WASHINGTON: Joe Biden starts the first visit to the Middle East of his presidency with a monumental task: assuring uneasy Israeli and Saudi Arabian officials that he is committed to preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
Biden begins the visit Wednesday with a three-day stop in Israel, where officials say Iran's quickly evolving nuclear program is at the top of their agenda for talks with the U.S. president. Biden made reviving the Iran nuclear deal, brokered by Barack Obama in 2015 and abandoned by Donald Trump in 2018, a key priority as he entered office.
But indirect talks for the U.S. to reenter the deal have stalled as Iran has made rapid gains in developing its nuclear program. That's left the Biden administration increasingly pessimistic about resurrecting the deal, which placed significant restrictions on Iran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
Shortly after his arrival in Israel on Wednesday, Biden is expected to get a briefing on the country's new "Iron Beam" missile defense system and visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. In addition to meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials, he's slated to receive Israel's Presidential Medal of Honor and visit with U.S. athletes taking part in the Maccabiah Games, which involve thousands of Jewish and Israeli athletes from around the globe.
Biden, in a Washington Post op-ed published Saturday, laced Trump for quitting the nuclear deal that Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union also signed. But Biden also suggested that he's still holding onto at least a sliver of hope that the Iranians will come back into compliance.
"My administration will continue to increase diplomatic and economic pressure until Iran is ready to return to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, as I remain prepared to do," he wrote.
Israeli officials, who briefed reporters ahead of Biden's departure from Washington on Tuesday, said the U.S. and Israel would issue a broad-ranging "Jerusalem Declaration" that will take a tough stance on Iran's nuclear program.
The declaration commits both countries to use "all elements of their national power against the Iranian nuclear threat," according to an Israeli official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview the statement.
The 2022 Congressional Picnic is in the books. Taking the time to get to know the folks and families that you serve alongside makes me a better legislator and leader.— President Biden (@POTUS) July 13, 2022
It makes me appreciate this amazing country of ours and what we can do together. pic.twitter.com/QnhLeyDEUD
The official said the Israelis would stress to Biden their view that Iran has calculated "time is on their side" and is loath to give any concessions. The Biden administration's last round of indirect negotiations with Iran in Doha, Qatar, late last month ended without success.
The White House has also been frustrated with repeated Iran-sponsored attacks on U.S. troops based in Iraq, though the administration says the frequency of such attacks has dropped precipitously over the last two years. Tehran also sponsored the rebel Houthis in a bloody war with the Saudis in Yemen. A U.N.-brokered cease-fire has been in place for more than four months, a fragile peace in a war that began in 2015.
Separately, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan on Monday said the administration believes Russia is turning to Iran to provide it with hundreds of unmanned aerial vehicles, including weapons-capable drones, for use in its ongoing war in Ukraine.
The Saudis, like the Israelis, have been frustrated that the White House has not abandoned efforts to revive the nuclear deal with Tehran. Biden heads to the Saudi port city of Jeddah on Friday to meet with King Salman and the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is widely known by his initials MBS, and to attend a gathering of the Gulf Cooperation Council, where Iran's nuclear program is on the agenda.
Also looming over the Saudi visit is the president's strained relationship with the crown prince.
As a White House candidate, Biden said he would look to make the kingdom a "pariah" nation over its human rights abuses.
The relationship was further strained when Biden last year approved the release of a U.S. intelligence report that determined that MBS likely approved the 2018 killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The president arrives in Saudi Arabia, among the world's biggest oil producers, at a moment of skyrocketing gas and food prices around the globe — driven, in part, by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. White House officials and energy analysts say there are low expectations that the Saudis or fellow members of OPEC+ will deliver relief.
Another factor in seeking a détente in the Saudi relationship is growing concern in the administration that the Saudis could move closer to China and Russia amid strains with the United States.
Biden is slated to make a major statement on his administration's vision for the Middle East while in Jeddah, according to the White House. The gathering of the GCC will give him the chance to address a broad swath of Arab leaders from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates as well as the leaders of non-GCC nations — Egypt, Iraq and Jordan — that have been invited to join the meeting.
Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former U.S. State Department official, said Biden is looking forward to visiting Saudi Arabia "like I would look forward to a root canal operation."
"You've got a president who is terribly conflicted about this meeting," Miller said. "He can't even acknowledge, in all of his public remarks, that he's even going to meet with Mohammed bin Salman."
But Israeli officials are cautiously optimistic that the Biden visit could be a breakthrough moment on a slow path toward normalizing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Biden will be the first U.S. president to travel directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia, and the two nations' shared enmity for Iran has led to subtle cooperation.
Earlier this week, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu praised the crown prince's "contribution" to the Abraham Accords, declarations of diplomatic and economic normalization signed by Bahrain, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the United States while Netanyahu was prime minister.
Israel is expected to hold new elections in the fall after the fragile coalition government led by Naftali Bennett crumbled last month.