The president can advance U.S. interests and regain the region’s trust, if he evolves his messages and policies.
Washington DC – July 12, 2022
As originally appeared in Defense One.
President Joe Biden can demonstrate that “America is back” in the Middle East when he arrives for the first time as president, but only if he brings the right message to achieve his important objectives.
His visit to Israel, the West Bank, and Saudi Arabia is an opportunity to show that the U.S. foreign policy aperture is wider than Asia and Europe. It’s a chance to set the stage for achieving his foreign policy goals by reinvigorating engagement on Iran through closer cooperation with the region. And it’s a chance to take steps to restore trust with Gulf nations.
First, Biden should make clear to Middle Eastern leaders that a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program remains the goal, but it is time to consider a new approach. The P5+1 model is on the verge of failure. The president should propose a new effort that brings in the nations most affected. Middle Eastern nations can bring new economic incentives to a potential deal, which may be especially useful as Iran remains concerned about a future U.S. administration reneging on Washington’s commitments and Western businesses declining to invest in Iran, even if legal barriers are lifted. Regional powers can also make clear actions they will take to deter Iran’s potentially unimpeded nuclear development if talks fail.
Additionally, the United States should attempt to modernize the diplomatic landscape. The communiques that come out of Biden’s meetings in the region should make clear to Iran that it will find no space to split this determined group. They would also show that this is an area of agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, as the White House wisely continues its work with both nations towards one day expanding the Abraham Accords.
Second, trust between our Gulf partners and the United States has eroded over the past decade. As recently as this past March, UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef al-Otaiba said his country’s bilateral relationship with the United States was undergoing a “stress test.” Three events in recent history have driven increased skepticism of the United States’ commitment to the region: President Barack Obama’s failure to enforce his stated “red line” in Syria when the Assad government used chemical weapons against its own people in 2012; President Donald Trump’s inaction after Iranian-backed Houthi rebels launched a drone attack on one of the world’s most important oil facilities in Saudi Arabia in 2019; and the slow response of the Biden administration after Houthi missiles targeted Abu Dhabi International Airport in January. Houthis have also continued to target oil facilities in Saudi Arabia crucial to international energy supplies.
Attacks on vital Gulf civil infrastructure cannot be allowed to continue without stronger U.S. responses. Biden should demonstrate this by announcing increased intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance cooperation to monitor Iran’s regional activities, accelerate the provision of additional missile defense capabilities to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and take a more active role in interdicting Iranian weapons shipments to Houthi fighters in Yemen.
In Yemen, the Biden administration has made great progress in working with Saudi Arabia and the Houthis to negotiate a truce and resume the delivery of humanitarian aid. While it is early, a lasting ceasefire may be in reach for the first time in almost a decade. But to deal with the implications of Houthi aggression outside of Yemen, the United States should shore up our Gulf partners’ defensive capabilities to protect civilians from indiscriminate attacks. And within Yemen, the U.S. should press Saudi Arabia to continue to improve Yemeni civilians’ access to humanitarian aid, even if Houthi leaders refuse to do the same.
And third, to implement these changes the administration should work with the Senate to ensure every U.S. embassy in the region has a confirmed ambassador by year’s end, and designate a point person for the Middle East on the State Department’s 7th Floor. The Biden administration remains short-staffed. Ambassador Barbara Leaf was only confirmed as assistant secretary of state for near east affairs in May. Vacancies remain at U.S. ambassador posts to Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the UAE. Now that Leaf has taken up her post, Secretary of State Tony Blinken should specifically assign one of his senior deputies the task of focusing on the direction and implementation of Middle East policy. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Counselor Derek Chollet are experienced Middle East hands with deep ties to the region. Either of them would be a great pick, and the U.S. should assign one of them to be the main point of contact for regional leaders. Clear and consistent lines of communication will facilitate progress on issues ranging from regional security to human rights to China’s worrisome presence in the Middle East.
By outlining a concrete and cooperative Iran policy with the region, recommitting to the security of our Gulf partners, and fully staffing the U.S. government’s Middle East policy team, Biden can demonstrate to our partners in the region that America is back not only in Asia and Europe, but the Middle East as well.
Josh Kirshner is a senior vice president at Beacon Global Strategies and served as a State Department official on a variety of Middle East security issues. Ian Byrne is a geopolitical analyst focused on the Middle East and energy who previously worked at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.