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Biden’s Hollow Middle East Trip

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Saudi Arabia, Biden, Mohammed Bin Salman, office

US President Joe Biden comes away from a four-day visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia with a handful of commitments on regional and energy security issues, many of which are little more than empty promises. The price paid for these hollow accomplishments was high.

The administration of US President Joe Biden has, from its inception, placed perception management at the forefront of its national security policy, packaged into well-known tropes such as “democracy,” “human rights,” and the “rules-based international order.” While the embrace of such policy thematics is not unique to this administration, the degree to which it has been allowed to drift away from foundation in fact, and instead craft narratives that are often more fiction than real, is alarming.

No single policy moment has come close to capturing this combination of inconsistency, contradiction and half-truths as Biden’s recent Middle East trip. Born from the dual needs of salving regional concerns over Iran’s nuclear program and securing Saudi guarantees on increased oil production, Biden’s trip devolved into a series of made-for-television moments designed to shape public perception, only to be quickly brushed aside by the harsh truth of reality.

Israel and Iran

Biden’s first leg took him to Israel, where it had been hoped he would confer with former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett about a united front against Iran’s ongoing nuclear enrichment program, as well as the possibility of the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Instead, Biden found himself greeted by Yair Lapid, a caretaker prime minister who assumed office in early July after Bennett’s governing coalition collapsed in the latest manifestation of Israel’s domestic political chaos.

While Biden continued to speak in favor of the US rejoining the Iran nuclear agreement, Lapid declared that “the only thing that will stop Iran is knowing that if they continue to develop their nuclear program, the free world will use force.” Lapid’s choice of words underscored the reality that, while Israel is prepared to use force against Iran (and recently undertook military exercises to test that scenario), the reality is that it is not currently able to initiate and sustain a meaningful aerial attack without significant US involvement. Biden and Lapid signed a joint statement declaring that the US is ready to use “all elements of its national power” to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb, creating the perception of steadfast resolution.

That statement, like almost every aspect of Biden’s national security policy, proved to be more hype than reality. In the leadup to Biden’s visit to Israel, Iran continued to enrich uranium to 60%, a short step from the 90% level deemed necessary to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon. In the aftermath of the Biden-Lapid joint statement, a senior Iranian official, Kamal Kharrazi, declared that Iran “has the technical ability to build a nuclear bomb,” but that it has “not made a decision” to do so. The Iranian message was clear: If the goal of the US and Israel was to prevent Iran from possessing the ability to produce nuclear weapons, they had failed.

Security Trumps Values

There will be no Israeli military strike against Iran because, simply put, there will be no US military strike against Iran. The reason for this collective impotence in the face of Iran’s actions rests in the prime purpose behind Biden's second leg of his Middle East trip, a visit to Saudi Arabia and a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS. While the Biden administration insisted that the main purpose of the visit was not energy, the issue of Saudi Arabia’s ability and willingness to increase its oil production was at the center of its inception and implementation.

The reason energy security is so high on Biden’s agenda is simple: High oil prices in the US and the chaotic energy security situation in Europe, aggravated by collective US-European measures against Russia following the invasion of Ukraine. Projections of the collapse of the Russian economy due to Western sanctions have boomeranged on the US and its allies, with the Russian economy holding up while the US struggles and Europe collapses.

The linkage is that any US or Israeli attack against Iran would trigger an inevitable Iranian retaliation against the oil production capability of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states such as Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. The economic strain on the US and Europe would devolve into an energy crisis that could prove fatal to their economies, as well as those of any oil producers targeted by Iran. Biden knows this; Israel knows this; Saudi Arabia knows this; and so does Iran.

To be able to appeal to Saudi Arabia for oil market assistance, however, Biden had to first walk back from earlier pledges to treat MBS as a pariah for his alleged role in the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Not only did Biden meet with MBS, but he had to subject himself to Saudi projections of moral equivalency when MBS pushed back on Biden’s chastisement over Khashoggi’s death by raising US treatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib and silence over the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.

The signing of 18 “partnership agreements” by US and Saudi officials underscores how low the bar was set. In the end, Biden threw away any pretense of moral authority in exchange for pledges that could likely have been secured without physically meeting MBS.

While Saudi Arabia committed to help stabilize the global oil market, actual decisions were reserved for the upcoming Opec-plus meeting in early August, where Russia will be in attendance. The irony of Russia exerting a say over policies that the US deems critical to its security should be apparent to all observers. So, too, should the contrast of Biden’s pathos with the public confidence of his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, as he meets the leaders of Turkey and Iran this week in a high-profile summit in Tehran. As Russia, Turkey and Iran discuss joint policies that will influence the security of the Middle East and, by extension, the world, Biden heads home to a collection of domestic and foreign policy crises, none of which was meaningfully impacted by his Middle East visit, regardless of White House spin.

Scott Ritter is a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer whose service over a 20-plus-year career included tours of duty in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control agreements, serving on the staff of US Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf during the Gulf War and later as a chief weapons inspector with the UN in Iraq from 1991-98. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.

Topics:
Security Risk , Nuclear Policy, Alternative View, Military Conflict
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