Biden in West Asia

Neither the Palestine question nor the Iran deal appear to be the U.S.’s priorities 

July 18, 2022 12:10 am | Updated 12:12 pm IST

In his first visit to West Asia as President, Joe Biden sought to strengthen America’s traditional partnerships and alliances in the region, involving Israel and Sunni Arab countries. In Israel, he promised that the U.S. would do everything it could to stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. In his brief visit to the Palestinian West Bank, he was careful not to criticise the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. He promised aid, but said the ground situation was not ready for reviving the peace process. In Saudi Arabia, Mr. Biden met Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince who, according to the CIA, ordered the 2018 killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The visit practically brought to an end Washington’s early attempts to punish and isolate Prince Mohammed. Later, in a summit with Arab leaders in Jeddah, he said the U.S. would not walk away from West Asia, leaving a vacuum which China, Russia or Iran would try to fill. President Biden may have said that “human rights will be the centre of our foreign policy”, but in West Asia, neither Israel’s violent occupation of Palestinian territories nor the abysmal rights records of the Sunni Arab dictators and monarchs stopped the American President from pursuing his administration’s foreign policy objectives.

Gone are the days when the Israel-Palestine issue dominated an American President’s foreign policy agenda towards West Asia. Barack Obama, after his initial peace plan failed, focused his energy on the Iran nuclear talks. Donald Trump’s proposal ignored the Palestinians and his focus was on the Abraham Accords, which saw the normalisation of ties between Israel and Sunni Arabs. Mr. Biden did not even touch upon the Palestine question. He has two clear objectives — regional balance and energy security. As the Iran nuclear talks have hit an impasse, he seeks to accelerate cooperation between Israel and Sunni Arabs, the pillars of America’s West Asia policy. Mr. Trump launched this policy through the Abraham Accords, and Mr. Biden has wholeheartedly embraced it. Second, as the Biden administration seeks to punish Russia’s Vladimir Putin for his Ukraine invasion, it needs Saudi Arabia to pump more oil into the international market, disrupted by the western oil sanctions on Russia. But it remains an uncertain bet. Saudi Arabia, with its warm ties with Russia, has spare capacity, but it is not clear whether a Saudi production rise alone would stabilise the energy market if Russia prolonged the war. More importantly, building a bloc against Iran would not resolve the Iran problem. It would only worsen the security competition in West Asia. Meaningful solutions to Mr. Biden’s problems lie in ending the war in Ukraine and reviving the Iran nuclear deal, forcing the Islamic Republic and its rivals into a cold peace. The first is not in Mr. Biden’s hands and the second does not seem to be his priority.

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