June 14, 2022 | Politico

Biden’s Saudi Arabia Opportunity

The president’s first trip to the Middle East offers a chance to make meaningful gains.
June 14, 2022 | Politico

Biden’s Saudi Arabia Opportunity

The president’s first trip to the Middle East offers a chance to make meaningful gains.

The U.S.-Saudi relationship has lately endured some of the worst tensions in its history. But President Joe Biden’s first visit to the Middle East next month, with stops in Israel and Saudi Arabia, offers a surprising opportunity — if both sides will take it.

A wide range of issues have stoked disagreement and mistrust between the longtime partners: Iran nuclear talks, the war in Yemen, the Saudi posture on U.S. rivals Russia and China, human rights (including the murder of Jamal Khashoggi), social reform in the Kingdom, oil production and prices, and the U.S. commitment to the Middle East.

That’s a lot to tackle in one presidential visit of perhaps 24 to 48 hours. As senior officials from both countries travel between Washington and Riyadh to lay the groundwork, they should be realistic about what is achievable. One principle that should guide preparations: Not all bilateral differences can be resolved at once. However tempting a grand bargain may be, the relationship is more likely to be repaired step-by-step.

What is most critical to address first? Each side has core strategic interests for which they need to see the other side demonstrate concern. Cementing a set of understandings around these issues would make a visit valuable, even while other disagreements remain.

For Saudi Arabia, the core strategic interest is ensuring its defense against the threat posed by the regime in Iran and its proxies, particularly the Houthis in Yemen, who, with Iranian backing, training and arms, have launched dozens of rockets against Saudi civilian targets. Closely related is the Saudis’ desire for confidence that the United States is committed to stopping Iran’s development of nuclear weapons and that Washington retains a strategic commitment to the Middle East and to its regional partners, even as it addresses other strategic priorities in the Indo-Pacific and Europe.

Here, Biden’s experience cultivating the close U.S.-Israel alliance, while also navigating real differences, is relevant. His career-long bond with Israelis is evidence that as long as one demonstrates clear understanding and empathy for a partner’s major security fears, it is possible to have very tough discussions on a range of topics and work through areas of disagreement.

Biden and Saudi leaders may not agree on returning to the Iran nuclear deal, for example; neither do Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (nor do the authors of this article, for that matter). One side sees the agreement as the least bad available alternative to buy the most time delaying Iran’s nuclear program, while the other side argues it only delays the inevitability of an even worse Iranian nuclear breakout and fuels Iran’s other regional aggressions through major sanctions relief.

The bridge to overcome this disagreement is to achieve understandings on what follows the nuclear talks, whether they collapse or result in a renewed nuclear deal. In either case, Iran’s implacable hostility can be expected to fuel escalation. Recognizing the severe threat Iran and its proxies will continue to pose to U.S. forces and partners necessitates clear U.S. commitments, underscored by its ongoing presence in the region: to assist in development of integrated regional air defenses; to sanction and designate Iranian entities engaged in terror and its ballistic missile and drone programs (even while the nuclear agreement lifts terrorism sanctions on Iran’s central bank and oil and tanker companies); to facilitate interdictions of weapons shipments to proxies; to rally international condemnation of the regime’s interference in its neighbors’ affairs and abuse of its own people; and to prepare military deterrence and defense options, alone or with others, to ensure Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon. That should include a clear and credible threat by Biden to use military force to stop an Iranian nuclear weapon. And the Saudis, who were shaken by the lack of any U.S. response to the Iranian attack on its major oil facility at Abqaiq in 2019 under the Trump administration, must have confidence that they will not be left alone in the event of similar attacks in the future. These commitments, which apply both to a renewed Iran nuclear deal and its sunsets and to a no-deal scenario, and which do not rule out maintaining deescalation channels to Iran, should also elicit a Saudi commitment to take no steps toward developing its own uranium enrichment capability.

For Biden, the core strategic interest that must be addressed is ensuring that Saudi Arabia continues to orient its policies toward the United States, rather than hedge its bets by leaning toward Russia and China. There are many aspects to such commitments, from avoiding acquisitions of major Chinese and Russian military systems to standing with the United States in condemning outrages like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s persecution of Muslim Uyghurs. In the context of the war in Ukraine, it also requires Saudi Arabia to agree to increase oil production to bring down prices, so sanctions on Russia have deeper bite and European energy supply needs can be met by non-Russian sources. Abandoning the oil production quotas the Kingdom and Russia established in the OPEC+ agreement will be a clear sign that the Saudis are prepared to give as well as receive, and understand that to be treated as partners, they must act like partners.

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Issues:

Gulf States Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran Nuclear Israel