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Why America Can’t Escape the Gulf

For the past two years, the Biden administration has been engaged in a “pivot to Asia”—a longstanding objective of many U.S. lawmakers, including former president Barack Obama. Biden, who served as Obama’s vice president from 2009 to 2017, has expressed support for the view that the global balance of power has shifted from the Middle East, which played a vital strategic role in the Cold War and post-Cold War periods. Asia is more routinely viewed as the primary economic and geopolitical arena, and America’s national interests have changed accordingly. Biden also came to the White House with the promise of pursuing a values-based foreign policy focused on bolstering respect for human rights and democracy across the world. This has necessitated strategic reviews of the United States’ key relationships in the Middle East—notably with Saudi Arabia. Biden and de facto Saudi leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have done little to disguise their mutual contempt, and the bilateral relationship has suffered greatly over the past two years. As of yet, however, there doesn’t seem to be a clear vision of what a serious reset would look like.

Despite his early aspirations, President Obama remained tethered to the Middle East throughout his tenure. Obama’s hands were tied; he was unable to fully draw down America’s presence in Afghanistan and was forced to support the regional policies of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to gain their reluctant approval of his landmark diplomatic accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). To Biden’s credit, the withdrawal from Afghanistan was accomplished in short order—albeit with devastating consequences for many Afghans—but the renegotiation of the JCPOA has failed to materialize. The administration is grappling both with simmering tensions in the Middle East and a grueling and dangerous confrontation with Russia in Ukraine. Biden’s hoped-for overhaul of U.S. global strategy is lurching along, and Middle East policy is but one example of the complexity inherent in international relations that renders an entirely consistent foreign policy impossible.

Bloc Politics Grip the Post-War Middle East

The overthrow of Iran’s democratically-elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq, in 1953 effectively marked the beginning of the Cold War in the Middle East and helped to define U.S. policy goals in the region. The incident effectively passed the baton of Western influence from the British to the Americans. This reallocation of responsibility was cemented after the British and French withdrew from Egypt during the Suez Crisis three years later. The tripartite invasion of Egypt, in which Israel also participated, also marked the beginning of “bloc politics” in the Middle East. The Baghdad Pact and the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO)—a nascent regional security pact akin to NATO—were the most visible manifestations of these policies, ensuring Western support for royal governments in exchange for oil and commitment to the policies of containment of Soviet influence in the region.

These policies, initially pursued by the British and French and later continued by the Americans, bred discontent among the people of the region. In spite of its obvious ideological differences with the Mossadeq era, Iran’s 1979 revolution against the Shah (before it was hijacked by the Islamists) was fundamentally a reaction to American and British interventionism in 1953. During the 1960s, Egypt’s Nasser defied U.S. requests to withdraw from Yemen and to reconcile with Israel, turning down 6 million pounds of U.S. wheat to spite the Americans—who, in his opinion, sought to control the Middle East.

The bloc politics that seized the region during the 1950s shaped the strategic frameworks within which specific policies and tactics were defined. Hence, the monarchies of the Gulf became friends and allies of Washington, whereas Arab nationalist movements and regimes formed by such movements were kept at a distance and in some cases became targets for coups and counter-revolutions. In turn, the U.S became the target of resentment by millions in the region who supported or shared Arab nationalist sentiments. Given the bipolar distribution of power that characterized the Cold War, it was natural for the Soviet Union to befriend the regimes opposed by the West.

U.S.-Saudi Relations in Disarray

Reactions from within and outside the Biden administration to Saudi Arabia’s recent OPEC+ decision to cut oil production have reflected knee-jerk, emotional reactions. Far from meeting the threshold of a strategic review, comments from U.S. policymakers have devolved into threatening vague “consequences” for Riyadh. The strategic review of a relationship that has been a cornerstone of U.S. policy in the Middle East for several decades should logically necessitate a critical look at U.S. policy in the Middle East as a whole, incorporated into a wide-ranging review of U.S. foreign policy in the context of an evolving world order. Such an endeavor may be ambitious for any one administration to accomplish. The challenge becomes even tougher for the current administration, which has staked its reputation on ushering in a values-based foreign policy but has not provided a clear intellectual framework from which it will draw the guidelines for such a policy.

A strategic review of U.S.-Saudi relations had in fact already been ordered in July 2021, long before the spat over the oil cut. This course of action was consistent with Biden’s presidential campaign statements on human rights abuses in the Kingdom, the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in October 2018, and the humanitarian disaster caused by the war in Yemen. That review announced a halt in offensive weapons and limiting arms sales to defensive ones. These appeared to be token measures, however, as the war in Yemen continued and U.S. military cooperation with Saudi Arabia continued apace. In fact, Biden’s visit to Jeddah earlier this year seemed ample proof that the relationship was unaffected—at least from the American side.

At the same time that the United States carefully evaluates its strategic interests, Saudi leaders discuss their own. Biden’s censure of Mohammed bin Salman and the U.S.’ freeze on weapons exports caused the Saudis to focus on lessening their country’s dependency on U.S. military assistance. In addition to buying more weaponry from European countries, Riyadh has signed a military cooperation agreement with Russia, reportedly including the Russian S-400 air defense system. China has also jumped into the breach with president Xi’s recent visit resulting in multi-million dollar deals in various fields. The Saudi review also took on a symbolic nature that manifested in the low-level reception Biden received during his visit—a marked contrast to the lavish gala thrown by MBS and his father to welcome President Donald Trump, Biden’s predecessor. In Jeddah, MBS seemed intent on conveying the message that the disaffection felt by Biden towards him was mutual. The recent determination by the U.S. State Department that MBS is entitled to immunity from prosecution in the U.S. since he is now the head of government in his country has neither improved U.S.-Saudi relations nor reassured those who were calling for a total review of the bilateral relationship.

Waffling Between Engagement and Containment

The Islamic Republic of Iran has been a thorn in the side of U.S. policymakers since its inception in 1979. The reverse is also true, of course. The abuses of the Shah aside, one substantial factor in inciting the pro-Khomeini masses was U.S. interventionism in the region, including the coup against Mosaddeq. Even today, most Iranians, fearful of U.S. and Israeli sanctions and covert action, remain highly suspicious of both countries.

Despite this baggage, Iran and the U.S. have proven capable of diplomacy when in their mutual interest. The two countries negotiated successfully during the Obama administration and finalized the JCPOA. The Biden administration has committed repeatedly (albeit not enthusiastically) to the accord’s renewal. The U.S. special envoy to Iran, Robert Malley, has been valiantly talking (at least indirectly) to Iranian negotiators in Geneva for the past two years and defending the talks back home. Malley’s testimony before Congress on May 25, 2022, acknowledged the difficulties of negotiations while insisting that there was no other way to guarantee a non-nuclear Iran without reviving the agreement.

Following the outbreak of mass protests in Iran, however, the world appears to be witnessing a return to a more confrontational phase in the relationship with the Islamic Republic due to its brutal repression of protests. Stung by criticism of Obama’s failure to engage with demonstrators in 2009, the Biden administration is trying to more aggressively support anti-regime protesters. Iran’s increasingly apparent military cooperation with Russia in Ukraine has not exactly endeared itself to the West. With negotiations on hold, the United States may bet on the success of anti-regime protests or clandestine sabotage efforts to stave off nuclear weaponization or even overturn the clerical regime. Indeed, U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby, clearly stated that there was “no diplomacy underway now, we’re just not focused on that.” The U.S. has all but abandoned negotiations as a way to reach an understanding with Iran. Should demonstrations fail to bring about regime change in Tehran, however, Washington may consider a return to diplomatic engagement to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

Missing the Forest for the Trees

Paradoxically, poor relations between Washington and Tehran have done little to improve the United States’ relationship with Israel. Tensions between the Biden administration and Israel stem from the displeasure former (and likely incoming) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu felt toward President Obama and his full-throttle drive to negotiate the JCPOA, which he characterized to U.S. lawmakers as a grave threat to Israeli security. Biden’s attempt to revive the agreement and vocal discomfort with Netanyahu’s return to power in alliance with Israel’s extreme right, have thrown the United States’ connection with a longtime partner into disarray. The United States has admonished Israel for not disclosing the identity of the soldier who killed al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, and continue to push for de-escalation in Jerusalem and the West Bank and to advocate for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

In terms of concrete policy initiatives, however, Biden has done little to back up his administration’s rhetoric. It has yet to assign a high-level team to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks on a permanent solution to the seventy-year-old conflict. Nor has he threatened to boycott the entire cabinet if the extreme right gets the positions they bargained for. Finally, the U.S. has not confronted the current Israeli government over its refusal to cooperate with the FBI in investigating the shooting of Abu Akleh. Tensions abound in U.S.-Israeli relations at the moment, but clearly, a strategic review of the relationship is unlikely.

Biden has also decided to take advantage of the Abraham Accords to forge a strategic partnership between Israel and the UAE to collaborate on security threats emanating from Iran. Saudi Arabia is a silent partner to this proto-alliance, highlighting the gulf between the Biden administration’s rhetoric on human rights and its actual policies. Far from distancing itself from authoritarian regimes, the Abraham Accords deepen bloc politics in the Middle East, albeit in a new and more complex configuration than during the Cold War. Russia and China have deepened their strategic partnership with Iran. Turkey, a NATO member, is hedging between Russia and the U.S. and pushing its military further into northern Syria despite Washington’s vocal displeasure.

The U.S. faces the possibility of dangerous confrontations with Russia over the Ukraine war and China in East Asia. Of the two, the strategic competition with China is seen by U.S. analysts as both more consequential and hazardous in the long term. With increasingly sophisticated weaponry and a large economy, China is a rising power intent on regional dominance, while Russia is seen as a declining but still dangerous foe. With the potential of military confrontation with two great powers and a fluid and unstable balance in the Middle East, the U.S. needs to calm the waters in the region instead of exacerbating tensions. By pursuing actions that worsen international conflict and promote bloc politics, the Biden administration is drifting from its strategic vision for the region.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Dr. Nabeel Khoury is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at Gulf International Forum and previously was a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Hariri Center for the Middle East. His commentaries appear on the Atlantic Council’s MENA Resource, The Hill, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs and on his own blog, Middle East Corner. After 25 years in the Foreign Service, Dr. Khoury retired from the U.S. Department of State in 2013 with the rank of Minister-Counselor. He taught Middle East and US strategy courses at the National Defense University and Northwestern University. In his last overseas posting, Khoury served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Yemen (2004-2007). In 2003, during the Iraq war, he served as Department spokesperson at US Central Command in Doha and in Baghdad. Khoury earned his BA in political science from the American University of Beirut and his MA and PhD in political science from the State University of New York at Albany. Before his Foreign Service career, Khoury was an assistant professor of political science at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY, and earlier, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Jordan in Amman. Dr. Khoury has published articles on issues of leadership and development in the Arab world in The Middle East Journal, Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, and The International Journal of Middle East Studies. Articles on the regional impact of the Arab uprising and on U.S. policy in Yemen appear in the summer 2013 and summer 2014 issues of Middle East Policy. In 2019 Dr. Khoury published his book “Bunker Diplomacy: An Arab-American in the U.S. Foreign Service: Personal Reflections on 25 Years of U.S. Policy in the Middle East.”

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