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US delegation visit will shed light on Biden’s policy for the region

May 04,2021 - Last updated at May 04,2021

A senior US delegation will visit the region this week, almost four months since President Joe Biden was sworn in as president. This will be the first high-level diplomatic contact between the US administration and regional officials. The delegation, led by Brett McGurk, the White House National Security Council’s Middle East policy coordinator, and State Department counselor Derek Chollett, will discuss a number of important matters related to US national security and ongoing efforts toward a de-escalation of tensions in the Middle East region, according to a US official quoted by Reuters.

The delegation will visit Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt. It goes without saying that the issue of Iran’s nuclear deal and ongoing talks in Vienna to facilitate Washington’s rejoining the deal will dominate discussions when the envoys visit Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. The visit takes place as representatives of Iran, China, Russia and the EU hold a third round of negotiations in the Austrian capital. The US will rejoin talks in the coming weeks, according to press sources. 

Progress has been made in such talks but according to US sources a final agreement is still far away. The visit comes in the wake of talks held between US officials and a high-level Israeli security delegation that was in Washington last week. It was reported that President Biden met with Israel’s Mossad chief Yossi Cohen at the White House on Friday and said that the US was not close to returning to the Iran nuclear deal. Even then other US officials reiterated that Washington was committed to rejoining the deal while European officials cited mid June as a possible date for the conclusion of talks.

Israel continues to oppose the nuclear agreement and had warned that it will take measures to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Gulf countries have adopted a similar position and called on the US to consult with them before reaching a deal with Tehran. They point to Iran’s regional meddling and to its controversial ballistic programme Along with the Europeans they want any new agreement to restrict Tehran’s long-range missile activity as well as its interference in regional crises.

The contrast between the Biden administration and its predecessor is clear. Under Donald Trump the US withdrew from the Iran deal and imposed strict sanctions. It worked closely with Israel and its Arab allies to push for bilateral normalisation agreements. It moved away from the classical two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict. The Biden foreign policy team had reiterated its backing of the two-state solution and recommitted to joining the Iran nuclear agreement.

President Biden has appointed a special representative to Yemen and supported Saudi efforts to find a peaceful solution to end the conflict. The Yemen issue will feature in talks when the US delegation visits Riyadh. A key arms deal, involving the sale of US F-35 fighter jets to the UAE, will be at the centre of talks in Abu Dhabi as well.

In Amman the US delegation will focus on joint security and intelligence coordination as well as Jordan’s continued support of the two-state solution as the only way to ending the Israel/Palestine conflict. But while Washington supports that path it is unlikely to launch new initiatives and pressure Israel to make concessions. For now resuming aid to the Palestinians and UNRWA seems to be the only good-well gesture that the US is willing to make at this stage.

For Egypt, the US will listen to Cairo’s complaints about the conflict with Addis Ababa over the stalled talks concerning the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the possibility of military confrontation. Other issues will cover the crisis in neighbouring Libya and terrorism.

Despite all this, analysts believe that Washington’s top priority in the region will be to revive the Iran nuclear deal. Beyond that the Biden administration regional policy will be to prevent the possibility of an Israel-Iran military face-off while maintaining the status quo in other hot spots. For Biden and his team the real national security challenge comes from China and Russia. The bottom line is that the US is losing interest in the region but wants to prevent Moscow and Beijing from expanding their influence in the Middle East. As unrealistic this policy is it has sent signals to regional leaders.

Perhaps this is one reason why Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman chose to send a conciliatory message to Tehran in his press interview last week. It is a sober gesture that should be welcomed by Tehran.“Iran is a neighbouring country, and all we aspire for is a good and special relationship with Iran,” he said in a television interview broadcast by the Middle East Broadcasting Centre on Tuesday.“We hope to overcome them [Iran’s negative behaviour and its nuclear activities] and build a good and positive relationship that would benefit everyone.” One thing Tehran can and should do is to support Riyadh’s peace initiative for Yemen which aims at ending a catastrophic humanitarian crisis and a conflict where no side can achieve a conclusive victory.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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