The Middle East: What Awaits the Region?
Officials in the Joe Biden administration have already begun to hold behind-the-scenes talks with Iran about returning to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and they informed Israel about the talks, reported Channel 12 News in Israel. The new US president has repeatedly proclaimed his desire to return to the agreement, while Tel Aviv insists that the agreement should only be revisited provided that it stipulates new restrictions on the Iranian ballistic missile program, Iran’s refusal to support forces in neighboring Arab countries that are hostile to Israel, and that Iran desists “destabilizing the situation” throughout the Middle East.
The well-informed source Walla News reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is urgently assembling a team to develop a strategy for its first talks with the Joe Biden administration about the Iranian nuclear program. The group will include officials responsible for national security from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defense, the Mossad, and the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, according to a journalistic report that cited anonymous sources in the Prime Minister’s Office. The possibility cannot be ruled out that Yossi Cohen, the director of the Mossad, could be appointed as the head of the team that negotiates with the United States on the Iranian nuclear program; incidentally, he has just come back from Washington, where he met with officials from both the outgoing and new US administrations.
The new US President, Joe Biden, is expected to take a more conciliatory approach toward Iran than the Trump administration, and he has stated that if Iran returns to the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal then he will circle back to them as well, lifting the crushing economic sanctions that have caused irreparable damage to the Iranian economy over the past two years. For its part, Iran has stated that it could welcome the return of the Americans to the agreement, but only after they lift their sanctions, and so far has rejected any opportunity to negotiate on other issues.
It is quite natural that the prospect of resuming the American-Iranian talks has elicited sharp admonishments and deep concern among Netanyahu and his supporters. Speaking with former US Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin in Jerusalem, the Israeli warned the US against going back to the nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Specifically, he announced that if the process of returning to the JCPOA were to occur, then many other countries across the Middle East would also hasten to arm themselves with nuclear weapons. Likud member Tzachi Hanegbi ominously warned the new US administration that it should not “pacify” Iran, and warned Tehran that Israel would not tolerate its military presence in Syria or other Arab countries, or it developing nuclear weapons.
In one of the harshest statements made by Israeli officials yet, Tzachi Hanegbi, who considered to be an ally of Netanyahu, warned that Israel could “attack Iran’s nuclear program” if the United States signs the nuclear deal again.
It should be reiterated that recently Iran and the Trump administration have intensified their mutual public attacks on each other, especially when President Trump’s term of office came to an end and Iran held widespread events that marked the one-year anniversary of the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani. The countries have traded threats repeatedly, and have ramped up military maneuvers, legal action, and the increase in the number of violations of the nuclear deal committed by Iran. Over the past few weeks, officials in both Israel and Iran have also exchanged threats. However, Channel 12 News reported that during meetings with top officials with the Trump administration, Mossad director Cohen had the impression that no plan existed to attack Iran during the last days of the old administration’s rule – something which has intrigued the Israelis. It even reached the point where right before he left his post US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicly accused Iran of harboring al-Qaeda terrorists (this group is banned in the Russian Federation). Apparently, due to a lack of sufficient erudition, especially in terms of international affairs, he simply does not know that this terrorist organization is of Sunni persuasion, and Iran, as any civilized person knows, is a Shiite state that simply could not organize a Sunni group! Pompeo clearly did not want to remind the world that it was the United States that created Al-Qaeda when Soviet soldiers fought against criminals and terrorists in Afghanistan, and then Saudi Arabia and other monarchical states in the Persian Gulf took over financially supporting them.
In response to pressure and various threats, Iran has resumed enriching uranium up to 20 percent, which is well above the threshold set in the nuclear deal and, experts say, is a “short jump” from the level of enrichment that is necessary when producing weapons. What has also complicated the plans laid by the Joe Biden administration to resume normal relations with Tehran were two high-profile killings, which were attributed to the United States and Israel.
In its efforts to bring “peace and prosperity” to the region, the Joe Biden administration still keeps relying more heavily on coercive methods and brute military force. And, in all likelihood, even if there are some negotiations with Tehran they will only happen from the position of using force and blackmail. And that is why active work is underway laying the groundwork. The US military is actively exploring the possibility of using a seaport in Saudi Arabia on the Red Sea, as well as two more airfields in the kingdom, in the wake of escalating tensions with Iran and the opportunity to exploit blackmail in the run-up to the talks. What this means is the possibility of unloading and sending freight shipments over land from the Yanbu Commercial Port, which is the most important oil pipeline terminal in the kingdom. Using Yanbu, as well as air bases at Tabuk and Taif along the Red Sea, would give the US military more options along this critical waterway, which has been subjected to heavy attacks Houthi mines and unmanned boats, and allegedly supported by Iran. These plans are being put into action amid tension that has cropped up in Saudi-American relations over the 2018 assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as the kingdom’s ongoing war in Yemen. Even temporarily deploying American troops to bases in the kingdom, where the Muslim holy city of Mecca is located, could once again incite anger among various members of the population in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the United States, especially among those who oppose the Joe Biden administration and the Democratic Party.
US Navy Captain Bill Urban, who is a spokesman for the US Naval Forces Central Command, said that the process of evaluating these sites has been going on for a long time now, since the September 2019 drone and missile strike that hit at the heart of the Saudi oil industry. Saudi Arabia and the United States blamed Iran for the attack, which temporarily cut Saudi oil production in half, and led to a spike in oil prices. Tehran, on the other hand, denies any complicity, and the Houthis claimed that they were attacked, even though the drones involved appear to have been manufactured in Iran.
The Arab states on the Gulf are home to a huge number of US military bases, a legacy of the 1991 Gulf War, when US allied forces drove Iraq out of Kuwait and later on invaded Afghanistan in 2001, and then Iraq in 2003. US Central Command already has a forward headquarters in Qatar. The United States Fifth Fleet operates from the island kingdom of Bahrain, off the coast of Saudi Arabia. The forward headquarters of the United States Army Central is located in Kuwait, and American pilots and sailors are located in the United Arab Emirates. It should also not be forgotten that the US has a troop presence in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. About 2,500 US troops currently maintain fighter jets and Patriot missile batteries at Prince Sultan Air Force Base, southeast of Riyadh.
These kinds of contingency plans for unforeseen circumstances already exist in the Middle East, as well as agreements that grant US forces the right to use bases in Oman. But Saudi Arabia’s west coast also provides additional long-range protection against Iran, which has invested substantial funds in ballistic missiles. For Iran, additional US bases will no doubt augment suspicions that the US is insincere about seeking ways to bring the two countries closer together. Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for the Iranian mission to the UN, criticized the US move, calling the presence of foreign troops in the Middle East one of the main reasons for the chaotic situation and insecurity in the region.
It is not yet entirely clear what will characterize the relationship between the Joe Biden administration and Saudi Arabia during his presidency. During his election campaign, the president called the kingdom a “pariah” because of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. However, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states in the Gulf remain the main customers for American weaponry, and rely on the United States to ensure the free flow of oil and goods through the Strait of Hormuz, which is controlled by Iran.