United States President Joe Biden is on a landmark trip to the Middle East. One country he won’t be visiting, however, is dominating the agenda: Iran.
Biden’s itinerary includes just two countries, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Those are Tehran’s biggest regional foes, and they are coming closer together than ever before.
The visit comes just weeks after Israel said that it was working with regional partners on an air defense alliance that is led by the US. Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz told the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, that he hopes the program will “take another step forward” during Biden’s trip to the region.
Saudi Arabia has been pressuring the US for security guarantees that would contain Iran should nuclear talks fail. The last round of talks in Doha two weeks ago resulted in a standstill, with the US saying Iran added unrelated demands to the table.
Early on Friday, just hours before Biden was due to touch down in the kingdom, Saudi Arabia moved one step closer to normalizing relations with Iran’s arch-enemy Israel by opening its airspace to all airlines. Israeli carriers were previously barred from entering Saudi airspace on most flights.
Last month, US lawmakers introduced legislation to create an integrated air defense system to increase cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbors, including the countries whose leaders Biden will meet in Saudi Arabia this week. The defense system is aimed to protect those states from Iran.
Jordan’s King Abdullah, who Biden will meet in Saudi Arabia, said this month he favors joining a “Middle East NATO” with like-minded countries, without specifying which.
Iran sees an Arab-Israeli military plan as a provocative move and a threat against its national security, foreign ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanani was cited saying on Saturday by state news agency IRNA. He accused the US of spreading “Iranophobia” among regional countries, according to IRNA.
The United Arab Emirates, which has been engaging in direct talks with Tehran , said on Friday that it has no interest in joining an anti-Iran alliance.
“We are open to cooperation, but not cooperation targeted at any other country in the region, and I specifically mention Iran,” Anwar Gargash, adviser to the UAE president, told CNN’s Becky Anderson. The UAE is in the process of sending an ambassador to Tehran, he added.
Some analysts say that if Iran finds itself being ganged up on by its neighbors, it may retaliate.
An Arab-Israeli military alliance is “a terrible idea,” said Trita Parsi, vice-president of the Quincy Institute in Washington, DC, “because it cements existing divisions in the region and reduces the likelihood of diplomatic breakthroughs.” Such groupings are aimed at organizing the region against a certain state instead of achieving “true peace,” Parsi told CNN.
Previous American attempts at isolating Iran at the behest of Israel led Tehran to sabotage the Palestinian-Israeli peace process to undermine Washington’s efforts, he said. “If Biden’s anti-Iran alliance truly takes hold, it may prompt Iran to go back to its policies of the 1990s when it actively pushed its allies to destabilize parts of the region,” he added.
On Thursday, Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid signed a new joint declaration that included a commitment to never allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon and to address Iran’s “destabilizing activities.”
“There is potential that [Biden’s] visit could create further tensions,” Mohammad Marandi, a professor at the University of Tehran, told CNN.
That prospect hasn’t escaped Gulf Arab states, who are wary about getting caught in the line of fire between Iran and the US.
Gargash told CNN that there is a need to de-escalate with Iran. “We have to find solutions, and we have also to use economic cooperation in various areas,” he said.
Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political science professor in the UAE, told CNN that framing a potential military alliance as regional NATO is “very provocative, and I don’t think it is acceptable to whoever is asked to join.”
While there is regional consensus that Iran is now more destabilizing than ever, Israel and the Gulf Arab states differ on how to approach the problem, he told CNN.
“The mood in Abu Dhabi and in Riyadh is to talk to Iran rather than provoke Iran,” he said. “This is where the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, differ with Israel.”
The claim by the US this week that Iran may be providing drones to Russia may be used by the Biden administration to strengthen the case for a Middle East defense pact against Iran, said Aniseh Bassiri, senior research fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
“The timing of this information [on Iranian drone sales] is interesting,” she told CNN’s Becky Anderson on Tuesday. “We know that the US, together with Israel, is trying to shape this defense pact, and I think a lot of the focus of this pact is the capability that the countries have when it comes to drones. Whether there is interest in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries is another question,” she said.
“There is plenty of Israeli propaganda that goes into marketing and promoting such a deal,” said Abdulla. “Logistically, it is not very easy to do.”