Is Biden's hardened Iran stance enough to assuage US allies' concerns?

The US President has made all the right noises during his Middle East visit, which is a good start

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US President Joe Biden’s warning that he would be prepared to use military force against Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons provides a much-needed indication to Washington’s long-established Middle East allies of Mr Biden’s seriousness in dealing with Tehran.

At a time when the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN-sponsored body responsible for monitoring Iran’s nuclear activity, reports that Tehran has begun enriching uranium on a new generation of sophisticated centrifuges at its underground Fordow facility, there is every reason for the rest of the region to be concerned. Additionally, Iran has demonstrated its mounting military confidence by preparing to equip Russia with hundreds of drones to help with its military campaign in Ukraine.

Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, where Mr Biden will end his whistle-stop tour of the region at the weekend, have their own experience of having to deal with the threat posed by Iranian-made drones. US investigators concluded that these drones were involved in the deadly attack mounted against Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities in 2019, while similar technology was used in January’s attack by Yemen’s Tehran-backed Houthi rebels against Abu Dhabi.

Concerns about Iran’s mounting military threat have been the cause of recent tensions between Washington and pro-western leaders in the region.

Biden’s visit comes at a time when much thought is being given to improving regional security

In this context, therefore, the assurances provided by Mr Biden concerning his administration’s attitude towards Iran’s nuclear ambitions is an encouraging step.

In an interview with the Israeli broadcaster N12 on Wednesday, Mr Biden made a robust response when pressed on whether he was willing to use force to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. “If that was a last resort, yes," the President said. “Iran cannot get a nuclear weapon.”

Mr Biden is no stranger to the Middle East, having visited the region on a number of occasions during his stints as a senator and later as Barack Obama's vice president. But this is his first visit since becoming President last year. Until the Ukraine crisis erupted in February, he had shown little interest in engaging with regional allies. Administration officials had repeatedly insisted that, so far as the Biden White House was concerned, the Middle East was not seen as a priority.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the subsequent spike in oil prices that has seen inflation reach a 40-year high in the US, has prompted Mr Biden to have a change of heart. One of his objectives will be to persuade oil-producing states in the region to increase production in a bid to ease the pressure on global oil prices. He will need this to help his Democratic Party try and avoid a wipe-out in November’s mid-term election.

After Mr Biden’s neglect of the region during his first 18 months in office, it remains to be seen how responsive regional leaders will be to his entreaties. He has certainly tried to make all the right noises ahead of the trip. In a Washington Post op-ed published this month, Mr Biden declared that his main ambition was to demonstrate America’s “vital leadership role” in the region.

In this context, the President’s robust comments on Iran will certainly help to allay fears that Washington’s obsession with securing a nuclear deal with Tehran is being pursued at the expense of addressing regional security concerns. Mr Biden’s visit certainly comes at a time when much thought is being given to improving regional security to a level where the Iranian threat can be contained to a manageable level.

The recent improvement in relations between Israel and the Gulf following the signing of the ground-breaking Abraham Accords in 2020 has led to an improvement in regional atmospherics, one that could have profound implications for future security arrangements in the region.

It has even led to speculation in recent weeks that improved defence co-operation is possible between Israel and several of its Arab neighbours. There have been reports of secret talks being held at the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheikh and the establishment of joint arrangements on air defence, especially so far as the threat posed by Iran’s advanced ballistic missile systems are concerned. The prospect of establishing a regional air defence alliance has certainly attracted the Biden administration's attention, and the issue will be raised during Mr Biden’s meetings with Israeli and Arab leaders during the course of his tour.

As US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said prior to Mr Biden’s departure to the Middle East, one of the White House’s aims is to create “a truly more co-operative air defence” in the face of the growing threat from Iran. “There is a growing convergence among nations in the region of concern about [Iran’s] advancing ballistic missile programme and their support to terror networks,” Mr Kirby said.

Such discussions are at an early stage but, at a moment when the Biden administration appears keen to rebuild trust with its Arab allies, they are not a bad place to start.

Published: July 14, 2022, 2:00 PM