Spanner in the works: US tinkers with Mid-East foreign policy

Mar 1, 2021

The Biden administration has now made three significant moves in the cauldron of conflict that is the Middle East, although a deal with Iran looks set to be a sterner test.

Any new move in the complex world of international affairs needs to be carefully calculated. Scott Morrison found this out last year when, as part of his quest to curry favour with Donald Trump, he demanded that President Xi Jinping cooperate with an independent international inquiry to find the source of the coronavirus.

Not even the most assiduous of Australia’s spies could have anticipated the extent of the wrath of Xi.

President Joe Biden is also learning fast that if you tinker with foreign policy it can throw up a new set of problems.

Nowhere is this truer than in the Middle East, a cauldron of conflict for the past 50 years. Many will have forgotten the eight-year Iran-Iraq war with more than a million and a half casualties, remembering only Arab-Israeli conflicts or those in which Australian forces played an active part: the two American wars against Iraq, the Syrian conflict, the war in Afghanistan, and the move to prevent Islamic State building a Caliphate in the region. These conflicts and their fallout resulted in the greatest refugee crisis the world has experienced.

Multilateral efforts to achieve a lasting peace in the Middle East have all failed. The Biden administration has now made three significant moves:

He has ordered a reset in US relations with the house of Saud, its principal Middle Eastern ally, as a result of bombings by Saudi Arabia of civilians, including children, in the war against neighbouring. The US has also ordered the removal of the Houthis from the US list of terrorist organisations, despite Riyadh’s claims the Houthis have fired Iranian missiles into the Kingdom.

America has offered to join the European Union in talks with Tehran on restoring the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, supported by President Obama but jettisoned three years ago by Trump.

The US will also actively join all UN efforts to solve both major conflicts, like the war in Yemen, and the wider regional refugee problem.

All this sounds, well, perhaps rather Biden-like: a reminder of a Shakespearean line, “All’s well that ends well.”

As Lyse Doucet, chief international correspondent of the BBC, put it recently,

“Joe Biden’s team is dominated by old hands from the Obama administration. Their biggest challenge is that they personally helped to shape policy in places where it is in far worse shape now. But there are some openings and opportunities in that.”

We have to hope. The problem is that events have moved on, largely thanks to Trump. Not only did he destroy what hopes there were for the Iranian nuclear deal but, in the dying days of his presidency, he showed his colours as a transaction politician by delivering to his staunch friend Benjamin Netanyahu what he most wanted – official recognition of Israel by the most vibrant and richest Gulf country, the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia, which hosted and heralded Trump’s first overseas trip as US president, was set to follow suit.

Today, Netanyahu is uneasy at the prospect of an imminent revival of the Iranian nuclear deal, and Israel’s newfound friends in Abu Dhabi and Dubai even more so. They believe that even if Iran can be persuaded to sign up to a sufficiently watertight deal on nuclear missiles, the ending of sanctions will only enhance Tehran’s ambition to become the regional hegemon.

For Biden and his three European amigos – France, Germany and Britain – together with China and Russia, reviving a tougher Iran nuclear deal is not a ‘slam dunk’. The stand-off between the two sides is easing, with the US now allowing Iranian diplomats to travel within New York.

Iran has withdrawn an imposition on UN nuclear inspections, but feeling in the country is still running high because of the assassination of a number of its eminent scientists. Hard-line opponents of the nuclear deal are also expected to gain ground in June’s parliamentary elections.

Kim Ghattas, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, points out that the region is in a very different place from where it was during the Obama administration. This makes it inevitable that progress will be slow, allowing Vladimir Putin to continue his influence in Syria and Turkey, and Al Assad to restore his grip on power in Damascus.

At the weekend Biden decided to confront head on what had become a big problem in Washington’s relations with Saudi Arabia: the assassination of Amal Khashoggi – journalist, Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident – that took place inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.  President Trump had classified the report that followed a CIA investigation, ostensibly on security grounds but more realistically for fear of damaging his close relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s defence minister and de facto day-to-day leader.

When Biden read the report, he decided its findings should be published in redacted form and that, however unpalatable a task, it was his duty as president to make the views of the United States crystal clear. The report confirmed the Crown Prince had personally approved the operation in Turkey to ‘capture or kill’ Khashoggi.

Ahead of its release on Friday evening Riyadh-time, President Biden called the 85-year-old King Saalman to tell him that he would be ‘resetting’ relations with the kingdom, and expressing the hope that Riyadh would bring to an end its war with Yemen, continue to improve its record on human rights, and continue its longstanding alliance with the US. There is no record of what the King said, but the Saudi foreign ministry later issued a statement affirming its partnership with the US was ‘robust’ and that it looked forward to maintaining the enduring foundations of its strategic partnership’.

There is no direct move to sanction the Crown Prince, a decision defended by secretary of state Tony Blinken, when he met reporters on Friday. He said the US decision to shine a bright light on the issue constituted action in itself and the relationship with Saudi Arabia is more than about one individual.

Blinken has issued a new visa restriction policy — the “Khashoggi Ban” — which is aimed at individuals who work on behalf of foreign governments to target dissidents abroad. Blinken said the US had imposed the ban on 76 Saudis who are “believed to have been engaged in threatening dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the Khashoggi killing”. The US Treasury has also frozen the assets of members of the Crown Prince’s elite detail known to have participated in the killing, as well as members of his Rapid Intervention Force.

Biden’s critics suggest he should do more than name and shame the Crown Prince, but it is a requirement of diplomacy that you have to deal with many leaders with blood on their hands – witness Putin of Russia, and one or two others in G20.

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