On January 18, in an interview with Bloomberg, Qatari Foreign Affairs Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, speaking in the wake of the settlement of the Gulf feud, took the opportunity to argue that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) should sit down with Tehran. “The time should come,” he said “when the GCC sits at the table with Iran and reaches a common understanding that we have to live with each other. Sheikh Mohammed expressed optimism that with the Biden administration in place, Iran and the US will “reach a solution with what will happen with JCPOA” and that, in turn, will “help (relations) between the GCC and Iran. Everything is interconnected at the end of the day.”
How Will Joe Biden Approach Iran?
The fact that Joe Biden is bringing many of Barack Obama’s staff back to the White House, in particular Wendy Sherman as deputy secretary of state, is what may have buoyed the Qatari foreign minister’s optimism about a renewed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Sherman was the lead US negotiator for the initial nuclear deal with Iran. Her new boss at the State Department will be Antony Blinken, a harsh critic of President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement. Biden’s designated national security adviser is Jake Sullivan. Both men are on record as wanting to bring America back into a JCPOA 2.0.
Though Oman played a key role in negotiations with the Iranians in the first deal, other Gulf states (Saudi Arabia and the UAE) were left out of the loop, which only added to their anxiety that the Americans were being played for suckers by Tehran. This time around, it is to be hoped (in what has been called by some analysts “Obama 3”) that lessons have been learned and there will be consultation with the GCC as new negotiations with Iran get underway.
If that happens, the Bloomberg interviewer asked, would the Qataris be interested in playing a lead role as facilitators this time around? Sheikh Mohammed replied that “we want the accomplishment, we want to see the deal happening. … If Qatar will be asked by the stakeholders to play a role in this, we will be welcoming this idea.” He affirmed that Qatar will support anyone conducting the negotiations because Doha has good relations with both Washington and Tehran: “Iran is our neighbor … they stood with us during the crisis.”
That fact alone may give the Qataris the inside track should the Americans choose to use them as a bridge to the Iranians. And it would be a role that the Saudis, in their efforts to curry favor with the Biden administration while wanting to appear to stand up strongly to Iran, may find useful as well.
Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud has already staked out the kingdom’s position. In an interview he gave just ahead of the rapprochement with Qatar, he said Saudi Arabia was “in favor of dialogue with Iran” as well as “in favor of dialogue between the United States and Iran.” He went on to argue that the Trump administration had been open to dialogue but that it was “Iran that closed the doors to that dialogue.” That, it could be argued, is somewhat disingenuous, since Trump had adamantly refused, as a means of getting the Iranians to the table, to ease sanctions. Indeed, in the waning months of his presidency, he had ramped them even higher.
Prince Faisal, though he called for talks, was clear that there must be “real dialogue” that “addresses significant issues of concern — not just nuclear non-proliferation … but also ballistic missiles and, most importantly, the destabilizing activity … Without addressing Iran’s malign role and Iran’s funding of armed groups and terrorist organizations in the region and its attempts to impose its will by force on other states,” Prince Faisal said, “we are not going to have progress.” In a message intended for the incoming president’s ears, he concluded: “I sincerely hope that the Biden administration will take that into account when it formulates its policy in the region, and I believe they will.”
Time for War
Meanwhile, a conservative Israeli think tank, the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS), has just released a paper that says, forget about dialogue — it’s time for Israel to go to war with Iran. That sentiment is rooted in the author’s belief that the Iranians are hell-bent on securing nuclear weapons. Professor Efraim Inbar, the JISS president, writes that “Iran-Israel relations are essentially a zero-sum game, leaving Israel little choice but to act upon its existential instincts.” Noting numerous strikes by the Israel Defense Forces on Hezbollah in Syria and on Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, he argues that Israel is already at war: “Indeed, Israel has decided to wage a low-profile limited war, ‘the campaign between wars,’ to obstruct Iranian attempts to transform Syria and Iraq into missile launching pads.”
Iran, Professor Inbar argues, will play a game of “talk and build” pretending to be serious about meaningful negotiations while building its nuclear capability — a point John Bolton, Mike Pompeo and others from the Trump administration have consistently made. “Essentially,” Inbar writes, “inconclusive talks preserve a status quo, a tense standoff in which Iran can go on uninhibited with its nuclear program. Indeed, bargaining, at which Iranians excel, and temporary concessions postpone diplomatic and economic pressures and, most importantly, preventive military strikes.” His solution is to suggest Israel “strike to pre-empt the return of Iran to the negotiating table.”
And, despite the Abraham Accords, he doesn’t put much stock in Israel’s new friendships in the Gulf. To the contrary, he worries that “as Iran becomes more powerful in the region and the US security umbrella becomes less reliable, reorienting their foreign policy towards Tehran might become more attractive.”
Granted, it is unlikely that Benjamin Netanyahu — preoccupied with keeping his political career alive as a way of avoiding prison — will seize on the professor’s bellicose strategy. That will be a relief, no doubt, to the Gulf states. The last thing they need is a war unleashed by their new Israeli friends right on the doorstep. Still, it points to the huge difficulties President Biden faces in attempting to revive the nuclear deal. His political foes and the right-wing media in America will move quickly to paint him as Tehran’s patsy. Regardless, the first step is to get the Iranians and the Americans around the table. Doha may be just about the best place to do that.
*[This article was originally published by Arab Digest.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.