President Joe Biden landed in Israel on Wednesday, the first stop on his first visit to the Middle East as president. It’s a trip he would have made sooner had it not been for the covid-19 pandemic, one that will take him to the Palestinian West Bank and then for a highly anticipated and controversial visit to Saudi Arabia.
In fact, as Grid has reported, the entire trip is freighted with difficult issues, even by the standards of the Middle East. Looming over much of the president’s tour are questions involving Iran, which has pursued its nuclear ambitions since then-President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and which is due to host Russian President Vladimir Putin next week. The U.S. alleged this week that Iran has offered military assistance to Russia’s war in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia comes just three years after his vow to make the country’s de facto ruler, Mohammad bin Salman, a “pariah” for his role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Biden defended his efforts to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal in an interview with Israeli television that was broadcast tonight.
“The only thing worse than the Iran that exists now is an Iran with nuclear weapons, and if we can return to the deal, we can hold them tight,” Biden told Israel’s Channel 12. “I think it was a gigantic mistake for the last president to get out of the deal. They’re closer to a nuclear weapon now than they were before.”
Grid’s Global Editor Tom Nagorski spoke with Global Security Reporter Josh Keating in a Twitter Spaces conversation about the president’s trip and the myriad challenges for the U.S. in the region.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tom Nagorski: Josh, for starters, can you help us to understand — from the perspective of the White House — what you’d say are their main goals of this visit?
Josh Keating: I think that you can break it into three somewhat overlapping goals. One that’s going to get a lot of attention is oil. The U.S. would like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and other countries in OPEC to produce more oil to help bring gas prices down in the U.S. So that’s obviously the domestic component of that. There’s a global one as well. The Russian government is still raking in more money from oil exports than it did at this time last year, despite all the sanctions. So from their perspective, increasing alternative oil production to Russia is a major strategic priority, in addition to a domestic political one.
Another one involves Israel, where you mentioned Biden is today. Under the Trump administration, we saw this initiative called the Abraham Accords. These were normalization deals that were negotiated between Israel and several Arab countries such as Bahrain and Morocco. And I think that the Biden administration would love to extend this to Saudi Arabia. We definitely won’t see full normalization on this trip, but we may see some more tentative steps toward improving relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel and making the sort of tacit cooperation between those two countries a little more official.
And the last is Iran. The Biden administration came into office hoping to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. They haven’t been able to do so yet. This was the deal that President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of in 2018. And it’s not looking very promising that they’ll be able to revive that deal. The talks are still ongoing, but there are a number of issues that make it look like these talks may collapse. So, I think a big part of this trip is setting up the region for a post-Iran deal reality and making sure that all U.S. allies, including the Saudis and the Israelis and other power powers in the Gulf, are on the same page.
TN: Let’s zero in on Iran, because it almost seems as if the thing uniting the Israelis and the Saudis right now is their antipathy toward Iran, and that they just don’t like the Iran deal, generally speaking. Just on that core challenge alone, how does the Biden team navigate that end of it — still trying to re-engineer a new version of the deal and going to two countries that are quite opposed to any form of it?
JK: When it comes to these negotiations, what the U.S. says is that there’s still a deal to be had — it’s on the table. They’re just waiting for Iran to agree with it. They say Iran keeps adding these additional, unrelated demands — such as they want the Revolutionary Guards, which is a unit of the Iranian military, to be taken off the U.S. terrorism list. From the Iranian perspective, what they want is guarantees that if another Republican gets elected to the White House in two years, that this deal won’t just be scrapped again, the way it was when Donald Trump was elected. And that’s something that the Biden administration can’t guarantee. So we’re at an impasse right now.
And meanwhile, you see the escalating Israeli campaign of not-very-well disguised acts of assassination and sabotage targeting Iranian nuclear scientists, nuclear facilities and senior officials. So things are getting quite tense. The question is, how long is this going to go on before we see some kind of major retaliation from Iran? If you look back to 2019, which was the height of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign targeting Iran, the way that Iran responded was by launching attacks at targets in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. So I think that if the situation deteriorates more, they’re the ones who are going to find themselves on the front lines.
From the Gulf perspective — from the Saudi or Emirati perspective — they really want us to keep the pressure on Iran. They don’t, as you mentioned, want to return to the deal, but I don’t think they really want a full-scale war breaking out either. And that’s obviously the last thing Washington wants — they’re already managing one major conflict [in Ukraine], they don’t want another one breaking out. So the idea is making sure that if things are collapsing at the negotiating table, that this doesn’t break out into a full-scale military crisis.
TN: And all the while, we should add that by the U.N.’s assessment, the Iranians are closer than they ever have been to a bomb-making capability. And that is a land mine that I can’t imagine is going to get resolved in any satisfactory way in the next four days.
Let’s go next to Saudi Arabia where to review briefly, Joe Biden as a candidate said that because of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist — a murder that by America’s own assessment was planned by the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — Biden said then that the Saudis would pay the price for Khashoggi’s murder, that the crown prince would be “a pariah” on the world stage, and then added that “there was very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.” And here he is, traveling to Riyadh and meeting the man he called a pariah. Even by the standards of rhetoric as a candidate not quite matching execution as president, it’s pretty stark, isn’t it?
JK: Yes. There was a Jerusalem Post story yesterday that said that because of covid protocols, Biden’s going to be avoiding any handshakes on this trip, and I don’t want to be too cynical, but that seems like an awfully convenient way to avoid photographs of the president and the crown prince shaking hands.
I think for the first year of the Biden presidency, they tried to have it both ways. They didn’t fully isolate Saudi Arabia, but they did take a number of steps. They officially cut off support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, which is something that, especially under the Trump administration, a lot of Democrats in Congress had been calling for. That turned out to be a little less than meets the eye because they’re continuing the arms sales and maintenance that Saudi Arabia needs to continue that war. They publicized the intelligence that linked Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Khashoggi’s murder but did not take the step of imposing any sanctions on him personally.
This was an approach that kind of made no one happy. I think if you talk to human rights activists or to a lot of Democrats on Capitol Hill, they see the Biden approach as “Trump light.” They don’t see much substance in this. But it didn’t really make Biden many friends in the Gulf either. From the perspective of officials in Riyadh, they were really incensed at the lack of response from Washington, after the Houthi rebels in Yemen — who are backed by Iran — were launching rockets at Riyadh, and at the UAE. They saw themselves as being kind of abandoned. So it really didn’t satisfy either side. And you found a situation where when the war [in Ukraine] broke out, and Biden wanted the support of the Gulf, leaders in Saudi Arabia and the UAE weren’t even taking his calls and weren’t lining up behind the U.S. on some critical votes in the United Nations.
Mohammed bin Salman is in his mid-30s. Officially he’s not the king. His father is still alive, but his father is quite old and has stepped back from most of his governing responsibilities. And I don’t think anyone you talk to who is an expert on this region really thinks that anyone else has a chance of stopping him from becoming king. This is a man who could be ruling Saudi Arabia for the next 40 to 50 years, and so it was likely that there would be some kind of thaw in relations. But I think that the war in Ukraine and the need to do something on oil prices really kind of accelerated what they saw as the necessity to reach out.
I don’t think it’s going to be the kind of warm embrace you saw under Trump. Trump made Saudi Arabia his first foreign trip in 2017. People might remember the famous photo of him putting his hands on the [glowing] orb with King Salman and the president of Egypt. You saw him dancing with swords — I don’t think we’re going to see any of that. I would expect it to be a more businesslike meeting. Officially he’s not going there to meet Mohammad bin Salman; he’s going to a summit with several other Arab leaders. But it’s hard to walk back from something like the “pariah” statement. It’s a pretty clear reversal. And it’s hard to make this look like anything but a total flip-flop.
TN: I think it’s the president himself who said that human rights and democracy are the cornerstone of American foreign policy. I heard national security adviser Jake Sullivan the other day on this balancing act saying, well, yes, but global energy strategy is a key part of our foreign policy as well. So what would be a good outcome for the U.S. here? One that might go some way to satisfying those who think it’s just not worth it, or it’s objectionable for the president to go halfway around the world — handshakes or no, to meet the crown prince?
JK: I wouldn’t expect much in terms of concrete deliverables from this trip. Most people who watch the energy markets don’t think that there’s that much room for Saudi Arabia to increase production. Even if they did, as our colleague Matt Zeitlin has reported, the ability of American refineries to actually absorb that oil is limited. So there’s not that much they can do on oil prices.
As I mentioned before, we’re not going to see full normalization [between Saudi Arabia and Israel]. Cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel is kind of the worst-kept secret in the Middle East — there’s already a lot of it going on now. And so I don’t think from the Saudi perspective, they see much incentive to make major concessions on that front. They’ve talked about overflight rights for more Israeli commercial aircraft or this deal about islands in the Red Sea that Egypt is handing back to Saudi Arabia with the agreement of Israel. So that’s a sign relations are improving, but it’s not the sort of big-ticket thing you could imagine.
If you look at the op-ed that Biden wrote in the Washington Post, justifying this trip last week, he noted with some pride that he’s the first president since 9/11 visiting the region without U.S. combat troops there. You could definitely quibble with that — the U.S. still has troops in Syria and just launched an airstrike against ISIS this past week. I guess it depends on your definition of combat troops. But I think the point is, there’s a larger desire to withdraw militarily from the Middle East, but still maintain a presence. I think that the ideal outcome in the long term for the U.S. is to treat this more like a normal region and not be in a situation where every crisis that happens in the Middle East requires a U.S. military response.
That’s going to require diplomatic engagement. That’s going to require talking to governments that we may not like very much. So I think that, to put the most generous gloss on this, this is a way of setting up a future diplomatic approach to U.S. interests in the Middle East that doesn’t require the military jumping into to every crisis.
TN: And perhaps also a cautionary note — editorializing a little bit here — that American leaders ought to be a bit careful about declaring quite as dramatically as he has that the American foreign policy is all about democracy and human rights.
JK: Right. And it’s not just the “pariah” statement. Just a few weeks ago, we had the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles where there was a whole controversy over countries boycotting because they hadn’t allowed Cuba and Venezuela to come, and then the White House said, “We don’t invite dictators to these things.” The optics of that, if you make a principled stand like that, then at the same time you’re planning a trip to meet with the leader of a country that’s far more repressive than either of those governments I just mentioned, it’s hard to square it.
TN: One more thing. I’m reminded that for decades, when American leaders went to the region, the first several items on the agenda involved Israel and the Palestinians in one way, shape or form. And I’m struck by how today this almost feels like an afterthought. The Palestinians are getting a very brief visit. Is that a byproduct of all this other diplomatic activity in the region — that the Palestinians are left in even worse shape than they have been in previous years?
JK: Yes, it’s absolutely striking. Especially from a president like Joe Biden who has been deeply engaged in this issue forever. He’s somebody who has been meeting with Israeli prime ministers since Golda Meir in the 1970s. And he has been deeply engaged in Israeli-Palestinian issues. But I’d say the trip to Israel is definitely going to be greeted with a lot of cynicism on the West Bank. He is visiting Bethlehem, but it’s kind of viewed by a lot of people as a tourist stop. There’s not much to announce in the way of peace deals.
This comes in the wake of the controversy over the killing of the Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh. A number of prominent U.S. media accounts have concluded that it was Israeli troops that killed her, but the administration’s statement was more equivocal about that. So that was the source of a lot of anger in the Palestinian community. And I think that the Abraham Accords, these normalization deals between Israel and other Arab countries, are being seen as a way of sidestepping the Palestinian issue. For a long time the assumption was that Arab countries would not normalize their relations with Israel unless there was a two-state solution, unless there was a major move toward ending the occupation. The Trump administration proved that you could sidestep that, that there were other priorities, and that a lot of these governments were growing impatient with waiting for progress on that very intractable problem.
And so I think that you’re going to hear all the usual lines and bromides about the two-state solution and the need to move toward peace. But even if the Biden administration were more engaged on this, I don’t think that the two parties are willing to put much commitment into it either. The Israeli government right now has a caretaker prime minister, they have elections coming up. The Palestinian leadership is pretty divided as well. So it’s definitely on the back burner right now compared to some of these other issues I mentioned.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.