US Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave an interview to Al-Arabiya’s Nadia Bilbassy during his visit in Cairo this week that was published on the US State Department’s website, marking it as important and consequential.
Blinken visited to Cairo before coming to Israel and meeting key US partners in the region. Israel and the US recently conducted an important military drill with US Central Command.
The Iran deal and Iran
In the interview, Blinken discusses the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran deal, saying that Iran had a chance to return to it last summer, during the Russian war in Ukraine after it was already known that Iran was sending drones to Russia to help Moscow kill Ukrainians.
So what is new in Blinken’s statement? “Unfortunately, they rejected what was on the table and had been agreed to by everybody,” he said. “Now, our focus is on the many things that have happened since, including the horrific repression of the Iranian people on the streets of Iran as young people, women in particular, have been standing up for their basic rights, and very important communities across Iranian society are doing the same thing and are being repressed violently by the regime.”
In essence, the Iranian regime is now seen in a worse light than before. “At the same time, we’re also seeing Iran support Russia in its war of aggression against Ukraine, providing it with drones and potentially other weapons systems. So that’s where the focus is and that’s the concern of many countries around the world.”
Iran’s backing of Russia is a game changer, and not in a good way for either player; it has harmed Iran’s ability to speak to the West and also to wring concessions from it.
Blinken insisted that the US prefers diplomacy in any regard to the nuclear program. But Iran seems to be marching towards stockpiling more enriched uranium, which could build into a crisis. “Diplomacy is never off the table,” he said, “but President Biden has also made clear that we’re determined that Iran not acquire a nuclear weapon, and every option remains on the table to ensure that doesn’t happen.”
But it’s not clear what options are actually on the table. Neither the US nor Iran want a conflict, making the scope of options quite narrow.
The Gulf, Israel and deterrence
Bilbassy then asked Blinken about drills with US Central Command as well as the Gulf and efforts to deter Iranian activities in the region. This general question opened the door for Blinken to talk about deterrence.
“All of our military efforts are designed with the idea of deterrence in mind – that is, to try to make sure that a would-be aggressor thinks twice, thinks three times, and then doesn’t do it. That’s what deterrence is all about. And it’s important to be able to demonstrate that and to make sure that you’re ready if aggression comes. And if deterrence doesn’t work, that you’re also in a position to effectively defend yourself,” he said.
Deterrence is important; US Central Command has been concerned for the past few years about Iran’s increasing use of drones. The naval component of US Central Command is also seeking new solutions at sea to use unmanned surface vessels. It is unclear if Iran is actually deterred by this as pro-Iran proxies in Syria carried out an attack on the Tanf garrison last week using drones; Iran attacked a ship using drones in the Gulf of Oman last year.
The interview also touched on US-Saudi relations. In recent years there have been growing calls in Washington to revisit the traditional US-Saudi partnership. There are also organizations that are devoted to making light of human rights abuses and other issues relating to Riyadh, as well as growing calls in Congress critical of Saudi Arabia.
“We’ve had a relationship – an important relationship with Saudi Arabia for decades, for generations, across administrations in our own country and across leaders in Saudi Arabia. It’s one that evolves,” said Blinken in the interview. “From our perspective, the important thing to do is to make sure that that relationship fully reflects our own interests and values, and that is something that’s not static. It’s constantly evolving.”
This issue of “evolving” is unclear; sounds like it means that the Saudis are on notice that the relationship could go either way – it could get better or worse. “I think since then we’ve seen Saudi Arabia do some very positive things – for example, providing very significant support, humanitarian support to Ukraine in the face of this Russian aggression; voting for the – in effect – for the UN Charter at the United Nations against the Russian aggression,” he said. Saudi Arabia has done some positive things in relation to the US in recent months but also some things that have ruffled feathers in DC.
Regarding Iraq, Blinken said he had recently spoken to Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ Al Sudani. He described an enduring partnership with Iraq amid the conflict against ISIS.
Additionally, he said the US continues to work with Iraqi security forces. The problem is that Iran holds influence over Iraq, especially with the many differences between the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq and Baghdad.
The US is currently building a large consulate in Erbil – in the Kurdistan region. It’s unclear if the US is paying enough attention to more potentially looming crisis between Erbil and Baghdad. Blinken mentioned as well the US-Iraq “Strategic Framework Agreement.” In 2021, the US’ position was that it “welcomed progress between the Iraqi Federal Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government in reaching agreements on budgetary, energy, and other strategic issues.” It remains to be seen if this is the case.
Blinken did say that he hopes that Iraq will be further integrated into the Arab community, with a special reference to Egypt, an Arab state that has done a lot of outreach to Iraq, as well as Jordan and Syria. Because of Iran’s role, it is sometimes difficult for Iraq to work as closely as it once did with the Arab states.
Blinken was also asked about views of Libya, the Palestinian-Israeli tensions and Syria. The answers were boilerplate, supporting the current progress in Libya and that the US does not support normalization with the Syrian regime, which could be important because US partners in the region, such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, appear to have more normalized relations with Syria.
Blinken did point out that the US doesn’t want another Turkish invasion of northern Syria. Although he didn’t mention the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) a military partner of the US, he did say, “When it comes to northern Syria, we’ve urged everyone to try to calm the waters. And what we don’t need, I don’t think what anyone needs is a military incursion in northern Syria. That risks, of course, doing tremendous damage to civilians and innocent people. It actually potentially would disrupt the efforts to continue to keep Daesh [ISIS] at bay and take the focus off of that, where it needs to be. And so it’s not, frankly, in anyone’s interests.”
It’s unclear if the lack of mention of the SDF was intentional or not. In the past, the US was not consistent in its backing the SDF. While US Central Command works closely with the SDF against ISIS, US diplomatic activity has lacked clarity in eastern Syria.
During the Trump administration, the approach to Syria was that the US was working with the SDF only in a “temporary, tactical and transactional” framework, while US forces said they were working “by, with and through” their partners.
So the US military partnership was tight, but the SDF seemed at arm’s length on the diplomatic front. It is understood that the US is not looking to walk away from eastern Syria, as the previous administration tried to do, but many questions still remain unanswered.