The curious timing of a US delegation's visit to the Arab world

It is happening amid the nuclear talks involving Iran and attempts by Riyadh and Tehran to make peace

A police officer patrols in front of banners put up by members of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an Iranian opposition group, in front of the 'Grand Hotel Wien' during the closed-door nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna on April 27, 2021, where diplomats of the UK, EU, China, Russia and Iran hold their talks. A third round of negotiations opens on April 27 in Vienna in an attempt to salvage the Iran nuclear deal, a new stage in the rocky discussions to get Iran and the United States back on track. 
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A US delegation led by Brett McGurk, the White House co-ordinator for the Mena region, will visit key Arab countries this week. The timing of Mr McGurk's trip is curious and the news raises questions about its objective.

The visit comes at a time when Saudi Arabia and Iran have reportedly held behind-the-scenes talks with each other. Could these discussions lead to a breakthrough in relations between the two countries – and by extension, between the major powers including the US? It is hard to say.

Talks, meanwhile, are going on in the Austrian capital of Vienna over the future of the 2015 nuclear deal, called the JCPOA, struck between the globe’s major powers and Iran to limit the latter’s nuclear weapons programme. The purpose of these talks is to revive the deal after the previous US administration, led by Donald Trump, pulled out of it.

The Vienna talks, it seems, could lead to a gradual lifting of US-led sanctions against Iran, beginning with those on its oil exports. All indications suggest the six JCPOA signatories will give in to Tehran's conditions, one of which is to exclude the contentious issue of the Iranian regime's destabilising activities across the region from the actual nuclear talks.

This may explain why the current US administration, led by Joe Biden, has sought to send Mr McGurk to the Middle East: to reassure America’s Arab allies that they are not going to be excluded from any kind of rapprochement between the US and Iran, even though they are not part of the negotiations. Indeed, Washington wants its allies to rest assured that they remain “parallel partners”, and that the US will have their backs. In other words, it may simply be a consolation visit.

Mr Biden seems to have endorsed a two-track approach, which involves dealing with Iran's nuclear weapons programme before attempting to tackle its ballistic missiles programme and regional behaviour. However, there is no clear roadmap on how Washington will move from one track to the other.

In which case, what assurances will Mr McGurk present to the Arab states during his visit? Could there be a link between his upcoming trip and a recent one made by Tim Lenderking, the US special envoy for Yemen, to Saudi Arabia and Oman?

To get an idea of any linkages, it is important to assess the reported Saudi-Iranian bilateral talks. Clearly, the stability of neighbouring Yemen is at the top of Saudi Arabia’s list of priorities. The war there affects its national security, given that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is in charge of Iran's military campaigns in the region, supplies the Houthi rebels with weapons and fighters, the purpose of which is to destabilise the Kingdom.

U.S. envoy to the coalition against Islamic State, Brett McGurk, speaks with media during a briefing to Defeat ISIS and an update on the Coalition's efforts during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly in New York, U.S., September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
Brett McGurk will be part of the delegation that will visit the Middle East. Reuters
Brett McGurk's trip to the Middle East may simply be a consolation visit

With the issue of the war in Yemen – and Iran’s role in it – excluded from the upcoming nuclear talks, the question is what Iran may seek to extract from Saudi Arabia in return for peace. Will Saudi Arabia be prepared to help Iran emerge from its regional and international isolation? It is a proposition that will no doubt interest Tehran, although whether that limits the IRGC’s own ambitions is left to be seen.

Syria, for example, is very important for Russia, which claims to be playing a role in facilitating the Saudi-Iranian talks and expanding them to include the creation of a security architecture for the Middle East that Moscow is keen on. Russia wants a Saudi-Iranian accord on issues related to Syria, but its efforts and ambitions clash with an unfavourable political reality. If Riyadh refuses to support the Assad regime in Syria, which is allied to Russia and Iran, that will amount to a deal-breaker for the IRGC, which not only conducts operations inside Syria but dominates Iran's foreign policy.

Another example to illustrate the difficulty of getting a breakthrough is linked to an Iranian demand to retain full freedom to operate inside other Arab countries, including Iraq and Lebanon.

One of the IRGC's most important proxies is Hezbollah, considered a terrorist organisation by several states around the world but is a powerful entity in Lebanese politics. Tehran will attempt to extract concessions from Riyadh in the name of aiding the formation of a cabinet in Lebanon, following months of continued stalemate over its composition. But Iran ultimately wants a Lebanese government that it can control through Hezbollah. Such a reality would bear long-term costs and amount to a strategic mistake.

The same goes for Iraq.

FILE PHOTO: A supporter of Lebanon's Hezbollah gestures as he holds a Hezbollah flag in Marjayoun, Lebanon May 7, 2018. REUTERS/Aziz Taher/File Photo
Despite its grip on Lebanese politics, Hezbollah is considered by many to be a terrorist organisation. Reuters

Despite the obvious challenges, the reported Saudi-Iranian talks are a necessary and healthy development, and one hopes they will lead to a major shift in the two countries' relationship.

Circling back to Mr McGurk’s Middle East trip, the Biden administration may be signalling to its Arab allies that, unlike during the Obama years, it is not disregarding their concerns by seeking to do business with Iran at any cost. Yet this approach may not be enough.

Mr Biden’s endorsement of the aforementioned two-track approach will rob him of the leverage he has by way of sanctions. And the lifting of sanctions will give the IRGC a propaganda victory as well as the funds to purchase weapons and continue its expansionist projects.

Reassurances from the Biden administration are one thing. Practical policies are another. The countries receiving the US delegation this week should, therefore, insist that Washington present a detailed roadmap that includes timetables and instruments on tackling Iran’s multi-pronged foreign policy.

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute and a columnist for The National