Will a flurry of June summits see a Middle East 'grand bargain'?

Diplomats from global powers have a busy month ahead, and much of their talks will centre on Iran and the Arab world

VIENNA, AUSTRIA - MAY 25: A general view of the Grand Hotel on the day the JCPOA Iran nuclear talks are to resume on May 25, 2021 in Vienna, Austria. Representatives from the United States, Iran, the European Union and other participants from the original Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are reportedly getting closer to agreeing on a deal to revive the plan. The JCPOA was the European-led initiative by which Iran agreed not to pursue a nuclear weapon in exchange for concessions, though the United States, under the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump, abandoned the deal and intensified sanctions against Iran. (Photo by Thomas Kronsteiner/Getty Images)
Powered by automated translation

It is not just European powers who are the main beneficiaries of the election of Joe Biden as US President. The wins for Iran, along with the West’s traditional rivals Russia and China, are continuing as the Biden administration heads into the summer.

Mr Biden will soon attend the G7 Summit, to be held in the UK between June 11 and 13. It will come a week after a key policy speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum. Mr Biden will then head to Brussels to attend a US-European summit and one for Nato, and meet Mr Putin in a Russia-US bilateral summit in Geneva on June 16.

A key objective of the Nato summit will be the revival of a more traditional dynamic within the military alliance, with a view to overturning former US president Donald Trump’s policy that had sought to bring balance to the financial contributions of the member states. That policy upset the alliance’s European members. Mr Biden wants to remove any residual tension.

He has decided, moreover, that his top foreign policy priority ought to be resurrecting a nuclear deal with Iran. The European powers, who continue to advocate for a more sympathetic approach to Iran, have therefore seen their role as America’s senior partners on the world stage restored. European countries have shifted from being forced to submit to the Trump administration’s policy on Iran to being a kind of emissary from Iran to the Biden administration. It is a very reassuring development for Tehran, which will see its interests well represented in the coming US-European summit.

FILE - In this Oct. 26, 2017 file photo, taken with a drone, the Geneva Water Fountain landmark, "Jet d'Eau" in French, rises above the harbor and in front of the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. President Joe Biden will hold a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin next month in Geneva, a face-to-face meeting between the two leaders that comes amid escalating tensions between the U.S. and Russia in the first months of the Biden administration. The White House confirmed details of the summit set for June 16 on Tuesday May 25, 2021. (Valentin Flauraud/Keystone via AP, File)
Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin are set to meet in a bilateral summit in Geneva, Switzerland. AP
European countries are now a kind of emissary from Iran to the Biden administration

Europe’s advocacy, led by Germany, is historic and momentous for Iran’s government. The International Atomic Energy Agency has concluded that Iran’s nuclear capabilities are beyond containment, and that they could be weaponised if Iran so wishes. But the Europeans have concluded that this only means the world must appease Iranian demandsfurther if it wants to avoid an Iranian nuclear bomb.

Most European states like to hold Mr Trump responsible for the development of Iran’s nuclear capabilities, on account of his withdrawal from the nuclear deal signed under his predecessor, Barack Obama. They use this logic not only to justify appeasing Iran, but also to forget that Tehran has never stopped its nuclear project, regardless of the status of any nuclear deal.

The nuclear anxiety for Europe is so great that it even justifies overlooking Iran’s efforts to trample over the sovereignty of its regional neighbours and the rights of its people at home. The Biden administration appears to have converged with the Europeans on this. What Tehran is doing in Iraq – where it supports militias that aim to subjugate the state to the whims of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – does not concern them like it used to. Nor does Iranian interference in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, and nor does the increasing likelihood that an IRGC-controlled candidate will win the Iranian election. Iran’s regional activities have only stepped up as nuclear talks between Western countries and Tehran continue in Vienna, and the consequences so far have been minimal.

It may even be that some in the West view a hardline victory in Iran’s election to be desirable, on the spurious grounds that the IRGC is a force for stability inside Iran and that it is better to face the devil you know. These views are already held in Beijing and Moscow, where Tehran is seen as an ally and supporter of Chinese and Russian interests in the Middle East.

epa09215483 Armed Houthi supporters take part in a rally protesting against Israeli strikes on the Gaza Strip, in Sana’a, Yemen, 20 May 2021. In response to days of violent confrontations between Israeli security forces and Palestinians in Jerusalem, various Palestinian militant factions in Gaza launched rocket attacks since 10 May that killed at least ten Israelis to date. Gaza Strip's health ministry said that at least 232 Palestinians, including 65 children, were killed in the recent retaliatory Israeli airstrikes.  EPA/YAHYA ARHAB
Iran continues to back Houthi rebels in Yemen. EPA

One potential area of concession for Tehran is in its deeply hostile relationship with Israel. European and American negotiators in Vienna reportedly have sought to convince their Iranian counterparts that Tehran should tone down its animosity towards Israel, and there is genuine optimism that, for entirely pragmatic reasons, they are listening, although the timing of Israel’s flareup in Gaza is problematic.

There is now a sudden revival of enthusiasm among Western countries for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, along with a backlash against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This will be motivated by some sympathy for Palestinians, but also by the desire to contain any surprises that may impact the nuclear talks in Vienna, which remain the West’s absolute priority.

In the name of ensuring the success of the nuclear talks, the Biden administration and the European governments have surrendered to Tehran’s demands to exclude from the talks its missile programme and interference in Arab states. That decision risks providing Iran a blank cheque to do as it pleases in the region, even as Western powers try in parallel to arrange “consolation” talks between Tehran and Arab capitals.

There are bigger-picture concessions being made, too. The West has reconciled itself to Russian dominance in Syria, where President Bashar Al Assad, with Moscow’s backing, has all but secured a total victory, and has started a new term in office. Washington and European countries had also little to say about China’s historic security pact with Iran. When one combines this apathy with the carte blanche the West has given to Iran in the Arab world, questions arise as to whether or not there is a “grand bargain” being struck.

Are the US and Europe happy to cede their policy goals and reduce their influence in the Arab states, their traditional allies, to the interests of their rivals? Many meetings are being had in the coming fortnight, and a clearer picture may emerge when they are all done.

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