We are in the throes of two potentially game-changing visits — US President Joe Biden’s recently concluded trip to Saudi Arabia, followed by Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s pilgrimage this week to Tehran.
In an implicit admission of his administration’s earlier failure to prioritize the Middle East, Biden declared to Arab leaders: “We will not walk away to leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran.”
A joint US-Saudi statement pledged efforts to deter Iran’s interference in “the internal affairs of other countries, its support for terrorism through its armed proxies and its efforts to destabilize the security and stability of the region,” while recognizing the need to prevent Tehran “acquiring a nuclear weapon.” Specific security measures include a joint US-GCC maritime task force in the Red Sea.
This reinforced an earlier joint statement by Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, pledging to use “all elements of national power” to stop Iran arming itself with nuclear weapons. Biden said America was ready to use military force against Iran as a “last resort,” declaring: “The only thing worse than the Iran that exists now is an Iran with nuclear weapons.”
At last week’s summit in Jeddah of leaders from the six Gulf states plus Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, which Biden attended, there was an affirmation of their joint commitment to Lebanon’s “sovereignty, security and stability.” The strong language from that summit about support for Iraqi democracy and the deal for interconnected Saudi-Iraqi electricity grids are also important parts of the necessary process of weaning Iraq away from Iranian dependency. However, there was a notable absence of commitments for confronting Iran-backed paramilitary forces in these states.
Of course, this visit was about much more than Iran. As the Saudi Ambassador to the US Princess Reema bint Bandar put it, this relationship must move beyond the “oil for security” paradigm. Consequently, America’s focus on cooperation on technology, renewable energy, education and economic diversification was welcome, with Biden stressing “how closely interwoven America’s interests are with the success of the Middle East.” And with trillions of dollars of GCC investments in the US and the West, this is by no means a one-way relationship.
In the context of such serious matters, many observers despaired at the shallow stupidity of much of the Western media coverage; respectable outlets focused on fist bumps and photo opportunities, while largely ignoring the fundamental issues of global security under discussion.
In a characteristically defiant move, while Biden was still in the region Tehran unveiled a new fleet of ships and submarines capable of carrying armed drones. “As we are aware of the aggressive attitude in the US system of domination, it is necessary to increase our defensive capabilities day by day,” army chief Abdolrahim Mousavi said, pledging a “regrettable response” if “our enemies make a mistake.”
Why are the ayatollahs so keen to showcase their evolving drone capabilities at this exact moment? With cheap Turkish drones having proved an unexpectedly potent weapon for the Ukrainians, Putin is heading to Tehran to invest in Iranian drones. There have already been secret scoping visits by Russian officials to check out Iranian military hardware. The Revolutionary Guards’ tame media outlets trumpet how Iranian weapons can compensate for Russian “weaknesses” on the battlefield. However, a US military official in the Gulf told me that sophisticated American anti-drone and missile capabilities can neutralize such threats, often before they even get off the ground. Iran’s increased 2022 defense budget of $26 billion makes it one of the world’s top 15 states in military spending, but that is still about 30 times less than US defense expenditure, and there are immense differences in effectiveness and capacity — making all Tehran’s anti-American saber rattling look ridiculous.
Nevertheless, a mutually beneficial Tehran-Moscow axis should trigger alarms. As well as enabling Russia to procure cheap arms, it would be a financial windfall for Tehran, which has long sought to flog its domestically produced weaponry to warlords and terrorists throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America. Thousands of increasingly sophisticated Iranian missiles have been exported to militias in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. The planet becomes less secure if we allow Iran to become the armorer of choice for pariah states and insurgents.
When rogue states band together, they risk coalescing into a bloc — an axis of evil, if you like — and it becomes difficult to exert meaningful pressure against them as they trade with each other, exploit each other’s parallel financial systems, arm each other, and help each other to evade international law.
To prevent sanctions and anti-proliferation measures being rendered ineffective, Biden’s strategies toward states such as Russia, Iran, North Korea and China must not be implemented in isolation. Narrow focus on Europe and NATO will not make the world safe, it will only embolden other pariahs to flex their muscles.
Biden commended Saudi efforts toward a ceasefire in Yemen, but now it has never been more important for Arab states to reassert their necessary roles in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq if there is to be a curtailment of Iranian interference, which has served only to maintain these nations in a permanent state of turmoil. Arab states must demonstrate that they possess the diplomatic capacity and vision to play this crucial role.
We should not be too hasty to applaud Biden’s trip and the Arab summit. Yes, America is back, but this is where the real work starts. It’s no secret that the president was reluctant to make this journey in the first place, so Arab states must be assertive in holding the US to its commitments and keeping this administration closely engaged.
This is a region on a knife edge; years of Iranian expansionism have made major regionalized conflict all but inevitable. Biden’s visit shows that the Arab world has succeeded for now in regaining American attention. Leaders must now do everything in their power to maintain this attention and keep it laser-focused on addressing these chronic long-term threats to regional stability.
- Baria Alamuddin