Iran is trying to play the Saudis against the United States. It won’t work.
After severing diplomatic ties following a January 2016 mob attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran, the government in Riyadh hoped sanctions against Iran by President Donald Trump’s administration could produce change. in Iranian conduct. Instead, Iran has become more aggressive than ever, culminating in a devastating missile strike on Saudi Aramco facilities in September 2019.
The Trump administration, usually belligerent toward Iran, turned a blind eye, noting that no Americans had been killed. This turned out to be a drop in the bucket for the Saudis. They were already unhappy that the Barack Obama administration’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran ignored two main concerns: Iran’s arsenal of drones and missiles and its network of armed gangs in Arab countries, including Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
The Saudis concluded that Washington was no longer reliable and that if they wanted their main security issues involving Tehran on the negotiating table, they were going to put them on their own. After the 2020 US elections, this realization coincided with the Biden administration’s encouragement of diplomacy regarding the use of force in the region.
Formal reconciliation talks began in April 2021 at Baghdad airport; Iraq being something close to neutral ground. Initially, little progress was made. The Saudis have worked to get Iran to pressure its Houthi clients in Yemen to agree to a ceasefire and possible peace deal in a war that has turned into a quagmire for Riyadh. . The Iranians only wanted to discuss restoring diplomatic relations.
But after the fifth round earlier this year, and amid growing feelings that Iran was stubbornly blocking Biden’s efforts to revive the nuclear deal, there was a minor but real breakthrough. Responding to Iranian insistence, the Houthis eventually agreed to a truce, which lasted more than two months and allowed significant humanitarian aid to the beleaguered country.
The Saudis securing and maintaining a ceasefire in the bloody conflict pleased the White House and Congress. Riyadh also took the opportunity to finally get rid of the rowdy Yemeni president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, replacing him with a new Presidential Leadership Council.
Another round of talks, which seems imminent, will come at a pivotal time in relations between the United States and its friends and foes in the Middle East. Biden’s visit was aimed at repairing strained relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia. But perhaps more importantly, the president encouraged Saudi Arabia to join other Arab countries, and even Israel, in establishing a set of informal cooperative security arrangements. These would include air and missile defense systems to compensate for Iran’s increasingly powerful arsenal.
The end goal of such expanded collaboration is for the U.S. military to reduce its footprint in the Middle East, doing less with more, as regional cooperation could prove more effective and sustainable than outside intervention.
All is not well. There are already signs that the Houthis could break the uneasy truce in Yemen. Iran will play a pivotal role in making this happen, as it uses these militias to increase or reduce pressure on its adversaries, adjusting the violence like a tap.
It is also clear that Tehran hopes to use the reconciliation talks with Riyadh to drive a wedge between the United States and Saudi Arabia. The idea is to make the Saudis choose between either rebuilding close cooperation with Washington or moving closer to Iran and extracting the war from Yemen.
It’s a crude trap. Washington can outflank Tehran in bolstering security commitments to Saudi Arabia, while making it clear that it expects greater Saudi cooperation on energy production and pricing, keeping Russia and China remotely and by being open to greater regional security coordination. Gulf Arab countries still have major doubts about US commitment and reliability, but they understand that there is no practical alternative to US support.
Iranian media exaggerate Saudi Arabia’s supposed enthusiasm for full-scale reconciliation, but in fact the Saudis remain highly skeptical. The E. regional agents.
The partnership between Washington and Riyadh may not be as strong as it once was, but it is clearly on the mend. And he’s certainly still strong enough to be able to show Iran that he can’t win cheap victories by trying to divide them.
More from this writer and Bloomberg’s opinion:
• Biden can unite Israel and Saudi Arabia to deal with Iranian threat: Hussein Ibish
• The Middle East is enemy territory for the United States and Russia: Hussein Ibish
• A NATO of the Middle East? It Won’t Happen: Bobby Ghosh
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Hussein Ibish is senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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