Saudi prince cautions Biden against returning to Iran nuclear deal

Israel also braces for US re-entry, with foreign minister heading team aimed at ensuring Jerusalem’s concerns will be taken into account if and when accord renegotiated

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

In this November 24, 2018, file photo, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal talks to the Associated Press in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili, File)
In this November 24, 2018, file photo, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal talks to the Associated Press in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili, File)

Saudi Arabia’s former ambassador to Washington, Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, on Tuesday cautioned US President-elect Joe Biden against re-entering the Iran nuclear deal.

“While we all aspire to have Iran back as a normal peaceful nation-state within the international community, the last forty years’ experience with the Iranian regime is not encouraging,” said Faisal in a speech to the National Council on US-Arab Relations, in which he also warned Biden against repeating past “mistakes.”

Re-entering the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, as Biden has said he wishes to do, “would not do service to stability in our region. Rejoining and then negotiating the other important issues would trap diplomacy and subject it to Iranian blackmail,” the envoy added.

The Saudi royal became the second representative of a Middle Eastern country this week to urge Biden not to return to the nuclear deal. Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer on Monday said doing so would be a “mistake” and urged the incoming US administration to listen to the concerns of allies in the region such as Israel and Gulf states.

Faisal said Biden “is not new to politics. He is an experienced statesman and well-familiar with the important issues in the world and our region. However, we must wait to see to know about his vision, his team and his foreign policy conduct.”

Any non-comprehensive agreement “will not achieve lasting peace and security in our region,” he said, lamenting that the nuclear deal “did not rationalize Iranian destructive behavior in our region,” which he said is no less of a threat than its nuclear aspirations.

Saudi Arabia has been seen as wary of Biden’s upcoming presidency, as the president-elect has vowed a reset on US relations with Riyadh that will address its human rights record and its military campaign in Yemen.

The nuclear deal with Iran was clinched in 2015 when Biden was vice president. US President Donald Trump withdrew from the pact in 2018 and restored sanctions.

Israel is also preparing for a major shift in US policy toward the region, with the Walla news site reporting that Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi has set up a small team in his office that will be tasked with producing a strategy to ensure Jerusalem is kept in the loop on the incoming Biden administration’s efforts to re-enter the nuclear deal.

“We do not want to be left out again,” Ashkenazi said in a closed briefing before the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last week, according to Walla.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi talks to the media at a news conference in front of the Liebermann Villa at Wannsee Lake in Berlin, Germany, August 27, 2020. (Michele Tantussi/Pool Photo via AP)

The foreign minister said the government should refrain from repeating past mistakes that left it isolated as the Obama administration negotiated the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Then, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led an aggressive public campaign against the accord that climaxed with a speech before a joint session of Congress that was organized behind the back of then-president Barack Obama.

But within the current Israeli government, there is no uniform policy on the issue with Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Benny Gantz believed to hold a more moderate position than that of Netanyahu, who openly backed Trump’s sanctions regime.

According to Walla, Ashkenazi told lawmakers last week that the Foreign Ministry believes that Biden will make good on his election promise to return to the accord.

Ashkenazi said the goal of the team he’ll be heading will be to ensure that Israeli concerns are taken into account when the US and Iran renegotiate the deal. That is only expected to happen, however, after the US re-enters the accord and Tehran returns to complying with it, according to the report.

The UN’s atomic watchdog agency said last week that Iran continues to increase its stockpile of low-enriched uranium far beyond the limits set in a landmark nuclear deal with world powers and to enrich it to a greater purity than permitted.

This photo released Nov. 5, 2019, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, shows centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

In a recent interview, Saudi Arabia’s minister of state for foreign affairs said the kingdom would consider arming with nuclear weapons if Iran acquires them.

Adel al-Jubeir told Germany’s DPA news agency that nuclear armament was “definitely an option.”

“Saudi Arabia has made it very clear that it will do everything it can to protect its people and to protect its territories,” Jubeir said.

Jubeir said that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, other countries will follow, and expressed support for taking a harsh stance against Tehran.

Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran are regional powers and fierce rivals in a struggle for hegemony in the Middle East, and have sparred through proxies in other countries, especially Yemen.

FILE – In this Oct. 27, 2011 file photo, US Vice President Joe Biden, right, offers his condolences to Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz upon the death of his brother Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, at Prince Sultan palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)

Iran is the region’s leading Shiite power and tied to groups in the region including its proxy Hezbollah, the Syrian regime and Palestinian terror groups in Gaza.

Saudi Arabia views itself as the leader of Sunni states in the Middle East, and is allied with countries including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which both signed normalization pacts with Israel in September. Riyadh is also an ally to the United States, which brokered the normalization deals.

Taking a step back from the brink, Iran’s foreign minister said Tuesday that Tehran was willing to return to the nuclear deal if Biden lifts sanctions on Iran after entering the White House.

“We are ready to discuss how the United States can re-enter the accord,” Zarif told Iranian media, according to a translation by the Reuters news agency.

“If Mr. Biden is willing to fulfill US commitments, we too can immediately return to our full commitments in the accord… and negotiations are possible within the framework of the P5+1,” Zarif said, referring to the six world powers that signed onto the deal.

The Trump administration is reportedly planning a bevy of wide-ranging sanctions on Iran to make it more difficult for the incoming administration to reenter the nuclear deal.

Last week, former Biden aide Amos Hochstein told Israel’s Channel 12 that rejoining the Iran nuclear deal was “high on his agenda” and that the US president-elect would move to reenter the international pact shortly after taking office.

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