US leadership in Middle East faces major challenges

China’s shock success in bringing Saudi Arabia and Iran together has challenged the United States’ longstanding role as the Middle East’s main external power broker.

Beijing’s persuasion of arch-rivals Riyadh and Tehran to resume diplomatic relations has eclipsed the United States, while Washington appears powerless to intervene in political tensions in Israel over the Netanyahu government’s sharp right-wing turn inciting Palestinians.

“Anything that can help reduce tension, avoid conflict, and in some way deter dangerous and destabilizing action by Iran is a good thing,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday of the Saudi deal announced on March 10 -Iran.

US officials have sought to minimize Beijing’s role in the region, saying it is far from ousting the United States: Much of the Middle East still sits under the Pentagon’s security umbrella.

But China’s breakthrough is a real challenge as Washington remains deeply preoccupied with the Ukraine war and long-term blunting of Beijing’s diplomatic and military advances in the Indo-Pacific region.

James Ryan, director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Washington would be happy if anyone could contribute to regional stability in the Middle East, even a rival to China.

“The Biden administration has said very clearly that it will prioritize security and stability in the Middle East,” he told AFP.

“Overall American engagement will remain more on the sidelines than in the past,” a message the Saudis “get very clearly,” Ryan said.

– Strained relations with Riyadh –

China stepped in at a time when the US views Iran as a major threat to the region yet its own ties with long-time ally Saudi Arabia have faltered.

Meanwhile, their ability to intervene in Israeli-Palestinian disputes has been greatly reduced.

Though Washington this week secured a huge $37 billion deal to sell more Boeing jets to the Saudis, Washington’s relations with Riyadh have been strained since President Joe Biden ordered a review of the relationship in October.

Biden has spoken of “consequences” after the Saudis turned down US requests to increase oil production to slash prices that had skyrocketed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Instead, Riyadh curbed production, driving prices even higher with global repercussions.

– Abraham Accords –

A Saudi-Iranian rapprochement also threatens the ultimate goal of the US-crafted Abraham Accords: recognition of Israel by Arab powerhouse Saudi Arabia after decades of refusal.

In negotiations driven by Washington, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain started the process of recognizing Israel in 2020, and Morocco and Sudan have since followed suit.

But Riyadh has also resisted the pressure.

The Wall Street Journal and New York Times reported that the Saudis are demanding security guarantees from Washington and support for their civilian nuclear program in return for recognizing the Jewish state.

Meanwhile, Biden’s hopes of breaking some ice with Iran by restoring the 2015 deal that limited its nuclear program — abandoned by previous President Donald Trump — have gone nowhere.

Instead, Tehran has moved further away, supporting Russia in its war against Ukraine.

-Hampered by Israeli politics-

The unrest in Israel is another problem.

Despite repeated calls for de-escalation by US officials, including a visit by Blinken to Jerusalem and Ramallah in late January, violence between Israelis and Palestinians has escalated.

Much is being driven by a deep rift in Israeli politics, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to weaken the country’s Supreme Court.

Day after day, US officials condemn seditious actions while reaffirming their “unwavering” support for Israel and commitment to the “two-state solution.”

However, this has had no effect on the increasingly uncompromising government of longtime ally Netanyahu.

In an interview with AFP on Thursday, Blinken said the United States would not take sides in “Israel’s very vibrant democracy.”

“Consensus is the best way forward,” he said of the political schism.

But the pressure on the Biden government is growing.

About a hundred Democratic lawmakers recently wrote to Biden expressing concern about the direction of Netanyahu’s government and urging the US leader to use all possible diplomatic means to prevent him from “further damaging the nation’s democratic institutions.” inflicts damage”.

“At this fragile and flammable moment, consistent and sustained U.S. diplomatic leadership is critical,” they told Biden.

But with the US elections looming next year, the White House’s room for maneuver will be “very limited” in its ability to influence Israeli policy and the Palestinian issue, Ryan said.

Israelis “now have much more confidence in their ability to do what they want,” he said.


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