Biden Administration’s Reset of Ties With Saudi Arabia: Realism Trumps Morality

Differences between Iran and the other signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action JCPOA 2015/Iran nuclear deal have once again come to the fore. While commenting on Iran’s decision to remove 27 surveillance cameras which were being used for monitoring Tehran’s nuclear activities, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “The only outcome of such a path will be a deepening nuclear crisis and further economic and political isolation for Iran.” 

The decision to remove these cameras is a reaction to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) finding enriched uranium at three sites, which Tehran had not declared as having hosted nuclear activities. 

A resolution critical of Tehran for its lack of transparency with regard to its nuclear program was passed by IAEA Board of Governors (consisting of 35 nations). The resolution was supported by 30 countries, three abstained and two – Russia and China – voting against it. E3 group consisting of Germany, France, UK welcomed this resolution, while Iran was critical of the same. 

Amongst other countries, Israel welcomed the resolution. The Israeli PM Naftali Bennett while referring to the resolution said: “…we see here a firm stance by the countries of the world regarding the distinction between good and evil, as they clearly state that Iran is concealing things. We will not let up on this issue.”

If the Iran deal cannot be concluded, it means that oil prices could go up (crude prices have risen 50% ever since the Ukraine crisis). Significantly, in recent months US had been showing enthusiasm with regard to the revival of the 2015 deal, with the main objective being to keep global prices in control (a new deal could lead to 500,000 to 1 million barrels of oil). According to some analysts the Biden administration with an eye on the November mid-term elections in the US —  to prevent a rise in oil prices — may allow the sale of Iranian oil even if the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is not revived. 

While Saudi Arabia which had earlier declined to raise oil production, earlier this month, OPEC+, which includes the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries  OPEC (led by Saudi Arabia) and its oil producing allies agreed to increase oil production by 6,48,000 barrels per day in July and August 2022. Riyadh’s recent decision to increase oil production is significant because US President Joe Biden will be visiting Saudi Arabia in July 2022. Many believe that the US President’s Saudi visit could help in a reset of relations between US and Riyadh, which have witnessed a deterioration under Biden. The US President has been scathing in his criticism of Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman’s human rights record, and a US report which blames MBS for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder was also released in February 2021.

 A statement by White House Press Secretary indicated the change in the Biden Administration’s tone vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia. Said Jean Pierre:

“So, Saudi Arabia has been a strategic partner of the United States for eight decades — every president since FDR has met with Saudi leaders, and the president considers Saudi Arabia an important partner on a host of regional and global strategies, including other efforts to end the war in Yemen, contain Iran and counterterrorism.”

A number of Democrat law makers have expressed their scepticism with regard to such a visit citing the poor human rights record of Saudi Arabia, pointing to the involvement of MBS in the Khashoggi murder. Others believe that Saudi Arabia is strategically important and while Washington should put forth its reservations pertaining to Human Rights issues, Riyadh cannot be isolated. 

Biden’s upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia reiterates the complexities of Middle East’s geopolitical architecture. Apart from Biden’s strong criticism of Saudi Arabia and cold shouldering of MBS one of the other key reasons for Washington-Riyadh tensions was the priority which Biden was giving to the revival of the Iran nuclear deal (even though relations between Saudis and Iran have improved over the past year). If the deal is not revived, Biden needs to rethink his policy vis-à-vis the Middle East, and the US is encouraging improvement of ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, though the normalisation of ties is likely to be a gradual process.

The revival of the Iran nuclear deal is important for multiple reasons for the US. First, the US needs to keep global oil prices under check, a revival of the 2015 agreement will be an important step in this direction. If this does not work out, Washington needs to look at other options. Second, as mentioned earlier the Biden administration will have to significantly alter its approach towards the Middle East, if Iran and other parties to the 2015 agreement cannot reach any agreement. In such a situation, Tehran will be left with no option but to move closer to Russia and China, though the US could provide exemptions to certain countries to have limited economic relations with Iran.

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

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