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Editorial: Biden's Middle East test

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Pentagon Global

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris walk with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon. The Biden administration faces difficult choices in the Middle East. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, Pool)

The Abraham Accords between Israel, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and the United States have been hailed as the first positive step toward peace in the Middle East in two decades and a major setback to Iran’s clearly stated ambitions for regional dominance.

The Biden administration says it supports the accords. But early actions by President Joe Biden raise a question about that commitment and point toward renewed friction in the region.

Israel and Saudi Arabia are both critical to the success of the accords. The Saudi government has been expected to join them and normalize diplomatic relations with Israel out of a common concern about Iranian aggression in the region.

But in one of his first actions as president, Mr. Biden suspended U.S. support of Saudi Arabia in its war with Iranian-backed rebels in neighboring Yemen who launch missile strikes into Saudi territory. And Mr. Biden delayed talking with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu until Wednesday, a four-week silence that was taken in Israel as a deliberate snub.

There are legitimate reasons for both decisions.

The decision on Yemen can be seen as a humanitarian move to promote a cease fire. But the humanitarian disaster in Yemen was brought on by the Houthi rebels who are accused of diverting humanitarian aid and are endangering 2 million civilians, according to United Nations officials in Yemen. The Houthis are backed and supplied by Iran.

Certainly there is a moral imperative for the United States to make it clear that it does not accept the Saudi government’s murder of a Saudi journalist with ties to The Washington Post. And there are multiple reasons for the president to prefer to deal with someone other than the controversial Mr. Netanyahu, who faces a tense reelection campaign in a closely divided nation.

But in diplomacy, small gestures can have major spillover effects.

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Iran, for example, reads that Mr. Biden does not set a high value on the Trump administration’s commitments, so it’s pouring on the pressure to get our president to make major concessions.

Iran announced plans to cut off international inspection of much of its nuclear facilities, where it has resumed enriching uranium to 20% — the most time-consuming stage in the production of nuclear weapons material.

At the same time, a militia group in Iraq, reportedly linked to Iran, claimed credit for a missile attack on the Erbil airport on Feb. 15 that killed a contractor working for the U.S. government and injured several others, including a U.S. soldier. This looks like a warning by Iran that it may again inflame Iraq in an effort to drive out American forces.

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the United States was outraged by the attack and promised retaliation if and when the attacker is identified. But he did not say that the United States will hold Iran responsible for such attacks.

Iran’s response to Mr. Biden’s gestures has not been to seek new cooperation. Instead, it is employing threats. Its recent moves to resume production of nuclear materials and almost completely withdraw from international inspection are worrisome.

The new administration has said until Iran complies with the terms, it will not lift U.S. sanctions and rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran that was negotiated by then-President Barack Obama and China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany and the European Union. Iran has answered that unless the United States lifts sanctions imposed by the Trump administration when it left the agreement, it will consider the deal dead. On Thursday, Iran rebuffed an EU offer to broker talks with the U.S.

Then-President Donald Trump was right that Iran poses a major threat to Middle East peace and stability and must be resisted.

If the Obama deal cannot prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, and if reentering the deal and ending sanctions would strengthen Iran’s economy and its ability to create havoc in the Middle East, then it would be better to let the deal die and rely on deterrence to keep the nuclear peace. Sanctions should only be lifted when Iran agrees not to pursue nuclear weapons and also ends its development of ballistic missiles and its destabilizing activities in the Middle East. That agreement is still a long way off.

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