Butterfly Effect: Has Biden Really Given MBS and Iran a Free Pass? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Butterfly Effect: Has Biden Really Given MBS and Iran a Free Pass?

Butterfly Effect: Has Biden Really Given MBS and Iran a Free Pass?

By Charu Sudan Kasturi

SourceImages Getty, Composite Sean Culligan/OZY

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

In reality, the U.S. president has — if anything — been too bold with the Middle East in his early moves.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

For a man known for his moderation, President Joe Biden was surprisingly harsh in his description of Saudi Arabia’s regime during the election campaign. He called it a “pariah” state with no “redeeming social value.” Meanwhile, Biden promised to return America to the Iran nuclear deal, which his predecessor, Donald Trump, had dumped.

A month into his term, the U.S. president is finding that what is normally a honeymoon phase for a new administration is rapidly turning into a domestic and international political firefight focused on that most volatile of regions: the Middle East. It’s clear that Biden is finding the region tougher to handle than his team had anticipated. Yet a central critique of his approach that both the left and the right are throwing at him — that he has somehow been weak with Saudi Arabia and Iran — isn’t backed up by the facts.

Last week, the Biden administration declassified an intelligence report that directly blamed Saudi Arabia’s controversial Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the brutal killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. The U.S. has since imposed visa restrictions on 76 Saudi officials for that murder. Separately, it has withdrawn support for Riyadh’s war in Yemen, and has urged Saudi Arabia to bolster its commitment to human rights at home.

At the same time, the State Department has made clear it views the shift in approach with Riyadh as a “recalibration, not a rupture.” And, most critically, Biden has so far refrained from any sanctions or censures targeted directly at MBS. That restraint has earned Biden sharp criticism from across the political spectrum and from the commentariat for failing to live up to his words as a candidate. Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, has warned that a failure to punish MBS would represent a “stain on our humanity.”

Meanwhile, Iran hawks have accused Biden of concessions to Tehran, especially through Washington’s decision to lift Trump’s designation of the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen as terrorists. They point to his failure so far to bring Iran to the negotiating table over the nuclear deal as evidence of a botched approach: Tehran has insisted that the U.S. lift economic sanctions against it before it returns to talks.

But look carefully: Biden has actually tried to lay down new red lines with all major players in the Middle East. He has refused to speak directly with MBS and made Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wait for almost a month after his inauguration before getting on the phone with him. He has made clear that he doesn’t share Trump’s unconditional love for MBS and Netanyahu, who has taken increasingly hard-line and provocative positions on the question of Palestinian statehood in recent years.

In parallel, Biden has signaled to Tehran that he can’t go back to the exact same deal that former President Barack Obama and other world leaders stitched together with Iran in 2015 and that he won’t be bullied. If you need evidence, look no further than the airstrikes he ordered against Iranian-supported militia groups in Syria last week.

In fact, Biden has chosen the toughest option available to any global leader in dealing with the Middle East: lay down red lines simultaneously with the three pillars of the region in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel, while dangling the carrot of better ties if they behave. It’s like playing three chess games at the same time, the way Beth Harmon does in The Queen’s Gambit.

It’s bold — maybe even too bold. At the moment, the ruling administrations in Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia are all less than happy with Biden. And there are signs that his team might have miscalculated the magnitude of the challenge it faces. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan started his stint by downsizing the Middle East team within the U.N. National Security Council while increasing focus on China and Russia, America’s two most significant geopolitical rivals. Other U.S. administrations have tried to de-emphasize the Middle East too — but you can’t wish away tensions in a region that’s been the cradle of civilization and continues to wield vast influence.

Still, Biden has been anything but weak with the region so far. Contrast his posture to that of Trump, who swore unrestrained fealty to Saudi Arabia and Israel while declaring Iran America’s biggest enemy — thereby leaving the U.S. unable to hold MBS or Netanyahu accountable, and incapable of meaningfully negotiating with Iran.  

We’re witnessing the early stages of a high-stakes attempt by the Biden team to reset the Middle Eastern chessboard. Moves like the strikes in Syria or Iran’s refusal to join talks just yet represent diplomatic posturing from both sides to gain leverage ahead of negotiations. Whether it’s the U.S. or Iran, Saudi Arabia or Israel, no one wants to be seen as giving in too easily to the other’s demands.

Great chess players mentally plan out multiple steps ahead for each possible move their opponents might make. Has Biden’s team prepared similarly, or has the president overplayed his hand? The prize is big: a chance for America to finally manage the Middle East’s three most important relationships on its own terms.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

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