Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu visited Saudi Arabia last week to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS). The summit was historic, and could yield a long-sought normalization deal between the only Jewish state and the cradle of Islam.
But the meeting reportedly did not focus on bilateral ties. Rather, it was an effort by the two leaders to coordinate in advance of a possible Biden administration effort to resurrect the controversial 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Outgoing President Donald Trump exited the deal in 2018.
Both the Israelis and the Saudis (along with other Arab states) harbored major concerns during the last round of diplomacy, particularly the sanctions relief, sunset clauses, and advance centrifuge research and development that granted the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism far too much leeway. But they were unable to speak with one voice, owing to Arab politics. Even though the Arab states widely appreciated Netanyahu’s public warnings about the deal, they were unwilling to amplify his concerns, fearing that doing so might undermine the Palestinian cause.
Earlier this year, the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan finally elected to pursue their own interests and normalize ties with Israel. Part of their decision stems from the realization that hostility toward Israel was pointless. But they were also eager to speak in unison with Israel about Iran. And it makes sense for the United States to listen. These are allies, after all.
But veteran diplomat and Palestinian-Israeli peace process activist Martin Indyk did not see it that way. He tweeted, “If the Netanyahu-MBS meeting was intended as an attempt to coordinate positions against what they both might see as a new common threat from the incoming Biden administration it’s a big mistake.”
Academic and media personality Rula Jebreal’s response was equally harsh, asserting that Netanyahu and MBS were “plotting to pressure Biden to keep US’ failed regime-change sanctions.”
Iran regime apologist Trita Parsi, who represents an isolationist organization that says it promotes “responsible statecraft,” ironically asked the irresponsible and baseless question, “Are Bibi and the Saudis preparing an attack against Iran? Is it a [psychological operation] aimed at goading Iran into war? Or is the actual target the incoming Biden team, with the aim of deterring the US from seeking diplomacy with Tehran?”
This raises an obvious question: Why the huffing and puffing? Saudi Arabia, Israel, and other Middle East states are simply concerned that a bad deal could empower the chief threat in their region. And to be clear, it is their region. They have to live there. They are the ones who will suffer the consequences or enjoy the benefits of U.S. diplomacy.
The 2015 deal was one these states would prefer not to resurrect. It allowed the Iran arms embargo to lapse within five years (this past October). It removes restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program (a delivery system for nuclear weapons) and research and development on advanced centrifuges in another three years. And crucial nuclear restrictions begin to lapse two years after that, granting the Islamic Republic, over time, an industrial-size, near-zero nuclear breakout, and more. All the while, Tehran has lied about its military nuclear program, and it never stopped supporting terrorism.
You’ll have to excuse these countries for expressing their concerns. They actually tried to warn American diplomats that the deal would have a deleterious impact on their national security interests. And it has. Iran used sanctions relief to build militias and to send precision-guided missiles to its proxies around the region. And Iran’s nuclear violations now have the attention of the IAEA, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, thanks to a daring Mossad operation that yanked a massive nuclear archive out of Iran. As the State Department noted, Iranian scientists “continue to carry out dual-use research and development activities, of which aspects are potentially useful for nuclear weapons …”
For a future deal to be truly successful, it cannot meet the needs of only the United States, Iran, or the other negotiating world powers. The regional actors are the ones who live within missile range of the Islamic Republic. They are the ones who pay the price when sanctions relief underwrites mayhem in the region. America should thus encourage these actors to articulate their concerns, and to coordinate their message. This way, American diplomats need not shuttle around the region, in an attempt to divine a common message. With Israel and its new Arab allies working together, key needs and concerns can be conveyed clearly and unequivocally for Washington to process.
Admittedly, the concerns and demands of this new Arab-Israeli coalition might make it more difficult to reach a deal. Despite what the critics say, maximum pressure on Iran has been working. The regime is reeling. The Arab states and Israel will not want to see the United States lift that pressure in exchange for a deal that does not permanently end Iran’s nuclear ambitions, or its hegemonic ambitions, for that matter.
Such a hard line is not the natural starting point for the incoming Biden administration, which seeks to restore the deal that Barack Obama negotiated but Trump unwound. But if the administration can address the concerns of its regional allies, not to mention Congress and other critics at home, the next deal would stand a better chance of remaining in force when Republicans ultimately return to power.
No matter what happens, if the Biden administration re-engages with Iran, it would be a mistake to present the rest of the region with a fait accompli. That was a huge problem last time around. The deal was rejected by a majority of the Arab states (the Iranian satrapies of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon excluded). Today, officials from Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain have all articulated their concerns again. To prevent such widespread rejection of U.S.-led diplomacy, the next administration should actually encourage Iran’s neighbors to speak their minds.
Of course, some defenders of the regime in Tehran would like nothing more than to ignore the national security concerns of Israel and its Arab neighbors, and to appease the radical regime with sanctions relief or other benefits. These are the people who will find a unified regional voice to be inconvenient, if not downright infuriating. They are often the same people that dismiss the recent normalization deals between Arab states and Israel as either unimportant or counterproductive.
Thankfully, the Biden team thus far assembled does not appear to embrace this approach. The presumptive appointees have articulated a desire to rebuild alliances around the world. They have an opportunity to start with the countries of the Middle East that are anxiously hoping that America does not forgo their interests in pursuit of détente with a dangerous nuclear proliferator and state sponsor of terror.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Photograph of Benyamin Netanyahu from Wikimedia Commons; Muhammad Bin Salman by Alexei Druzhinin/TASS/Getty Images.