Home / Articles / Biden’s Middle East Balancing Act: Iran’s Nuclear Program and Saudi-Israeli Ties
This summer, the Biden administration decided to negotiate a temporary deal with Iran involving the release of American prisoners held by the Islamic Republic in exchange for the release of some of the funds that were held by the United States as part of the economic sanctions on Tehran.
The White House expects that this package deal will open the road to talks with Iran on its nuclear program. The outline of a deal would include a pause in the accumulation of enriched uranium and an Iranian pledge not to produce weapons-grade fissile material, in exchange for the removal of US economic sanctions.
But any diplomatic deal between Washington and Tehran raises fears among two of America’s allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and Israel, that regard Iran as an existential threat. From that perspective, a US-led process of normalizing the relations between Riyadh and Jerusalem could help contain Iran and reinforce the American pledge to strengthen the alliance with Saudi Arabia and Israel.
For some months now, officials in Washington and other world capitals assumed that diplomatic efforts to reach a deal between the United States and Iran to curb the Islamic Republic’s growing nuclear program would reach a dead end.
But after two years of uncertain negotiations, there are signs that the United States may be finally having some success in its effort to reduce tensions with Iran, reach an agreement to secure the freedom of Americans imprisoned there, and perhaps start to move in the direction of containing the nuclear crisis with the Islamic Republic.
These efforts are taking place against the backdrop of evolving dynamics of Middle Eastern politics, including activist diplomacy being pursued by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and continuing political instability in Israel, which impact the Biden administration’s foreign policy.
In turn, the White House, according to reports, has been pursuing the possibility of a process of normalization between Riyadh and Jerusalem as part of a deal with Washington that could upgrade US defense ties with the Saudis.
Moreover, Donald Trump could return to the Oval Office after the 2024 presidential elections. Leading Saudi and Israeli policymakers consider the former president as more sensitive to their security needs than President Joe Biden.
It was under Trump that the United States unilaterally pulled out of the accord Tehran signed with world powers in 2018; the nuclear deal imposed stringent limits on Iran’s nuclear programs and included Tehran’s agreement for strict international inspection of its nuclear sites in exchange for the removal of economic sanctions.
Trump revoked the deal with Iran and instead imposed punishing sanctions (i.e., “maximum pressure”) that were intended to force Tehran to renegotiate the deal on terms favored by the Trump administration as well as by the Saudis and the Israelis. But the Trump administration’s expectations were not fulfilled and Iran instead renewed and even accelerated its previously prohibited nuclear activities.
Biden took office pledging to revive the pact, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But there have been no formal negotiations since last November, when Iran walked away from a proposed agreement and US officials expressed pessimism about the chances of reaching a new agreement.
Moreover, since a government crackdown on protests in Tehran as well as reports that Iran was supporting Russia in its war with Ukraine, contacts between the United States and Iran have declined.
But all of that seemed to have changed following a discovery by the International Atomic Energy Agency in January that the uranium in the dust taken from Iran’s nuclear plant in Fordow had been enriched to a purity of 83.7 percent. That suggested that the Iranians were closer than ever to having the capability to develop nuclear weapons.
Indeed, as General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a congressional hearing in March, Iran “could produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon in approximately 10–15 days and it would only take several months to produce an actual nuclear weapon.”
The main concern in Washington has been that if Iran reached the threshold of becoming a nuclear state, Israel would then strike Iran’s nuclear sites. That in turn could ignite a regional war the United States would eventually be drawn into. If that happened, it would be a nightmare scenario considering America’s role in the war in Ukraine and the growing military tensions with China over Taiwan. A new war in the Middle East is the last thing the Biden administration needs.
The growing anxiety over Iran’s nuclear program has led officials in Washington and from the so-called E3 governments—France, Germany, and the United Kingdom—to resume discussions on trying to restart negotiations with Tehran. That resulted in the opening of talks between American and Iranian officials in New York and later in Oman in May aimed at cooling the tensions between the two countries and to reach an understanding on several issues, including on a prisoner exchange and possibly an interim deal under which the United State would agree to ease some sanctions on Iran in exchange for Iran committing to place some restrictions on its nuclear activities; the emphasis in both cases being on “some.”
As officials in the Biden administration see it, reviving the JCPOA is a “mission impossible,” politically speaking. Any formal US agreement with Iran could force a review by Congress, where Republicans and many Democrats strongly oppose a deal with Iran.
A congressional review could also raise the issue of the US relationship with Iran to the top of the political agenda, and by extension, turn it into an issue in the coming presidential campaign; not to mention the potential for diplomatic tensions with Israel and Saudi Arabia who are opposed to reviving the JCPOA.
Taking all of that into consideration, what the Biden administration had hoped to achieve is a temporary solution in the form of a package deal with Iran under which Iran would agree to limited but reversible steps to curtail its nuclear program, including a pause in the accumulation of enriched uranium and an agreement not to produce weapons-grade fissile material.
The signs of such a step-by-step deal were evident last week when Iran announced that it would transfer five American citizens from Evin prison to house arrest as the first phase of a prisoner swap.
In exchange, it looks as though Washington would provide Iran with access to $7 billion in Iranian funds held in South Korea and release five Iranian prisoners. The United States has already agreed to the release of close to $3 billion held in Iraq for deliveries of Iranian oil and gas. A successful prisoner exchange could help build trust as the two sides negotiate other de-escalatory steps that would include an Iranian agreement to put a cap on its uranium enrichment levels and to cooperate more with the International Atomic Energy Agency. There has also been some talk about pressing Iran to stop selling armed drones to Russia that have been used in war in Ukraine.
Such a package deal under which both sides would get less than they would have expected under a revived JCPOA could amount to a temporary freeze of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for more economic relief for Iran.
And the release of the American prisoners held by Iran as part of this “less-for-less” package helps the Biden administration to market it as a humanitarian step to Congress and the public.
But the agreement would probably still ignite criticism by those who see it as “hostage diplomacy” as well as by opponents of the JCPOA in Washington.
No less problematic could be the possible responses from Israel and Saudi Arabia. Mohammed bin Salman’s decision to refrain from joining the West in imposing economic sanctions on Russia, and the growing economic and diplomatic ties between Riyadh and Beijing, were driven by considerations of the Saudi national interest. But there is no doubt that they were motivated in part by growing concern on the part of Mohammed bin Salman about the credibility of US security guarantees to the Kingdom to protect it against possible Iranian aggression.
At the same time, Israel, which is led now by the most right-wing government in its history, is in the midst of a major political crisis over the government’s decision to overhaul the judicial system. The crisis could have long-term effects on Israeli national security and could be perceived by Iran and its Lebanese surrogate, Hezbollah, as an opportunity to test Israeli resolve.
Both the Israelis and the Saudis are worried that the deal involving the prisoner swap would provide Iran with access to new funds. That could help it support its efforts to destabilize the Middle East through its proxies not only in Lebanon, but also in Iraq and Yemen.
But with much of the focus of the Biden administration trained on Ukraine and China, and against the backdrop of preparations for the 2024 election, officials in Washington were first and foremost interested in kicking a potentially explosive diplomatic can down the road and ensuring that the US relationship with Iran won’t dominate the news headlines.
At the same time, joining the deal with Iran with an effort to normalize the ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, if successful, may counteract the impression in Riyadh and Jerusalem, as well as in Tehran, regarding America’s resolve to contain Iran and to protect its interests in the region and those of its allies there.
Indeed, the prospect of normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which follows the signing of the Abraham Accords, could help create the foundation of a partnership between America’s two leading allies in the region, marrying the energy resources of the Gulf with Israel’s high-tech power, that could effectively contain the threats from Iran and its surrogates.
Such a deal, which would also involve new US security guarantees for the Saudis, could respond to the concerns expressed by Mohammed bin Salman and provide the Americans with leverage to press the Saudis to restrain their diplomatic overtures toward Beijing, distance themselves from Russia, and play a more active role in trying to stabilize the global energy markets. These are issues that will probably be raised during Biden’s scheduled meeting with Mohammed bin Salman during the G-20 summit in New Delhi in September.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.