The United Arab Emirates and Israel are lobbying the US to formulate a security strategy for the Middle East should the Iran nuclear deal be revived, with the war in Ukraine and surging oil prices providing leverage to obtain guarantees they failed to secure in 2015.
The erstwhile foes, which established diplomatic relations in 2020, are demanding a coherent approach that includes boosting missile defense and intelligence sharing, five people familiar with the matter said, asking not to be identified because the discussions are private.
Israel and the UAE have approached Biden administration officials separately but are coordinating amid concern that Iran would use an oil windfall to channel more funds to armed proxy groups around the Middle East, three of the people said.
A State Department official said the US was committed to a region where its partners are secure from “external aggression and was working with them to confront threats from Iran.”
A senior Biden administration official said there were ongoing discussions about the evolving threat landscape. The officials did not confirm any US commitment to a specific or new plan.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry declined to comment, while the Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for comment. The UAE Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.
Gulf Arab governments and Israel opposed the 2015 deal that curbed Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief, saying it failed to address their concerns over the Islamic Republic’s ballistic missile capabilities or its support for militias including Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthis.
Resentment has festered since, pushing Gulf Arab governments to expand ties with Russia and China as a hedge against creeping US disengagement from the region.
Relations have deteriorated to such an extent that they have been reluctant to rally around US efforts to isolate Moscow and reassure energy markets as President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine drives oil prices to 13-year highs.
Talks to revive the deal were suspended last week after 11 months with no clear alternatives in place to handle Tehran’s accelerating nuclear activities, potentially adding to regional security concerns.
Oil for security
The Biden administration’s determination to calm energy markets even as it tightens sanctions has given the UAE, OPEC’s third-largest producer, new leverage in discussions with US officials.
Barbara Leaf, Senior Middle East Director at the White House’s National Security Council, visited Abu Dhabi to reduce tensions last week, meeting with powerful security chief Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed and Sultan Al Jaber, who heads the state oil firm Adnoc, three of the people said.
The talks centered around the UAE’s demand for security guarantees and Biden’s desire to squeeze more crude barrels out of OPEC, they added.
Shortly after that meeting the UAE issued a statement via its envoy in Washington DC saying it would call on fellow members of OPEC+ to boost oil output faster.
Oil prices fell and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed the overture. The UAE oil minister later tempered expectations, reiterating his country remained committed to the oil producers’ cartel.
OPEC+, which is dominated by Saudi Arabia and includes Russia, has so far resisted calls from the White House and major oil consumers to speed up production.
Saudi Arabia, which carries most weight in OPEC and is a key holdout, has made no comment since the UAE statement.
The State Department official confirmed that the US had held “regular, senior level discussions with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and others” on a collaborative approach to managing market pressures stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as well as on the range of issues facing our countries.
New Houthi sanctions?
Saudi Arabia’s relations with the US have been strained since Biden was elected with a promise to turn the world’s biggest oil-exporter into a “pariah” over the 2018 murder of critic Jamal Khashoggi.
President Joe Biden has chosen to communicate directly with King Salman, rather than the powerful crown prince who runs the kingdom’s day-to-day affairs.
That policy means the White House has lost much of its leverage in Riyadh, with a growing number of administration officials quietly advocating a change of course, according to several people with knowledge of the discussions.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson may travel to Saudi Arabia this week, Sky News reported, using his better relations with the crown prince to push for more relief for oil markets.
US relations with the UAE are also at their lowest ebb in years, a fact that’s been acknowledged publicly but has only been addressed in the wake of the Ukraine war.
The depth of the discord surfaced at the UN Security Council, when the UAE surprised allies by abstaining in a US-led vote condemning Russia’s invasion.
The UAE is exploiting renewed US attention to ask for broader Patriot and THAAD coverage of the region following a spate of missile and drone attacks on Abu Dhabi this year, two of the people said.
The US is expected to throw in some other sweeteners, including a package of measures targeting Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels, behind recent strikes on Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, the people said.
This will likely include additional sanctions and the closure of Houthi social media accounts, but will stop short of reinstating the group’s designation as a foreign terrorist organization.
The State Department official said the US would “not relent in designating Houthi leaders and entities who contribute to regional instability and humanitarian suffering.”
The UAE has called on the US to put the Houthis back on the terror list in the wake of the missile strikes that targeted Abu Dhabi as recently as February but aid groups say this would hamper their ability to deliver food to civilians facing one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes.
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