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Tehran says US used ‘Iranophobia’ to ramp up Mideast tensions during Biden visit

Iranian foreign ministry makes accusation after US president wraps up trip to Israel, West Bank and Saudi Arabia

An Iranian student from the Islamic Basij volunteer militia burns a US flag in Tehran, on July 16, 2022, during a protest against US President Joe Biden's visits to Israel and Saudi Arabia (ATTA KENARE / AFP)
An Iranian student from the Islamic Basij volunteer militia burns a US flag in Tehran, on July 16, 2022, during a protest against US President Joe Biden's visits to Israel and Saudi Arabia (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

Tehran accused the United States on Sunday of using “Iranophobia” to amplify tensions in the region during US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia.

“The United States has once again sought to create tension and crisis in the region by appealing to the failed policy of Iranophobia,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani, according to the Reuters.

It was unclear if Kanani was referring to any specific statement or action by the US president.

The comment came days after Biden and Prime Minister Yair Lapid signed a declaration in which the US vowed to use “all elements in its national power” to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

A Biden administration official briefing the White House press corps in Saudi Arabia during the second leg of the presidential visit said including Israel in the integrated air defense network that it is hoping to establish with Mideast allies to combat Iran would be significantly beneficial. The official avoided a direct response to a question on whether there had been any progress in advancing the initiative.

The idea of a joint air defense network between Israel and its Arab neighbors was raised during the Negev Summit of foreign ministers from Israel, the US, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt in March.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani holds a press conference in Tehran on July 13, 2022. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

However, on Saturday Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan insisted that he was not aware of any talks at the Jeddah summit on including Israel in an integrated Middle East air defense network — an initiative that Washington and Jerusalem have both discussed openly in recent months.

Biden on Saturday assured Arab leaders the United States would remain fully engaged in the Middle East, as he wrapped up his first tour of the region since taking office.

“We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran,” Biden said during a summit in Jeddah, on the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia.

US ties to Gulf powers in particular have been roiled by multiple issues in recent years, notably Washington’s push for a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program and its tepid response to attacks on Saudi oil facilities in 2019 claimed by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels, as well as the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a killing that US intelligence believes was likely approved by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The summit, the final stop of Biden’s Middle East tour, brought together the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council as well as Egypt, Jordan and Iraq.

(L to R) Asaad bin Tariq al-Said, Omani Deputy Prime Minister for International Relations and Cooperation Affairs and the Special Representative of the Sultan; UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan; Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi; Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa; US President Joe Biden; Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman; Jordan’s King Abdullah II; Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani; Kuwait’s Crown Prince Meshal al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah; and Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhemi pose together for the family photo during the Jeddah Security and Development Summit (GCC+3) at a hotel in Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah on July 16, 2022. (MANDEL NGAN / POOL / AFP)

Overall, there’s little that the nine Mideast heads of state agree on when it comes to foreign policy. For example, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE are trying to isolate and squeeze Iran over its regional reach and proxies. Oman and Qatar, on the other hand, have solid diplomatic ties with Iran and have acted as intermediaries for talks between Washington and Tehran.

Qatar recently hosted talks between US and Iranian officials as they try to revive Iran’s nuclear accord. Iran not only shares a huge underwater gas field with Qatar in the Persian Gulf, but it also rushed to Qatar’s aid when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut off ties and imposed a years-long embargo on Qatar that ended shortly before Biden took office.

However, there is widespread agreement on preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and the US and Saudi Arabia signed a joint communique late Friday in which they both stressed the importance of that goal.

Biden’s actions have frustrated some of the leaders. While the US has played an important role in encouraging a months-long ceasefire in Yemen, his decision to reverse a Trump-era move that had listed Yemen’s rebel Houthis as a terrorist group has outraged the Emirati and Saudi leadership.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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