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Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu

Key Middle East Influencers on US Iran Policy and the Implications for the UK

Sanam Vakil
Commentary, 16 December 2020
Iran's Nuclear Programme, United States, Unpacking the MENA, Iran, Iraq, UK, Israel
Israel, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Iraq will be looking to influence the Biden administration’s Iran policy. Maintaining access to and engagement with these influencers will be important for the UK’s regional ties.

Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia are the regional frontrunners looking to actively influence the Biden administration’s planned decision to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal with Iran, as well as Washington’s anticipated recalibration of its broader Iran strategy. Collectively and bilaterally, the three states will be pressuring the US with the message that any quick return to the JCPOA alongside the swift removal of US nuclear sanctions would result in a surrender of leverage, and yet again empower Tehran’s regional activities.

Not Always in Lockstep, But Same Objectives

The public messaging campaign is already underway with strong statements to the media. Despite the common approach, which is clearly designed to build leverage, Jerusalem, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi do differ on tactics. Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan has stated, ‘Primarily what we expect is that we are fully consulted, that we and our other regional friends are fully consulted in what goes on vis a vis the negotiations with Iran’. However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been more unequivocal, arguing against returning to the JCPOA. The Emirati position, more nuanced to reflect the country’s proximity to Tehran, calls for the UAE’s participation in any future negotiation. ‘If we're going to negotiate the security of our part of the world, we should be there’, stipulated UAE Ambassador in Washington Yousef Al Otaiba.

At the same time, all three states are privately lobbying European governments to support their position and represent their interests. They are arguing that the Biden administration, in concert with France, Germany and the UK (known as the E3), should use the leverage of maximum pressure to obtain a broader deal with Tehran that specifically addresses the timelines of the JCPOA, the ranges of its ballistic missile programme, the proliferation of lethal aid and support for militia groups in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. The three Middle Eastern states are driven by their fears of further US disengagement and that a Biden administration, faced with domestic economic and pandemic priorities coupled with the larger geopolitical challenge of China, will repeat President Barack Obama’s mistakes of relaxing its attention to Iran, thereby leaving Tehran regionally emboldened yet again.

They remain categorical that sanctions relief should be used to pressure Iran. While closing off the Iranian nuclear threat is a priority for Israel, they see a quick return to the 2015 JCPOA, without any changes, as legitimising Iran’s longer term nuclear objectives. It will also yet again enable Iran to divert money to regional militias. For them, sequencing is key. They see a longer protracted negotiation that closes the loopholes by extending the timelines of JCPOA, on missiles and militias as beneficial for their security needs.

Should the regional aspects be too difficult to address, they argue that the so-called Abraham Accords which normalised relations between the UAE and Israel as well as Israel and Bahrain offer the an opportunity to manage issues regionally. Thus far, at least in the public domain, the view does not offer details on potential areas of compromise. Maintaining a collective zero-sum opening salvo shows that they are united against a return to the status quo ante.

Iraq’s Voice

Although not as loud nor as strong, Iraq will also have an important voice that could have an impact on the Biden team. Having been caught between Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Tehran and Tehran’s maximum resistance strategy against Washington, Baghdad will present a nuanced regional view on managing Iran’s regional role.

Over the past four years, Iraq has been the physical sphere where the US and Iran have targeted each other militarily. Moreover, the impact of sanctions has also been acutely felt in Iraq as the Iranian government has built itself a financial lifeline through stronger trade and commercial linkages alongside smuggling activities. The Iraqi government also has closer contact and relations with a diverse set of Iranian leaders from the formal elected government to members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. This insight into individuals, their influence and operations can be particularly useful for Washington.

The Iraqi government will advocate that Washington’s Middle East policy should not be seen only through the prism of Iran. Instead, the Biden administration should craft a holistic Iraq policy that does not prioritise military/security ties and containment of Iran, but rather engages the Iraqi government on institutional reform, stemming corruption, economic diversification and civic investment. Because Tehran’s Iraq network of influence is deep and diversified, the Iraqi government will also have more pertinent recommendations on managing regional tensions. Baghdad will argue that only through a long term policy of investment in Iraqi state capacity can Tehran’s predatory behaviour be managed.  Tehran is part of the problem, but it is not the only problem impacting Iraq’s security and stability. Only by breaking up regional issues and examining them in parts, can Iran’s role in the regional be addressed.

A British Niche?

In the transition period and while the Biden’s Iran policy takes shape, the UK has an opportunity to engage more visibly and work with countries in the region to prepare the terrain for JCPOA re-entry and further regional discussions. Whitehall can specifically take a broader role in engaging with regional partners in the Gulf where the UK has a history of strong relations.

Outreach and discussions with Israel, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Iraq could help inform and reassure partners of the UK and beef up the E3’s position and strategy, while also laying the groundwork for cooperation with the Biden administration. Giving voice to regional concerns and understanding their red lines, which still remain unclear, will undoubtedly help build a wider coalition of support. To achieve this, a detailed regional roadmap should be unveiled alongside the JCPOA re-entry plans. Above all, the region’s states could be reassured by an E3 commitment that 2021 will not be a repeat of 2015, when a decision was ultimately taken without their direct and constant involvement.

Either way, the continued coordination and unity of the E3 is of primary importance. Laying out the E3 position not just on the JCPOA, but also on future negotiations should already be underway and ready to be actioned after Biden’s inauguration.

Sanam Vakil is a Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of US Embassy Tel Aviv

  

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