A mirage of peace ? Joe Biden ventures back into Middle East’s shifting sands

Joe Biden seems determined to reverse the diplomatic neglect of the Trump years (Tom Brenner - Reuters)

Simon Tisdall

The Observer  /  July 3, 2022 

Across the battlefields of the Middle East, the ground is shifting. New alliances mitigate old enmities. Revised calculations of national advantage, evolving priorities and cautious diplomatic bridge-building conjure tantalising hopes of peace on multiple fronts.

But change driven by fear has shallow roots. And fear, rather than faith in any wider vision, still permeates this contested landscape. The context, as ever, is a great power struggle between a newly aggressive Russia, an expansionist China, and a US determined to get back in the game.

Growing security and economic alignment between Israel and the Arab states is one of the most spectacular shifts. Benny Gantz, Israel’s defence minister, has confirmed the creation of a regional military alliance to deter Iran’s missile and drone attacks.

The US-backed pact reportedly involves the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan and Egypt, plus Qatar and Saudi Arabia, with which Israel has no formal diplomatic relations. It builds on the 2020 Abraham accords between Israel and four Arab countries, including Sudan and Morocco.

Rapprochement is also fuelled by shared concern about Tehran’s presumed nuclear weapons ambitions. It will gain added impetus in July when US president Joe Biden visits Israel and Saudi Arabia and comes as nuclear talks with Iran teeter on the brink of collapse.

Biden’s planned meeting with Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince whom he deemed a “pariah” after the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, is already attracting sharp criticism. This supposedly pragmatic act of realpolitik marks another stunning shift.

Biden will encourage normalisation of Israel-Saudi relations and seek to ease Palestinian tensions – he is due to visit the occupied West Bank. But fundamentally, the visit, his first to the Middle East as president, is intended to reassert US influence after the neglect of the Trump years.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine provides crucial context. Biden will press the Saudis and other producers to raise oil output to ease the global energy crisis and reduce Moscow’s revenues. He remains mindful meanwhile of his other big overseas challenge: containing China, Russia’s strategic ally and Iran’s oil buddy.

“If Biden reduces the war in Ukraine to a mere geopolitical struggle, the autocrats of the world will have cause to rejoice,” warned Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch. “They will argue that democracies proclaim their values but then sell them for a cheaper tank of gas.”

The visit has big implications for Yemen and Syria, too. Ending the Yemen war, which produced the world’s worst humanitarian emergency after the 2015 Saudi intervention against Iran-backed rebels, is a key Biden aim. The hope is that Salman will make permanent the current truce there.

In what would be another big shift, the US may also offer economic incentives to a second pariah, Bashar al-Assad, in an attempt to counter Russian influence in Syria. They could even include an easing of sanctions to help Damascus to import Iranian oil.

That prospect links to another tantalising possibility: a last-gasp rescue of the nuclear pact with Iran. Indirect Iran-US talks in Qatar last week flopped. But Tehran, desperate for sanctions relief even as it develops its nuclear capabilities, insists agreement is still possible.

Leading Israeli military figures now reportedly argue, contrary to the stance taken by the past and possible future prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that a bad Iran deal is better than no deal at all. And the US has an added incentive. Agreement could treble the amount of Iranian oil on global markets.

Watching Biden, Vladimir Putin is waging a parallel influence campaign. Russia’s president last week made his first trip abroad since the Ukraine invasion, meeting Iran’s anti-western president, Ebrahim Raisi, in Turkmenistan.

According to the Kremlin, Putin applauded a rapid expansion of bilateral trade since 24 February. “We have truly deep, strategic relations … and are working in such hotspots as Syria,” he told Raisi. Like China, Russia has refused to condemn Iran’s recent blocking of UN-run nuclear inspections.

As usual, Iran’s intentions appear opaque and contradictory. Alarmed by the new Arab-Israeli military alliance, it is flirting with a truly seismic geopolitical shift of its own: detente with Saudi Arabia, its great rival. Tehran said last week it was ready to resume Iraqi-mediated direct talks.

While improbable at this stage, a defusing of nuclear and Iran-Saudi tensions could have huge positive implications for Tehran’s ties with Europe, the US and all its Arab neighbours. If it reduced Middle East instability and discouraged Russian and Chinese encroachment, it would be doubly welcome in Washington.

Yet the prospect of Iran’s rehabilitation is an alarming one for Israel. It continues to view Tehran as an existential threat, particularly through its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Israel continues to assassinate regime figures and attack Iran’s facilities, and recently intensified its so-called “shadow war” in Syria. This potentially puts it at odds with Biden’s agenda.

Whatever hopeful outcomes may or may not emerge as regional sands shift, it’s already clear there will be plenty of losers. They include the Kurds of northern Syria, beset by an overbearing Turkish regime unchecked by Washington, and the independence fighters of Western Sahara.

Democracy campaigners who deplore Biden’s Khashoggi volte-face will also point to countless other victims of serial human rights abuses by western-backed Middle East autocrats and dictators.

But it’s the Palestinians who stand to lose most from a partial, highly selective “peace in our time”. Abandoned by Arab allies, manipulated by Iran, patronised by the US, ignored by wartime Europe, divided among themselves and preyed upon by the Israeli state, the cause of Palestinian independence has never looked bleaker.

Times are changing. But Palestine’s betrayal is timeless.

Simon Tisdall is a Guardian foreign affairs commentator