Butterfly Effect: The Middle East Bomb Biden Must Defuse - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Butterfly Effect: The Middle East Bomb Biden Must Defuse

Butterfly Effect: The Middle East Bomb Biden Must Defuse

By Charu Sudan Kasturi

SourceImages Getty, Composite Sean Culligan/OZY


The real challenge isn't Iran. It's Israel and Saudi Arabia.

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.

The complexities of the Middle East have been knotty for decades. Dealing with them becomes even tougher when the characters involved are particularly naughty.

As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take charge in January, he’s staring at a tinderbox in the Middle East with a fuse that’s shorter than ever before, and with sparks flying everywhere. It will present Biden with his most challenging foreign policy test — one that he cannot fail if an all-out conflict in the region is to be avoided.

Much of the focus in the Middle East in recent days has — understandably — been on the escalating tensions following the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, which Tehran has blamed on Israel. But look carefully and it’s just one symptom of a complex set of equations that Biden will inherit, and it’s more troublesome than anything his predecessors have had to deal with in decades.

In good measure, that’s because of the dramatic realignment of America’s relations in the Middle East that President Donald Trump undertook. Unlike any other American president over the past 70 years, Trump has overtly sought to formalize relations between Israel and the region’s Arab states including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — and has had significant success. Over the past few months, the UAE and Bahrain have established official diplomatic ties with Israel. In late November, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly flew to Riyadh to meet Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Better relations between the region’s Arab states and Israel is in U.S. interests.


Iranian mourners attend the burial ceremony of slain nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in northern Tehran.


But Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners have demanded their own pound of flesh in exchange for edging close to Israel. Their shift in attitude is contingent on America taking tougher and tougher measures against Iran and its proxy militias in the region. Under Trump, the U.S. has also increasingly dropped even the pretense of pressuring Saudi Arabia and other Arab monarchies to improve their record on human rights. With Israel, meanwhile, the Trump administration has largely turned a blind eye to allegations of excesses against Palestinian civilians while moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, considered disputed by the United Nations. (Most foreign missions to Israel are based in Tel Aviv.)

Biden can’t continue down that path without seriously alienating major sections of his party, and he would want to restore a balance in America’s relations with key Middle East players. He will want to reassure Israel that America will defend its security, but insist that the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships return to meaningful talks, without the U.S. skewing them from the outset. The incoming U.S. president would want to restore the nuclear deal with Iran if Tehran agrees to undo steps it has taken to move away from that pact after Trump withdrew from the agreement. And Biden would want to use talks with Iran as leverage against Saudi Arabia’s own regional hegemonistic ambitions, most clearly evident in Yemen, where it is fighting a war against Tehran’s proxies.

But if Biden does attempt to follow through on this plan, expect immediate resistance. There would no longer be an incentive for Saudi Arabia and its partners to publicly kiss and make up with Israel as a favor. They have secret ties with Israel as it is, and keeping them that way allows them to also speak up for Palestinian statehood, thus keeping their credibility intact in the Islamic world. If the UAE and Bahrain were to withdraw from their peace agreements with Israel, that would serve as a reversal of a rare set of foreign policy successes under Trump that do serve bipartisan American interests.

Maintaining ties with Israel won’t be easy either if Biden does reach out to Tehran. Democrats can’t have forgotten Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s public spat with Obama over the Iran nuclear deal. Meanwhile, Tehran is holding its horses on retaliating against Fakhrizadeh’s assassination in the hope that Biden will resuscitate that agreement and lift some of the sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.

If Biden, wary of Israel’s response, does not offer an olive branch to Iran, Tehran has little reason to behave. Expect it to escalate tensions through its militias in that scenario. All the key players in the region — Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia — know these risks. In Netanyahu, MBS (as the Saudi crown prince is known) and Iran’s semiautonomous intelligence agencies, the region has leading characters who’re happy to provoke each other and America if they think it serves them well. Israel and Saudi Arabia in particular have gotten used to Trump’s approach, and it’s understandable that they wouldn’t want a reset.

There are no easy answers for the incoming Biden team, even though it’s staffed with foreign policy veterans very familiar with the region and its nuances. Yet find an answer they must. Not defusing this ticking time bomb isn’t an option.

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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