Leaders in the Middle East threw their weight behind the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, just days before U.S. President Joe Biden took office this week.
The United Arab Emirates said it was “absolutely” in favor of continuing to pressure Iran — a policy by the Trump administration aimed at forcing the regime to halt its nuclear activities and cut off support for militants in the Middle East.
Israel’s energy minister said the campaign has been “very productive,” while the deputy mayor of Jerusalem said it is the “only thing” that will work.
Biden is widely expected to take the diplomatic route, in contrast with his predecessor Donald Trump, who slapped heavy economic sanctions on Iran after withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal. One analyst told CNBC in November that the two presidents are “as stark as black and white” when it comes to enforcing maximum pressure on Tehran.
Politicians in the region, however, praised Trump’s strategy.
“I think we are still in favor of maximum pressure — absolutely,” said Omar Ghobash, the UAE’s assistant minister for culture and public diplomacy.
“Was it successful? We think it will succeed,” he told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble on Sunday.
We don’t have a problem with rapprochement with Iran, but … it needs to be conditional, it needs to be participatory.
UAE’s assistant minister for culture and public diplomacy
For its part, Iran has slammed the Trump administration and called on Biden to return to the nuclear deal.
“Tyrant Trump’s political career and his ominous reign are over today and his ‘maximum pressure’ policy on Iran has completely failed,” said President Hassan Rouhani, according to Reuters.
‘Only policy’ that worked
Israeli politicians have also expressed support for the maximum pressure policy.
“We thought that the maximum pressure policy with regard to Iran was very productive,” Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble.
“Iran was weakening, Iran [had] to reduce its military-force building and also its support to some terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and others in the region,” he said on Wednesday.
Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim political and militant group with significant influence in Lebanon, has been designated a terrorist organization by the mainly Sunni Muslim Gulf Cooperation Council and countries including the U.S., Canada and Germany.
The only thing that [works] with Iran is economic pressure, combined with a valid military threat.
Israel’s Energy Minister
Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, deputy mayor of Jerusalem and co-founder of the UAE-Israel Business Council, echoed the same sentiment.
“It is the only thing that will work,” she said on “Capital Connection” on Thursday. “Anything else is a capitulation.”
“It’s not going to be Israel fighting on its own here, to try and keep the maximum pressure,” she said, pointing out that Israel now has friends in the region who share the same concerns.
Israel signed the so-called Abraham Accords with the UAE in August, ushering in a new era of normalized diplomatic relations between the two countries after decades of antagonism. The tiny kingdom of Bahrain followed suit and established ties with Israel.
“It’s going to be Israel, the Gulf countries and possibly even Saudi Arabia, that’s going to be putting the pressure on the United States to keep the pressure on Iran, and I think that that’s the only policy that’s shown any signs of working,” Hassan-Nahoum said.
Steinitz said “the only thing that [works] with Iran is economic pressure, combined with a valid military threat,” and pointed out that that the regime agreed to negotiate with the Obama administration only after punishing sanctions were introduced.
“This is the only thing that worked in the past. This is the only thing that might work in the future,” he said during the Atlantic Council’s virtual Global Energy Forum.
New agreement with Iran?
Steinitz also weighed in on what he hoped a new deal with Tehran would look like.
“It should be quite a different agreement with better safeguards,” said Steinitz.
“Iranian nuclear capability should not be only frozen, but dismantled,” he said, adding that this is about the safety of the “entire world” and not just Israel or the Gulf states.
The UAE’s Ghobash said his country was not opposed to a new deal, but took issue with the way some of the countries in the region were left out of nuclear deal in 2015.
The deal — officially referred to as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — was signed by Iran, the U.S., China, France, Russia, the U.K. and Germany. Gulf Arab nations were not included in the deal.
“It didn’t take our concerns into account, and it treated us as bystanders and spectators when we felt that it was directly concerned with our security,” Ghobash said.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister in November also told CNBC that the kingdom should be included in any negotiations between the U.S. and Iran.
A new agreement should limit Iran’s nuclear activities but also address its “regional malign activity,” the minister said at the time. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been wrestling for dominance in the region for decades.
Ghobash said the Biden administration is aware of the concerns regional players have.
“We would expect that those concerns to be taken into account,” he said.
“We don’t have a problem with rapprochement with Iran, but … it needs to be conditional, it needs to be participatory,” he also said.
— CNBC’s Natasha Turak and Emma Graham contributed to this report.