showing that he’s come to the not-unreasonable conclusion that rather than depend on an administration that is uninterested in Saudi security, he’d be better off trying to cool down the conflict with the Iranians.
Still, it would be a mistake to conclude that the Saudis have irrevocably linked their fate with Iran and China and that there is no way for Washington to retrieve the situation. MBS understands how worthless Tehran’s promises about reducing terrorism or forswearing regional ambitions are. The prince isn’t so foolish as to think the Iranian theocrats aren’t still bent on toppling his family sooner or later.
That’s why, the day before the deal with China and Iran was announced, the Wall Street Journal reported the Saudis were making clear to the United States the terms under which they would normalize relations with Israel. The assumption on the part of many observers is that the pact with Iran renders those discussions moot. But while the obstacles to transforming the ties between the Saudis and Israelis from an under-the-table relationship to one of formal recognition are still formidable, they are by no means insuperable. Or at least they don’t have to be, provided the administration in Washington was interested in such an achievement.
The price for normalization with Israel that the Saudis made public was steep. They want the United States to formally commit to guarantee their security. And in addition to more arms sales, they want aid for a civilian nuclear program, though that is widely interpreted as the beginning of a Saudi quest for a bomb with which they can deter Iran.
The United States doesn’t want to fuel a Middle East nuclear race, but the Saudi request there has more to do with their impatience with America’s unwillingness to keep Iran in line.
Conspicuous by its absence from the list of Saudi demands was any assurance from the United States or Israel about creating an independent Palestinian state, which is, at least according to foreign policy establishment “wise men,” the real obstacle to normalization.
The Saudis, like other Gulf state governments, have no interest in sacrificing their interests on the altar of Palestinian intransigence. They also rightly fear that any such state would be merely one more failed government vulnerable to overthrow by Islamists, offering Iran more opportunities to create instability.
The real problem is not the Palestinians or even the Saudis’ nuclear wish list. It’s that the Biden administration has no desire to do something that would annoy Iran or help Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom the Obama alumni hate as much as MBS.
But if Biden is serious about wanting to contain Iran, fend off China, or even promote peace in the Middle East, he needs to realize that he still has a chance to strengthen ties with Riyadh.
By stepping up to formally assure the Saudis of American support, Biden can advance stability in the Middle East with a sequel to the Abraham Accords. Doing so would send a message to Iran, and the Russians, that the United States is still a “strong horse” that can’t be slighted or ignored.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS.org and a senior contributor to The Federalist. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
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