US Arab allies fear that the president-elect will pressure them to end the war in Yemen and the embargo on Qatar
The triumph of Joe Biden in the United States elections has unleashed the cabal in the Persian Gulf. While Iran waits for the president-elect’s promise to return to the nuclear deal to come true, on the other side, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) fear precisely that, that the new Administration will give their rival an oxygen balloon. For the Arab monarchs the departure of Donald Trump is more than a change in style, they lose a powerful friend who turned a blind eye to their abuses.
“There is an opportunity for the next US Administration (…) to return to its international commitments,” said the Iranian president upon learning of Biden’s victory. Hasan Rohaní, who bet his political capital on the 2015 nuclear deal, suffered a severe blow when Trump pulled his country out of the pact three years later and imposed sanctions on Iran even more stringent than before the signing. He now hopes that the US president-elect will fulfill his promise to honor the pact before he himself concludes his second (and final) term next summer.
It won’t be that easy. On the one hand, Biden has conditioned that commitment to Tehran once again complying with the limits it established on its nuclear program, as a “starting point for the subsequent negotiations.” On the other hand, the ultra-conservative rivals of Rohaní have an interest in delaying any progress in that direction until after the presidential elections next May, which they hope to win; they do not want to risk that that trick benefits the moderates.
The problem is that since last year Iran has responded to the unilateral abandonment of the agreement by Washington with a calculated and progressive breach of the obligations it acquired upon signing. According to the latest report from the International Atomic Energy Organization (IAEA), which was released last Wednesday, the Islamic Republic already accumulates twelve times more enriched uranium than that pact allowed it, in addition to exceeding the purity limit set.
Before rejoining the pact, the US needs to reverse these transgressions, which will foreseeably require a complex negotiating process. The new Administration can use as an incentive a progressive lifting of the sanctions imposed by Trump (exceptions for the sale of oil, eliminating secondary sanctions on European companies or removing the Central Bank from the list of organizations that finance terrorism).
There are other obstacles in the “credible path to diplomacy” offered by Biden, as there are no signs that his government will abandon efforts to curb Iranian interventions in neighboring countries. And Tehran refuses to talk about its ballistic missiles and its support for related militias in the Middle East, issues that were not included in the nuclear agreement and that are the focus of criticism of it from Washington’s allies in the region. In addition, the Iranian foreign spokesman has said that his country could request compensation from the United States for the economic damage caused by its departure from the agreement. Hence, the advisers to the new president-elect try to lower expectations.
Those difficulties do not lessen unrest in the anti-Iran axis countries that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have forged with Israel under Trump, whose abandonment of the pact they applauded. Now they fear that the new White House’s approach to Tehran will undermine their interests. The Saudi monarch, who took 24 hours to congratulate Biden, made it clear last Wednesday when he urged the international community “to adopt a decisive attitude against Iran and its efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction and develop a ballistic missile program.” .
But it is not only the Islamic Republic that is worrying in Riyadh. Biden has declared his intention to “end US support for the disastrous war that Saudi Arabia is leading in Yemen,” as well as to reassess the relationship with the desert kingdom. Also unlike Trump, he has promised a tougher line on human rights abuses. He even said that he would not ignore the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as his predecessor did despite the fact that both the UN and the CIA held the Saudi crown prince responsible.
Likewise, heightened scrutiny of arms sales and renewed pressure on Saudis and Emiratis to end their embargo on Qatar, which is home to the main US base in the Middle East, is foreseeable. That said, most observers agree that the Saudis will seek a way to work with Biden, since they are more closely tied to Washington (from regional security to trade) than their differences with the Democrats. The more pragmatic Emirates has already assumed the change and its diplomacy tries to maintain the level of influence it has achieved in the North American capital.