Last weekend, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken attended a summit with Israel and four Arab countries at a resort in Israel’s Negev Desert. Until two years ago, a meeting between these parties would not have been feasible. In the fall of 2020, the Trump administration brokered the Abraham Accords, a deal during which four Arab countries – the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Morocco, Sudan, and Bahrain – normalized relations with Israel, joining Egypt and Jordan and perpetuating a profound shift in regional dynamics.
One reason for the normalization of relations is a mutual concern about Iran, particularly its nuclear program. This mutual fear was a central theme of the summit as Mr. Blinken worked to reassure key U.S. allies in the Middle East that the Biden administration is committed to their security ahead of a potentially renewed deal on Iran’s nuclear program. Reports indicate that negotiations for the United States to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal may be down to the final issues. However, this is not exactly good news for the United States’s closest allies in the region.
Obama’s Greatest Foreign Policy Achievement
In 2015, the Obama administration, along with the P5+1, reached a deal with Iran, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), over its nuclear program. In exchange for limits on its nuclear program and allowing international inspectors into its nuclear facilities, the United States and other powers agreed to ease sanctions, pouring billions of dollars back into Iran’s struggling economy. In 2018, the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the deal, referring to it as the “worst deal ever.” As a result of the withdrawal, the hardline Iranian regime began ignoring the limits agreed upon in the deal. Analysts now estimate the breakout time to developing a nuclear weapon is just a few weeks.
The Biden administration has been working to renew the deal since taking office. Restoring the deal with Iran would satisfy primary foreign policy objectives – returning the United States to the JCPOA restoring trust with several of the United States’ closest allies, including the United Kingdom, France, and Germany as well as the European Union, all of whom were signatories of the original deal. Discussions to restore the nuclear deal have proven difficult. Yet now, it looks as though Biden administration official’s efforts may come to fruition.
The Limits of the Renewed Deal
The renewed deal, much like the original deal, would limit Iran’s nuclear program. What the renewed deal will not do, as critics are keen to point out, is limit Iran’s ballistic missile program or stop Iranian support for proxy forces around the region. Mr. Blinken noted the United States would pursue a “longer and stronger” deal with Iran to address the remaining issues after restoring the original deal; however, critics argue such a deal is unlikely to happen. Another criticism of a revived deal is that all limits on the program would still expire in 2030. These are the criticisms cited by the United States’ closest allies in the Middle East, specifically Israel and the Gulf Arab states of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Israeli Airstrikes a Result of Frustration over a Renewed Deal
Israel, with whom the United States maintains a close relationship, expressed its disdain for the Iran nuclear deal at the time of its original signing. Israel is now under new leadership and the new Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, made it clear that its opposition to a renewed accord still stands. For Israel, Iran is an existential threat. Mr. Bennett has gone so far as to alert the Biden administration that Israel is not bound to the nuclear deal with Iran and would act “with no constraints.”
Israel’s primary fears center on two different concerns. First, Israel does not believe that the nuclear deal includes “enough safeguards to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.” Next, Israel, along with the United States’ Gulf Arab allies, fears that the sanctions relief that accompanies a restored deal will embolden the Islamic Republic to step up its support for its militant proxies throughout the Middle East. Israel perceives, perhaps not incorrectly, that Iran’s elicit activities primarily target Israel and seems willing to do whatever is necessary to ensure its security.
For years, Israel and Iran have, as the New York Times aptly described, “engaged in a largely covert war, keeping their actions brief, limited and, if not completely secret, at least deniable.” Initially, Israel’s efforts to curtail Iran’s nuclear program included airstrikes. In 2012, Israel pondered full-scale airstrikes before abandoning the plans. The shadow war also includes “espionage, targeted assassinations, sabotage and cyberattacks. As the likelihood of a restored deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program, debate within Israel on using the military option on its regional adversary is becoming more mainstream.
Saudi Arabi and the UAE Take Matters into Their Own Hands
The United States’ Gulf Arab allies – Saudi Arabia and the UAE – were equally unhappy about the signing of the JCPOA, particularly infuriated by the lack of American consultation on the impending deal. They remain just as opposed today upon news of the potential for a renewed deal as they did in 2015. Still, even more so than Israel, America’s Arab allies were more concerned over sanctions relief. Leaders of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other countries throughout the region believe access to billions of dollars in the form of sanctions relief would allow Iran to ramp up supporting its proxies in the Middle East, from Hezbollah in Lebanon to the Houthis in Yemen – a militant group that continues to launch rockets at targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE – and Hamas in Gaza.
As a result of the likely revival of the JCPOA, the United States’ Gulf Arab allies have taken it upon themselves to reach out to Iran. This is, in part, a reaction to a concern that the United States’ promise to protect them is no longer in the cards, beginning under the Trump administration after the Gulf Arab allies perceived that the Trump administration lost interest. This fear is compounded by the Biden administration’s decidedly cooler approach to America’s traditional Arab allies and desire to extricate the United States from the Middle East. Brokered by Iraq, a curious choice as a diplomatic intermediary, Saudi Arabia began its own dialogue with Iran, its regional hegemonic rival. Similarly, the UAE also reached out to Iran in hopes of charting their own course of understanding. However, while the start of talks was impressive on its own, the talks have made little progress and Iran recently terminated the talks.
The U.S. Cannot Afford to Turn Away Too Quickly
As a restored deal to limit Iran’s nuclear activities nears completion, the Biden administration is one step closer to fulfilling a key foreign policy objective. However, a revived deal could complicate U.S. relations with key allies in the region at a time when the United States may need them most. Relations between Mr. Biden and Saudi Arabia are strained at best. Relations with the UAE have fared a bit better but still are not as close as they were under the Trump administration. The Bennett government has been in power for less than a year and it is too early to determine what the impact will be on those relations.
The United States under Mr. Biden has not been shy about shifting its foreign policy focus away from the Middle East to China – as evidenced by the end of the “forever war” in Afghanistan. The Biden administration should tread carefully on extricating the United States fully from the Middle East as events in this region have a habit of rearing up just when the United States is looking elsewhere.