Nov 18, 2020 - World

Exclusive: Biden must consult Gulf states before new Iran deal, Bahrain foreign minister says

Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani of Bahrain told me in an exclusive interview that he expects the Biden administration to consult Bahrain and other Gulf countries before moving toward a new nuclear deal with Iran.

Why it matters: The comments, made during Zayani's historic visit to Jerusalem today, reflect the concerns of other Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE about Biden's desire to revive the existing nuclear deal and potentially negotiate a new one.

Flashback: Those countries all supported President Trump's decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal and launch the "maximum pressure" campaign. The Trump administration consulted closely with Bahrain and other Gulf states on its Iran policy, as well as with Israel.

What he's saying: “The situation in the Middle East has changed in the last four years and the dynamics have changed," Zayani told me. “We are sure that the interest of the U.S. is to have a secure and stable region for all, and we hope Iran becomes a responsible regional citizen."

  • He stressed any new agreement with Iran needs to deal not only with Iran’s nuclear program but also with its regional behavior and its ballistic missile program.

Between the lines: Biden has said he'd return to the 2015 deal if Iran returns to compliance, but he also says he'd seek a new, broader deal with Iran.

  • “We need to be consulted if the U.S. pursues such an agreement with Iran," Zayani said, referring to America's partners in the region.

What’s next: Israeli officials tell me they hope the normalization agreements with Bahrain and the UAE will allow the three countries to present a united line to the Biden administration — both in private and in public — on a new Iran deal.

  • Zayani said Bahrain is in consultations with Israel and with its Gulf partners about what’s next on Iran.
  • “Any nation concerned by Iran’s belligerence should, and will, make their case," he stressed. "We will certainly make our views known. We have a close and open dialog with the United States, so I am sure that other regional states will make these concerns absolutely clear."

Driving the news:

  • Zayani became the first-ever Bahraini government minister to visit Israel today, arriving this morning on a direct flight from Manama.
  • White House envoy Avi Berkowitz, who was one of the architects of the Bahrain-Israel normalization deal, traveled with him.
  • Zayani gave his Israeli counterpart, Gabi Ashkenazi, a formal request to open a Bahraini Embassy in Tel Aviv. He also offered Bahrain's acceptance of Israel's request to open an embassy in Manama.
  • Ashkenazi said he thinks the embassies will be opened by the end of the year. He'll travel to Bahrain on Dec. 4 to participate in the Manama security dialogue, becoming the first Israeli foreign minister to visit Bahrain.

The latest: Zayani also had a trilateral meeting in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

What’s next: Zayani told me he thinks the Biden administration will embrace the Abraham Accords process and potentially expand it. “We know it is not going to always be a smooth ride, but this train has left the station and we hope others will join," he said.

  • He also denied that there was a crisis between Bahrain and the Palestinians over the normalization decision. He said the deal would allow Bahrain to "use our relationship with Israel to more effectively advocate for the Palestinian people" and a two-state solution.
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