Iran’s Supreme Leader Will Determine if Biden’s Mideast Trip Succeeds

Iran’s Khamenei enjoys a rare status of arbiter between world powers. If he ends up signing a nuclear deal, Biden’s Mideast trip will be rounded off as a success

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addresses the nation in a televised speech marking the birthday of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, in Tehran, Iran, in 2020

It may be tempting to dismiss U.S. President Joe Biden’s trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia as a non-important visit by a weak and unpopular leader whose chances of being reelected are close to zero. But even with popular opinion at a low point, the man in the White House controls the foreign and defense policy of the strongest superpower in the world and enjoys broad freedom in managing ties with America’s friends and foes.

A statement by his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on a counter-visit he’ll embark on to Tehran instantly upgraded Biden’s tour, revealing extremely important strategic content behind all the ceremonies, celebratory statements, jokes and personal gestures with the hosts – which the guest of honor particularly excels in.

Biden’s and Putin’s parallel trips revolve around the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. Biden wants to bring the United States back into the agreement his predecessor, Donald Trump, withdrew from. Lifting sanctions on Iran is the quickest, most effective way to stop a steep rise in oil prices that has enraged American voters, while also weakening Russia, whose economy relies on oil and natural gas exports.

It’s a simple calculation: High oil prices will let Putin continue his Ukrainian war of attrition, which draws the attention and resources of the United States and its European allies. Cheap oil will complicate matters for Russia and end the war sooner – or at least rein in Moscow and bring its aggression to a level the West can tolerate.

Biden’s problem is that America’s oldest Middle Eastern friends, Saudi Arabia and Israel, aren’t as excited by his dream deal with the Iranians. They both see an American rapprochement with Tehran as a potential threat to their regional stance, and they are both sitting on the fence in the Ukraine war, opting out of the Western show of force.

Biden hasn’t punished Saudi Arabia or Israel for their position on Ukraine and now will slide the nuclear agreement with Iran down the throats of Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (who is his country’s ruler in practice). As the saying goes, he will explain it to them in a way they understand.

Biden is offering to compensate Israel in two ways: The United States would wash its hands of the Palestinian issue, which is much more important to the Israelis than Iran, even if they state the opposite 100 times; and deepening the regional security arrangements that were forged during the Trump years, most importantly by including Israel in CENTCOM, the U.S. military’s command area for the Middle East and beyond, which includes the Gulf states, Jordan and Egypt.

The partial disclosure of Israel’s security ties with Saudi Arabia following years of concealment and heavy censorship were designed to show that there’s someone to talk to and to rely on, and that an agreement with Iran is not the end of the world, the end of Zionism or a second Holocaust in the offing.

The Saudis will receive a public absolution over the killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khoshoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. It was as a result of that killing that the Biden administration had been boycotting Crown Prince Mohammed. After all, the price of oil is a lot more important to the Americans than human rights in faraway countries.

The presidential visit will demonstrate that the Saudis’ patience has paid off. Biden will have to (metaphorically) bend a knee before the crown prince. The cost to his image will be worth it to Biden if in exchange he gets concessions on the energy front and another obstacle to an agreement with Iran is removed.

But the person who will determine whether Biden’s trip ends in success or failure doesn’t appear on the president’s schedule. He’s Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. He holds the pen with which Iran would sign a renewed nuclear accord, paving the way for a lifting of sanctions on his country. If he signs and signals a rapprochement with the West, the regional constellation of forces would change, and Iran would benefit from economic expansion and international legitimacy that it currently lacks. And if he digs in his heels, tensions would rise, as would the price of oil, and Iran would solidify its status in the anti-American bloc with China and Russia.

Putin is apparently worried about what Khamenei might do. The Russian president’s forthcoming trip to Tehran can be understood as an effort to prevent the deal that would lead to a drop in energy prices and according to the Biden administration, it’s also to obtain military compensation from the Iranians in the form of attack drones – the same weapon that Ukraine has very successfully deployed against the Russian army.

In the process, Khamenei is enjoying the rare status of arbiter between the world powers. In the coming weeks, it will become clear whether he intends to achieve an agreement – and then we will also know whether Biden has been successful on his trip or whether he again comes out the loser, as he is in the public opinion polls back home.

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