WASHINGTON — (AP) — Joe Biden begins the first visit to the Middle East of his presidency with a monumental task: to assure worried Israeli and Saudi officials that he is committed to preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
Biden begins the visit on Wednesday with a three-day stop in Israel, where officials say Iran’s rapidly evolving nuclear program is high on their agenda for talks with the US president. Biden made reviving the Iran nuclear deal, brokered by Barack Obama in 2015 and scrapped by Donald Trump in 2018, a key priority upon taking office.
But indirect talks for the United States to rejoin the deal have stalled as Iran has made rapid progress in developing its nuclear program. That has made the Biden administration increasingly pessimistic about reviving the deal, which imposed deep curbs on Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.
Shortly after arriving in Israel on Wednesday, Biden is expected to receive a briefing on the country’s new “Iron Beam” missile defense system and visit Yad Vashem, a memorial to Holocaust victims. Along with meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials, he is expected to receive Israel’s Presidential Medal of Honor and visit American athletes participating in the Maccabiah Games, which involve thousands of Jewish and Israeli athletes from around the world.
Biden, in a Washington Post op-ed on Saturday, accused Trump of walking away from the nuclear deal that Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union have also signed. But Biden also suggested he still holds at least a glimmer of hope that Iranians will return to conformity.
“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 ready to do,” he wrote.
Israeli officials, who briefed reporters ahead of Biden’s departure from Washington on Tuesday, said the United States and Israel would issue a far-reaching “Jerusalem statement” that would take a tough stance on Iran’s nuclear program.
The statement commits the two countries to use “all elements of their national power against the Iranian nuclear threat,” according to an Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity to preview the statement.
The official said the Israelis would stress to Biden their view that Iran has calculated that “time is on their side” and is loath to make concessions. The Biden administration’s last round of indirect talks with Iran in Doha, Qatar, late last month ended unsuccessfully.
Separately, Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid released a joint statement on Wednesday announcing that the two nations were launching a new high-level strategic dialogue on technology. The partnership should focus on using emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence and other technological solutions, to address global challenges such as pandemic preparedness and climate change.
The White House has also been frustrated by repeated Iranian-sponsored attacks on US troops based in Iraq, though the administration says the frequency of such attacks has dropped precipitously over the past two years. Tehran has also sponsored Houthi rebels in a bloody war with the Saudis in Yemen. A UN-brokered ceasefire 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 said Monday that the administration believes Russia is looking to Iran to supply it with hundreds of unmanned aerial vehicles, including capable drones. of arms, 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 travels to the Saudi port city of Jeddah on Friday to meet King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely known by his initials MBS, and to attend a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council, where Iran’s nuclear program is In progress. Agenda.
The president’s strained relationship with the crown prince also threatens the Saudi visit.
As a candidate for the White House, Biden, a Democrat, has said he will seek to make the kingdom a “pariah” nation because of its human rights abuses. The relationship was further strained when Biden last year approved the release of a US intelligence report that determined MBS likely approved the 2018 murder of US journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The president will arrive in Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s largest oil producers, at a time when gas and food prices are soaring around the world, in part due to the Russian invasion of the ‘Ukraine. White House officials and energy analysts say there is little hope the Saudis or other OPEC+ members will provide relief.
Another factor in the search for a detente in Saudi relations is growing concern within the administration that the Saudis could grow closer to China and Russia amid tensions with the United States.
Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former US State Department official, said Biden was looking forward to visiting Saudi Arabia “like I would look forward to a canal operation.”
“You have a president who is terribly conflicted about this meeting,” Miller said. “He can’t even acknowledge, in all his public remarks, that he’s even going to meet Mohammad bin Salman.”
But Israeli officials are cautiously optimistic that Biden’s visit could be a watershed moment on a slow path to normalizing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Biden will be the first US 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 hailed 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 at the time. that Netanyahu was prime minister.
Israel is expected to hold new elections in the fall after the fragile coalition government led by Naftali Bennett fell last month.
Federman and Madhani reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Chris Megerian in Washington contributed to this report.
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