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In Mideast trip, Biden to face calls for tougher action against Iran

The visit comes amid a violent shadow war between Iran and Israel, with brazen assassinations, missile strikes and attacks on cargo ships.
President Joe Biden departs the White House on July 6, 2022.
President Joe Biden departs the White House on July 6, 2022.Samuel Corum / AFP - Getty Images

When President Joe Biden meets leaders in the Middle East this week, he will face demands from both Israel and Arab states to take a tougher stance against Iran amid impatience with stalled nuclear negotiations with Tehran, former U.S. officials and current foreign officials say.

The Biden administration has spent more than a year trying to revive a 2015 deal aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, but the negotiations between Tehran and world powers hit an impasse in March and recent attempts have failed to break the logjam. 

During the president’s visit to the Middle East, Israel and other Arab governments are expected to press Biden to explain Washington’s strategy if the diplomatic effort collapses altogether, former U.S. officials said.

“Israel will want assurances about a ‘Plan B,’” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and a former senior diplomat who helped shape U.S. policy in the Middle East. 

The United States needs to outline “a coherent strategy” on how to deter Iran, regardless of whether the nuclear deal is salvaged, a senior Israeli official told reporters ahead of the trip.

Israel and Gulf Arab countries, once bitter adversaries, now increasingly share a common interest in countering Iran, citing Tehran’s nuclear program, its missile and drone arsenal, and its support for a network of armed militias from Lebanon to Yemen.

“There’s a broad consensus in the region about the Iranian threat to regional stability,” said the Israeli official, who was not authorized to speak on the record and spoke on condition of anonymity.  “We are all impacted by Iranian proxies. … It’s a big concern for everybody and we all think that we should push back against them.”

Biden, who departs Wednesday on a four-day trip to Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia, vowed in an op-ed published in The Washington Post over the weekend that he would ratchet up pressure on Iran until it agrees to restore the 2015 nuclear deal.

“My administration will continue to increase diplomatic and economic pressure until Iran is ready to return to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, as I remain prepared to do,” Biden wrote.

The Treasury Department announced a new set of economic sanctions against Iran last week, targeting a network of companies based in China and the United Arab Emirates that allegedly helped Iran sell oil and petrochemical products in East Asia. 

“I think they’re going to point to those sanctions as evidence that the administration is not solely focused on diplomacy and negotiations as the sole path to solving the Iranian challenge, and that they’re willing to take actions to pressure Iran as well,” said Eric Brewer, a former senior U.S. official now with the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a think tank.

The 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, known as the JCPOA, imposed limits on Iran’s nuclear program in return for the easing of economic sanctions. But then-President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement in 2018, reimposed sanctions and added hundreds of additional sanctions against Tehran. Since the U.S. pulled out, Iran has increasingly operated outside the parameters of the deal, dramatically expanding its uranium enrichment and restricting access to the U.N. atomic watchdog agency. 

Iran has stockpiled a significant amount of uranium enriched to 60 percent purity, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and could create an atomic bomb in a matter of days if it chose to enrich the material to 90 percent, arms control experts say. 

The IAEA said on Saturday that Iran is now using advanced centrifuges at an underground facility that allow it to more easily shift to higher uranium enrichment levels.

Biden will try to make the case that reviving the 2015 nuclear accord is still the best bet for curtailing Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, even though the talks have bogged down in recent months, said Henry Rome, a director at the Eurasia Group, a political risk analysis and consulting firm.

“I think the administration is quite pessimistic about the prospects for a deal. But there’s very little interest in pivoting at this point to something more aggressive,” Rome said. “The problem with declaring the deal dead is that you then have to do something about it. And the options are messy and costly.” 

Israel in particular remains skeptical that the current approach will contain Iran’s nuclear program, and that the deal does not address Iran’s expanding fleet of drones and missiles. Israeli officials likely will ask the Biden team if it is prepared to take specific actions if Iran rushes to build an atomic bomb, including providing Israel with refueling tankers, bomber aircraft or bunker-bust munitions for any possible strike against Iran’s nuclear sites, according to Miller, of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. 

Biden’s trip comes against the backdrop of a violent shadow war between Iran and Israel, featuring brazen assassinations, missile strikes and attacks on cargo ships. Tehran, which says its nuclear program is peaceful, has accused Israel of orchestrating sabotage operations against its nuclear program and of killing nuclear scientists as well as a Revolutionary Guard colonel in May.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied the incidents, but former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett recently said that the Iranian regime was “more vulnerable than they seem” and that Israel is ready to strike back directly at Iran if the regime’s proxies target Israel. Iran has vowed to retaliate for attacks on its officials, military officers or nuclear facilities.

If current trends persist into next year, with Iran’s nuclear program steadily advancing, Israel and Iran appear to be on a collision course, experts said.

“I don’t see how, given the trajectories Iran and Israel are on right now, you avoid growing prospects of a confrontation,” Miller said.  

“It just seems to me that all the elements are there and it would require a remarkable degree of caution and restraint on the part of Iran’s surrogates and proxies, on the part of Israel and on the part of the Iranian regime” to avoid a conflict, he said.

Iran rejects accusations that it is the source of instability in the Middle East, and instead blames the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia for the turmoil and conflict in the region. 

During his trip, Biden also will encourage more cooperation between Israel and Arab militaries to bolster air defenses against Iranian missiles and drones, White House officials say. Since the groundbreaking Abraham Accords were signed in 2020, which normalized relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, Israel and its former foes have started to forge security and commercial ties.

Saudi Arabia also appears open to discreet cooperation with Israel, which sees Riyadh as a key strategic player in efforts to counter Iran.

But relations are strained between the White House and Saudi Arabia, and as a candidate Biden had pledged to treat the oil-rich kingdom as a “pariah” over the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The Biden administration released a U.S. intelligence report a year ago that assessed Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered an operation to capture or kill Khashoggi.

With gas prices soaring, tensions rising with Iran and concerns growing about China’s influence in the Middle East, Biden has chosen a more pragmatic tack with the Saudis at a time when Washington needs Riyadh to help pump more oil to stabilize global oil markets. 

Human rights groups are criticizing Biden for choosing to meet with the crown prince, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. In his op-ed Saturday, Biden defended his decision to visit Saudi Arabia, saying he would still raise human rights concerns in his discussions. 

While in Saudi Arabia, Biden is due to take part in a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council with leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt.

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine triggering a spike in oil prices and aggravating inflation around the world, the Biden administration has appealed to the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates to boost oil production. But even if the countries do so, it’s unlikely it would be enough to alter the global oil supply or the price of gas for American consumers, energy analysts say.

After meeting Israeli officials, Biden is due to meet Palestinian leaders in the West Bank, where officials say he will reiterate his support for a two-state solution. But the Palestinians have criticized the administration for failing to reverse some steps taken by Trump, including a decision that endorsed Israeli settlements in the West Bank as legal -- a break with decades of U.S. policy.

The killing of a prominent Palestinian American journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, has further fueled anger in the Palestinian territories. The Biden administration recently concluded that the journalist, who was shot dead in May, was most likely killed by accident and indicated it would not insist Israel launch a criminal probe of Israeli troops.

Palestinian leaders have accused Israel of targeting Abu Akleh intentionally. Israel denies the accusation.