As U.S. President Joe Biden travels to the Middle East tomorrow, the future of important bilateral relationships and multilateral initiatives are at stake: regional security cooperation, the fate of nuclear negotiations with Iran, America’s involvement in building peace between Israel and Palestine, and more.
Biden’s tour of the Middle East, which takes place from July 13-16, is his first trip to the region since taking office. In addition to bilateral meetings, Biden will lay out his vision for U.S. engagement with the region at the the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) +3 Summit in Jeddah, which will include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan.
Below, we highlight key concerns that are likely to arise in these meetings, including soaring energy prices in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, human rights issues, and Iran’s nuclear program and regional activities.
Israel has long been one of the most significant relationships for the United States in the Middle East. During his visit, Biden will likely seek to assuage concerns over his support for Israel amidst growing regional tensions and the current impasse in nuclear negotiations with Iran. Significant topics of discussion may include the state of these negotiations, regional defence cooperation, Israel’s improved relations with its Arab neighbors, and the Palestinian territories. The trip comes just as the Israeli coalition government collapsed following Prime Minister Naftali Bennet’s resignation: as a result, Biden will be greeted by interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who served as foreign minister in Bennet’s government.
Israel’s primary foreign policy concern remains the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear and regional activities. Attempts to revive the nuclear negotiations in Doha in late June appear to have done little to break the current impasse, even while Iran is enriching uranium at increasingly higher levels that put it within a week of producing sufficient fissile material for a nuclear bomb.
In response to these developments, Tel Aviv has signaled that it will not hesitate to act to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. In early June, the Israeli government said that, while it remains committed to a diplomatic resolution to Iran’s nuclear program, it “reserves the right to self-defense and action against Iran to stop its nuclear programme if the international community fails to do so within the relevant time-frame.” The Israeli government recently has engaged in a series of covert actions against Iran, including cyber attacks and killings of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officials. Iran has also accused Israel of poisoning two leading scientists, one of whom worked at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility.
Tit-for-tat operations launched by both countries recently included an Iranian strike on an alleged Israeli site in Iraq in retaliation for an alleged Israeli attack on an Iranian drone facility.
As part of its efforts to counter Iran, Israel also recently announced the formation of the Middle East Air Defense alliance, a new military partnership with the United States and Arab partners that aims to counter threats posed by Iran’s regional activities and ballistic missile program. The agreement is one of the most significant areas of collaboration between Israel and its Arab neighbors and comes just two years after the Abraham Accords, which normalized Israel’s relations with the UAE and Bahrain. After the deal was announced, the Supreme Leader of Iran said that it would attack “the closest and most accessible target” if the military alliance threatens Iran. Israeli officials have not yet named the specific Arab nations involved in the agreement. However, Israeli Minister of Defense Benny Gantz said that more details might be announced when Biden visits Israel this week.
During his visit, Biden also plans to visit the West Bank and meet with his counterpart there, President Mahmoud Abbas. A senior administration official said that Biden would be “reaffirming his lifelong commitment to a two-state solution.” Biden is likely to address the state of negotiations between Israel and Palestine, the recent violent clashes in Jerusalem and the state of the American consulate in Jerusalem — the de facto envoy to the Palestinian territories — which has remained closed since the Trump administration.
Palestinian leaders are likely to raise a number of grievances in these meetings. Abbas has grown increasingly irate with the Biden administration for its perceived failure to roll back Trump-era policies. In the lead-up to the meeting between Biden and Abbas, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf visited the West Bank, during which Abbas told Leaf that “the current situation is unsustainable and cannot be tolerated [given] the absence of a political horizon.” The Palestinian Authority has also requested that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) be removed from the list of terrorist organizations, that the PLO be permitted to reopen its Washington office, and that financial support for the Palestinian Authority and United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees resumes.
The Biden administration will likely press Palestinian leaders to resume peace negotiations with Israel. In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Biden stressed his commitment to finding a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, his administration’s $500 million aid package for Palestine, and the recent phone call between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Lapid, the first call between the countries’ respective leaders in five years. He also stressed his commitment to upholding human rights as a central element of U.S. foreign policy.
As part of its commitment to human rights, the Biden administration may use this opportunity to press Tel Aviv to hold Israeli officials accountable for the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. Palestinian officials concluded their investigation in late May, determining that the reporter was intentionally targeted by Israeli troops. The Israeli Army also conducted an investigation, which found that it was “not possible to unequivocally determine the source of the gunfire which hit and killed Ms. Abu Akleh.” However, a newly released New York Times investigation found that “the bullet that killed Ms. Abu Akleh was fired from the approximate location of the Israeli military convoy, most likely by a soldier from an elite unit.” An official U.S. investigation released on July 4 concluded that she was likely killed by “unintentional” Israeli fire. According to the State Department’s spokesperson, Ned Price, the bullet that killed her likely originated from an Israeli soldier, but he added that there was “no reason to believe this was intentional.” This new report will place additional pressure on the Biden administration as it meets with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to discuss the recent increase in violence and the potential for a resumption of peace negotiations.
Jordan’s relative stability and its role in negotiating the Israel-Palestinian conflict make it an important partner in the Middle East. King Abdullah II will likely use the opportunity to press his country’s position on a number of regional security issues and on Jordan’s role as a peace broker in the region, particularly regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In June, Abdullah assured Abbas that he plans to push “the Palestinian issue” to “the top of Biden’s agenda.” During his visit with Biden in May, the Jordanian leader similarly appealed to the United States to renew its commitment to the two-state solution and to the preservation of the status quo in Jerusalem, including Jordanian custodianship of Muslim holy sites in the city. In this regard, Jordan appears to be coordinating its position with various Arab leaders ahead of Biden’s visit. In late June, Jordan hosted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), after which Abdullah and Crown Prince Hussein reaffirmed their support for the Palestinian struggle and highlighted the growing threat Iran poses. Abdullah also recently met with his counterparts from Egypt and Bahrain. At that trilateral meeting, the countries emphasized their desire for enhanced cooperation on regional issues and the continued need to support the “legitimate” Palestinian struggle and the “two-state solution.”
Jordan will also likely raise security concerns, particularly regarding Iran. Abdullah recently announced that he “would be one of the first people that would endorse a Middle East NATO,” caveating that such an organization’s goals would have to be well-defined. After meeting with MBS, the two leaders issued a joint statement stressing their commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Earlier this year, Jordanian officials joined peers from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt in meeting with the Israeli Defense Force’s (IDF)’s chief of staff. These secret, U.S.-brokered discussions focused on joint security initiatives against Iran’s missile and drone programs.
Despite participating in these initiatives, Jordan remains ambivalent about security cooperation with Israel. It declined an invitation to attend the Israeli-organized Negev summit at which four other Arab countries and Secretary Blinken made an appearance earlier this year, reportedly citing Palestine’s exclusion. Abdullah, meanwhile, has cautioned that the Palestinian conflict could inhibit regional cooperation, and senior Jordanian officials have denied forming a military alliance with Israel. The country did not acknowledge a bilateral meeting between Abdullah and Israeli President Isaac Herzog in late June. Even as other Arab countries move toward normalization of relations with Israel following the Abraham Accords, Jordan will likely have to balance Biden’s visit with its continued commitment to the Palestinian cause.
Iraq’s domestic turmoil makes it a difficult partner in the region. In June, 73 new legislators entered the Iraqi Parliament after Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr–whose party won the largest bloc in October elections—failed to form a coalition government. Other Shiite leaders, backed by Iran, thwarted repeated attempts at coalition-building, and al-Sadr ordered the mass resignation of his party’s members in an attempt to break the stalemate. The move left him out of power for the first time since 2005 and raised fears of renewed protests and violent clashes in the country. Because most powerful Shiite clerics maintain close, if complicated, ties to Iran, Iraq remains an outlier in a region otherwise increasingly willing to join together with the United States to counter threats posed by Iran.
As a result of this complicated relationship, Iraq might use Biden’s trip to advocate for regional diplomacy and the deescalation of tensions with Tehran. Iraqi Prime Minister al-Kadhimi has recently flown between Tehran and Riyadh in an attempt to convince the two regional powers to resume Iraqi-brokered talks in Baghdad, which began last year with the aim of achieving a detente. Saudi Arabia and Iran formally severed ties in 2016 following Riyadh’s execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr and the subsequent storming of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, and have been engaged in a series of proxy wars throughout the region, including in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq.
The Biden administration might also seek to address Iranian-backed Shia militant attacks on U.S. forces. The U.S. State Department recently condemned “repeated rocket and mortar attacks” that targeted oil and gas infrastructure in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. It stated that such attacks “must be investigated and those responsible must be prosecuted.” In March, Iran’s top paramilitary force claimed responsibility for attacks near U.S. facilities in Kurdistan, including a new consulate building.
Another issue that might surface is the Iraqi Parliament’s recent passage of an “anti-normalization law,” which orders death for anyone in contact with an Israeli citizen. Such a law runs counter to the regional trend toward greater cooperation with Israel. The U.S. State Department stated it was “deeply disturbed” by the law. In 2021, various prominent Iraqis, including the leader of a Sunni tribal movement against ISIS and al-Qaeda, called for normalization, only to recant in the face of considerable political backlash, death threats, and the risk of arrest.
In his meetings with Egyptian leaders, Biden will likely capitalize on the opportunity to forge closer bilateral ties, particularly since he has not personally communicated with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi since May 24, 2021.
Food insecurity is likely to be one of the primary issues discussed at the GCC + 3 summit as the war in Ukraine continues to impact food supplies. Egypt, formerly one of the primary importers of Ukrainian wheat, has been forced to turn to domestic suppliers to try to make up the shortfall, with the financial support of the European Union and World Bank. Senior U.S. officials, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk, previously pledged to address food insecurity when they met with Sisi in May of this year.
Water security also continues to be a central priority for Egypt. Egypt’s failure to reach a legally binding agreement on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’s (GERD) filing and operation with Sudan and Ethiopia may be revisited at the summit. During their call in 2021, Biden and Sisi discussed reaching an agreement that would ultimately enforce water security for all involved parties; Biden also stated that the United States would take steps to strengthen Egypt’s water security. However, Sisi has more recently expressed his resistance towards such negotiations, saying to reporters on June 13th that “[no] one will touch Egypt’s water.” An anonymous Egyptian diplomatic source clarified the country’s official position on the GERD issue, confirming that, although “Egypt believes in a peaceful diplomatic solution to resolving any technical or legal dispute regarding the dam,” the negotiations have “been stumbling due to the absence of good intentions [on the part of Ethiopia] to reach an agreement, which always disrupts the talks.” As negotiations falter, Biden may adopt one of two approaches: reinforcing Sisi’s stance on GERD – which Egypt perceives as inherent to its water security – or urging him to reconsider negotiations and alleviate tensions with Sudan and Ethiopia.
During these talks, the Biden administration has an opportunity to press Egypt on its human rights record. In 2020, Congress passed legislation that urged the U.S. to withhold $300 million in military aid from Egypt until the country implemented a variety of reforms, such as strengthening the rule of law and protecting religious minorities. The Biden administration, however, bypassed this condition, granting Egypt $170 million and withholding the remaining funds. The United States also continued to provide nearly two billion dollars in arms sales to Egypt this year alone.
The final leg of the trip will be to Saudi Arabia, where President Biden is expected to meet with Saudi Crown Prince MBS for the first time since taking office.
As the Russia-Ukraine War sends gas prices soaring, a key goal of the trip will be to convince the crown prince to increase Saudi Arabia’s oil production. However, energy experts predict that even Saudi Arabia could not reduce prices on its own, even though it is considered to have the most spare production capacity, due to its inability to completely make up the shortfall in Russian oil to Europe and elsewhere.
The administration is also using the trip to rebuild relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia. According to a U.S. official, the administration is seeking to “recalibrate, not rupture” relations with the Kingdom. This comes after then-candidate Biden pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” after the U.S. intelligence community determined that MBS ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey in October 2018. Relations frayed further after Biden announced he would not be taking calls with MBS but instead would speak with his counterpart, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Tensions were further exacerbated when MBS reportedly refused to take a call from Biden as the war in Ukraine drove up gas prices.
The administration is under pressure from progressives and human rights advocates for visiting Saudi Arabia after years of brutal war in Yemen that the United Nations has called the world’s “worst humanitarian crisis.” An official government report also recently found that the Pentagon and the State Department failed to investigate whether the Saudi-led coalition has used American weapons to commit war crimes in Yemen. The report comes just weeks after the administration publicly praised the Saudi government for its role in brokering a truce in Yemen, a ceasefire which has now been extended until August. The Biden administration reportedly is considering lifting its ban on offensive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia if Riyadh makes further progress towards ending the war in Yemen, but is unlikely to make significant concessions on this trip given domestic pressure from Congress and civil society groups to maintain the ban.
Saudi officials have been pressuring the administration to articulate a policy for constraining Iran in its pursuit for a nuclear weapon, as negotiations to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) wane. Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman expressed concerns that the United States still has not outlined a strategy for constraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions, ballistic missile arsenal, and support for regional militant groups. Saudi officials are also concerned that the administration lacks a “plan B” should the nuclear talks fail altogether. Biden’s trip to the kingdom will likely touch on the state of the negotiations and how Iran’s neighbors can work with the United States to constrain Iran’s regional and nuclear activities.
While in Saudi Arabia, President Biden will also meet for a summit in Jeddah with the GCC +3. Topics for discussion will likely include the war in Yemen, Iran’s regional and nuclear activities, the thawing in ties between Israel and Arab states, and ways to increase regional security and economic cooperation. Biden is likely to use this opportunity to encourage the GCC to increase its oil production given surging prices due to the war in Ukraine.