America remains confident of dealing with a changing Middle East

A look at where the countries of the region fall in Washington's geopolitical priorities

US President Joe Biden speaks in the presence of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, left, and Special Presidential Co-ordinator Amos Hochstein in Washington last Wednesday. AP Photo
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In recent weeks, decision-makers in Washington have conveyed to me the confidence being felt inside the US's two main political parties in America's ability to provide exceptional leadership to the emerging global order.

This order excludes Russia as a result of the Ukraine war and the radical military, political and energy paradigm shift taking place in Europe. It is helmed by an American leadership that they believe China won’t be able to thwart. This leadership embraces Europe, engages with India and Australia, and speaks in a pragmatic language in the Middle East in light of several developments across the region.

Despite the sharp rivalry between Republicans and the Democrats, particularly ahead of the mid-term election on November 3, there are signs of shared views on a range of foreign policy issues, from the rivalry with China and the geopolitical landscape arising from the Ukraine war, to relations with the Arab states and Iran.

Even though the Saudi-led Opec+ decision to cut oil production by about 2 million barrels per day caused furore in Washington, it is clear that the two sides have decided to not make any hasty moves, instead taking practical and careful steps to preserve their strategic relations.

The Opec+ announcement gave the impression to Washington that the member states were siding with Moscow amid the ongoing stand-off between the two powers. This impression angered both Republicans and Democrats in Congress albeit to varying degrees and prompted the Biden administration to talk about "re-evaluating" US-Saudi relations.

What the Biden administration has done to contain the crisis is to do nothing of the sort. For its part, Riyadh has moved to smooth things over by condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine in international forums and offering $400 million to Kyiv, for which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked the kingdom.

An Aramco oil facility just south of the Saudi capital Riyadh. AFP
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Issues like oil production are more tactical than strategic, despite their importance

The de-escalation has encouraged the two sides to start a necessary conversation about the need for a more institutionalised and transparent bilateral relationship that transcends emotional reactions and mutual doubts. Senior members in the Biden administration have talked about having been “forced” by the shared outrage in Congress to adopt retaliatory positions.

The impression that Saudi Arabia sided with Russia against the US, and the timing of it, is a source of concern for the Biden administration, which realises that the already sharp electoral battle could be stoked further if this issue plays out publicly against the Democratic Party. In terms of substance, the administration is aware that it may have overreacted, especially since it doesn't oppose a behind-the-scenes role for the Gulf states to influence Moscow's policy.

Practically speaking, as the big crisis is set to come in December when the full European embargo on Russian energy – which the Biden administration hasn't strongly supported – comes into effect, the US and Saudi Arabia will take measures in the oil markets as part of their efforts to repair relations. What Washington cares about strategically is dissuading Saudi Arabia from deepening its relations with China. Issues like oil production are more tactical than strategic, despite their importance.

Meanwhile, the chatter in Washington suggests the Iran nuclear deal is clinically dead. There is no way Tehran can breathe new life into it, even if it wanted to, having missed that train by way of escalating its various positions. The reasons for this include Iran's military alliance with Russia in Ukraine and its crackdown on domestic unrest. As one US official put it, the Biden administration won't be able to revive talks “when 15-year-old girls are being shot”. The calculus has now changed, and so has the perception of Iran’s domestic, regional and international capabilities.

The issue of supreme leader Ali Khamenei's succession is also a factor. The Biden administration has assessed that while the uprising alone will not bring down the regime, the convergence of the protests, repression and the issue of succession could open the door to change. This concerns Tehran, alongside the worry of being dragged into Ukraine's battlefield. Indeed, Iran finds itself in an alliance with a losing side.

The Iranian regime today has less leverage over US policy compared to the height of the Vienna talks. And it was Iran's veto of the International Atomic Energy Agency's oversight over its nuclear activities that precluded a deal with Washington. Thus, the regime finds itself shackled and unable to stage the kind of calculated, fine-tuned escalation it was once adept at.

Demonstrators rally at the National Mall to protest against the Iranian regime, in Washington, on Saturday. AP Photo

Democrats and Republicans have different assessments of the new Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani. Biden administration officials handling the Iraqi dossier say Mr Al Sudani doesn't worry them. They cite his "acceptable” language around “regional equilibrium and the need to continue to engage with the Gulf”. But he is a source of alarm among former Republican administration officials, “especially because he is a copy of [former Iraqi prime minister] Nouri Al Maliki”, as one source put it, “meaning he is commanded by Tehran”.

The assessment of Iran's role in Syria also splits members of both American parties. But according to one official, the Biden administration intends to remain involved in Syria and Iraq, and is not worried about Russia’s move to outsource the Syria mission to Tehran. In its view, Israel can stop Iran from going too far in Syria, with US support. The administration also believes the Assad regime will not be rehabilitated by Arab countries and certainly not the US, or regain its seat in the Arab League.

The administration, meanwhile, believes that the Lebanon-Israel maritime border demarcation deal, with Hezbollah’s blessing and Iran’s non-objection, is an important development. Some Republicans have criticised the deal, viewing it as not being adequately favourable towards Israeli interests and doubting Iran’s intentions. However, those directly concerned with the deal say Tehran isn't ready to fight either a direct or an indirect war with Israel.

Hezbollah has also realised that implicating Lebanon in a war with Israel, and blocking Lebanon’s attempts to benefit from its resources, will stoke more anger against itself. This is in addition to the potential financial windfall that could relieve Hezbollah and the Iranian regime, even if it takes five years for Lebanon to begin extracting oil and gas.

The big picture in Washington is that Russia’s defeat in Ukraine could end Moscow’s role in the Middle East, with the US making a strong comeback to the region, where Iran without Russia will cease being a regional powerhouse.

Strategically self-confident, Washington is adopting energy as a pivotal part of its policy. First, the energy crisis could leave Europe more reliant on the US, which benefits its position as a global leader. Second, it could make the US the most influential power in the world. This will, undoubtedly, affect relations between Washington and the leading states in the Mena region.

Published: October 23, 2022, 2:45 PM
Updated: October 25, 2022, 1:13 PM