Biden Administration’s GCC Outreach and the Revival of JCPOA

Biden delivers speech
Credit: The White House, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In recent weeks some progress has been made with regard to the revival of the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement/JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) during the course of negotiations — at Vienna — between Iran and P5+1 countries (the US has been engaged in ‘indirect talks with Iran). Significant differences still persist between the US and Iran, however, there is a realization on both sides that time is running out, given that Iran’s presidential election is a little over a month away. 

Post the presidential elections in Iran, negotiations may become tougher especially if the hardliners triumph. The Trump administration’s rigid approach vis-à-vis Iran has only emboldened hardliners and weakened those in favor of negotiations with the West.

For now, both the US and Iran seem to be hopeful that revival of the JCPOA is possible, though the Iranians are saying that the Biden administration needs to exhibit boldness, while the US has stated that Iran needs to make a ‘political decision’ that it wants to return to the JCPOA, as was originally negotiated. 

Reconciliatory tone of Saudi Crown Prince vis-à-vis Iran

What is interesting is the reconciliatory tone of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) vis-à-vis Iran. In a recent media interview, MBS made it clear that he was in favor of a harmonious relationship with Iran. Said the Saudi Crown Prince:

Iran is a neighbouring country. We want good and special relations with Iran. We don’t want Iran’s situation to be difficult. On the contrary, we want Iran to be prosperous.”

The Saudi Crown Prince also said that Riyadh is working with countries in the Middle East and outside to resolve issues pertaining to regional security. 

It would be pertinent to point out that officials from Saudi Arabia and Iran met recently in Iraq and engaged in a gamut of issues. The reconciliatory approach of MBS with regard to Iran is being attributed to the Biden administration’s policy towards Saudi Arabia which is fundamentally different from that of the Trump administration. Trump shared a close relationship with MBS and did not release a report which clearly blamed MBS for the murder of Egyptian journalist Jamal Khashoggi (Trump is supposed to have even said that he saved MBS by not releasing the report). Biden on the other hand released the report, though he did not impose sanctions on MBS. Biden administration has also withdrawn its support for the Saudi war in Yemen. According to estimates, 230,000 people have died in the conflict, which has also resulted in a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. 

In such a situation, MBS realizes that to be relevant he needs to devise a more pragmatic foreign policy. Saudi Arabia has also been trying to mend ties with Turkey and Qatar

Biden administration’s outreach to other Middle Eastern countries

What is significant is that the Biden administration has also been reaching out to other Middle Eastern countries to discuss the conflict in Yemen as well as the JCPOA. US policymakers have reached out to Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE. Democrat Senator Chris Coons an old foreign policy hand considered close to US President Joe Biden held detailed discussions with the Emiratis on the JCPOA during his UAE visit. Coons who is Chairman of a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was sent with the objective of allaying apprehensions of the Emiratis with regard to the JCPOA. Coons visit coincided with Biden’s first telephone call with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed. A statement released after the conversation between Biden and the Abu Dhabi crown prince said: “[they discussed] the nuclear and regional dimensions of the threat posed by Iran, as well as the common quest for de-escalation and peace in the Middle East.” Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries earlier stated that they should be on board in case the US returns to the JCPOA. 

While the GCC countries may turn around, Israel is still fervently opposed to the deal and views Iran’s nuclear program as a major threat to the Middle East. Like Arab Gulf States, Israel also believes that the JCPOA lacks the ability to prevent enrichment of uranium by Iran. The US National Security Advisor Jack Sullivan, other senior national security officials as well as the US President Joe Biden have met with the Mossad Chief. He is supposed to have put forth Israel’s reservations pertaining to the JCPOA during meetings with the US President as well as the US National Security Advisor.

The remarks by MBS are a positive development and the outreach by Biden towards GCC countries is appropriate, though it remains to be seen whether some Arab states and Israel will ultimately come around or will continue to oppose the Iran Nuclear Deal. While the revival of the JCPOA is certainly not a done deal, some of the recent developments are encouraging.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.