Last week, American President Joe Biden hit the reset button on the US’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and its arch-enemy Iran upending his predecessor’s Middle East policy.
By Anchal Vohra
The Biden administration declassified the CIA’s report on the killing of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in a huge embarrassment to Saudi Arabia and its Crown Prince Mohamad Bin Salman (MBS), the man first in line to be king. The report held MBS responsible for the dismemberment and disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi’s body inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
“Since 2017, the Crown Prince has had absolute control of the Kingdom’s security and intelligence organisations, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince’s authorisation,” the CIA report said.
Trump had refused to release the report but Biden reversed that decision. Biden has been critical of Saudi Arabia and especially of the maverick crown prince but this move is expected to significantly alter the nature of the US’s ties with one of its closest allies in the Middle East.
In another development Biden administration formally offered to rejoin talks to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between the US and Iran, popularly known as the US-Iran nuclear deal, if Iran complies with its commitment.
The deal was signed in 2015 after years of back-channel negotiations but Donald Trump walked out of the deal in 2018, reimposed sanctions, and launched a ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran.
Trump’s team was dominated by Iran hawks who not only wanted to force Iran to make more concessions on its nuclear program but also on its regional expansion. Their policy supported Saudi Arabia and Israel, both of whom see Iran’s rise as the biggest threat to their own stability.
Biden reversed that policy too, and unlike Trump who had ignored America’s traditional European allies, he brought them on board. In a joint statement with the UK, Germany and France, the US said: “If Iran comes back into strict compliance with its commitments, the United States will do the same and is prepared to engage in discussions with Iran toward that end.” To ease tensions and show goodwill he lifted sanctions against Iranian diplomats as the first concession.
In effect, Biden is promoting the Obama-era vision of a Middle East — allow Shia Iran its own influence in a region traditionally dominated by Sunni Saudi Arabia.
Iran, however, is playing hard to get. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javed Zarif, the man who was Tehran’s key interlocutor in the deal in 2015, said that first, the US must “unconditionally and effectively lift all sanctions,” and only then will Iran fully comply to the agreement. Iran has exceeded the limit set on uranium enrichment since Trump walked out of the deal.
Zarif warned that Biden does not have “unlimited” time to make a decision.
Analysts see that as a warning. They say that Iran was patient while Trump was in power and did not unleash its regional militias to the detriment of US troops and its allies in the region to the extent it could have because it was waiting for his exit and for Biden to win. But the country’s economy is on the verge of complete collapse and it can’t afford to wait for too long. It needs Biden to move and now.
Iran has begun to test Biden and provoke him. A fortnight ago a barrage of 15 rockets struck a US base in Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region. The attack was claimed by a new militia organisation called Saraya Awliya al-Dam, or Brigades of the Guardians of Blood. According to several regional experts, it is aligned with Iran-backed militias on the ground in Iraq.
“The US occupying force will not be safe even if the traitor Kurdistan Regional Government welcomes it,” Saraya Awliya al-Dam said and it claimed the attack.
The group even owned that the attack was in response to the assassination of Qassem Suleimani, the former general of the all-powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the former head of an Iranian proxy in Iraq called Kata’ib Hezbollah, by the US in January 2020.
While Biden seems earnest about rejoining the nuclear deal to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, he has also shown Tehran that he can’t be taken for a ride. The US military carried out attacks in eastern Syria against Iran-backed militias in response to the attack in Erbil.
Biden warned Iran that it cannot act with impunity and asked it to “be careful.”