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Top Biden officials plan trip to Middle East over Iran, F-35 concerns

A U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II fighter jet performs a maneuver during a media preview day at the Singapore Airshow in Singapore, on Feb. 9, 2020.

SEONGJOON CHO/BLOOMBERG

By NICK WADHAMS AND TONY CAPACCIO | Bloomberg | Published: April 28, 2021

The Biden administration is sending a team of senior officials to the Middle East this week as the president seeks to ease allies' concerns over Iranian nuclear talks and address issues involving the United Arab Emirates' planned purchase of the F-35 joint strike fighter.

The team of officials from the State Department, National Security Council and Defense Department will be led by NSC Middle East policy coordinator Brett McGurk and State Department counselor Derek Chollet, according to several people familiar with the plans. Tentative plans call for visiting Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Egypt and Jordan, according to the people, who asked not to be identified because the trip isn't public.

The group's visit comes amid deepening unease among American allies in the region that President Joe Biden will neglect them as he looks to reorient U.S. foreign policy toward countering China. They're also worried by his bid to bring the U.S. back into the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that former President Donald Trump abandoned.

An administration official, who asked not to be identified discussing diplomatic matters, said the delegation will discuss important issues tied to U.S. national security and continuing efforts to de-escalate tensions in the Middle East. Officials from the State Department declined to comment.

Other members of the U.S. delegation include Joey Hood, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, and Dana Stroul, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, according to the people.

Many of America's Middle East allies have chafed at Biden's repeated promise to restore U.S. alliances globally given that some of them — especially Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Israel — enjoyed and benefited from close ties with Trump's administration.

Biden has kept some of those allies at arm's length. He waited weeks after taking office before speaking with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and signaled that his administration would recalibrate relations with Saudi Arabia. In one of his early foreign policy moves, Biden declassified and released a report that implicated Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman — the kingdom's de facto ruler — in the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Prince Mohammed dismissed a question about the status of U.S. ties in an interview with local television on Tuesday night, saying "There will never be 100% agreement between two countries" but adding that he thinks the two nations are in accord about 90% of the time.

Another element of the Mideast trip is tied to the Biden administration's decision to proceed with the sale of the next-generation F-35 jet to the U.A.E.

Upon taking office in January, the administration announced a review of the potential $10.4 billion, 50-jet sale approved in the final days of the Trump administration, after the U.A.E. and Israel reached a historic peace accord. The administration is allowing the sale to go forward even though it has questions about the U.A.E.'s ties with China.

Specifically, one official said the U.S. has concerns about U.A.E. technology security assurances that need to be addressed or clarified before the jet sale is completed. The stealthy F-35 is the most visible part of a potential $23 billion arms package that could take years to complete.

In a sign of the importance of the issue, Biden aide and former Ambassador to the U.A.E. Barbara Leaf is planning a separate trip to the Gulf nation to discuss concern that China could obtain U.S. technology once the Emirati military acquires the jet built by Lockheed Martin Corp. Leaf has overseen Middle East affairs at the NSC and is Biden's nominee to become assistant secretary of state for the region.

The issue of the U.A.E.'s China ties and its security guarantees regarding the F-35 is one that has been flagged by several American senators.

"I am very concerned about the Emirates' burgeoning military R&D relationship" with China, "and there is a lot we should be paying close attention to," Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement to Bloomberg News.

Senator James Risch, the top Republican on the foreign relations panel, said in a statement that the "U.S. rightly demands serious security commitments from all F-35 international partners, including U.A.E. I'll be closely overseeing the implementation of these security arrangements with U.A.E., and ensuring they live up to their commitments."

Still, one key U.S. official with a direct stake in the outcome of the U.A.E. sale says he's satisfied with the Biden administration's approach.

"We will depend upon the U.A.E. to exercise the appropriate precaution with the F-35, and I know that our government has been in close negotiations" with the Gulf nation about those procedures, the head of U.S. Central Command, Marine Corps General Frank McKenzie, told Pentagon reporters last week. "I am comfortable that we're in a good place."