The shift in Washington is undeniable: the Middle East is no longer an absolute priority for the United States. The US withdrawal from the wider region is evident in the departure of troops from Afghanistan and the reduction in US military commitments in Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, as well as an increased focus on China and the United States. Russia. There are good reasons for this shift in strategy, especially given the recent and dismal history of US involvement in the region, but it also comes with its own risks. The precipitous departure of the United States from Iraq in 2011, for example, paved the way for the rise of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and the expansion of the regional footprint of the ‘Iran. To avoid similar damage this time around, Washington must find a way to combine cuts in military commitments with gains in regional stability. One of the best opportunities to realize these gains lies in the emerging talks between the two most important antagonists in the region: Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Even as the United States reduces its commitments, the conflict in the Middle East has entered a dangerous new phase. Iran and Israel are engaged in a shadow war of cyber attacks, targeted assassinations and sabotage. Russia and Turkey are supporting paramilitary proxy forces in Libya and Syria (as well as the Caucasus). New missile and rocket technologies are finding their way into the hands of non-state actors, including Hamas, Iraqi paramilitary groups and the Houthis in Yemen. Turkey and Iran have made surprising leaps in drone warfare capabilities, drastically shifting the balance of military power. Turkish drones successfully defended Idlib in Syria and eviscerated the Arab and Russian-backed militias of Khalifa Haftar in Libya, while Iran used sophisticated drones to bypass advanced air defense systems and strike critical targets in Saudi Arabia. As these technologies proliferate in the region, conflicts will become more unpredictable and dangerous. And the more likely it is that the conflicts get out of hand, the more likely it is that the United States will have to return to the region to face the consequences.
The region’s most destabilizing and dangerous rivalry – that between Iran and Saudi Arabia – has unfolded from the Levant to the Persian Gulf, polarizing the region along the Shiite-Sunni and Arab-Persian fault lines. . Long-standing competition has intensified first with the onset of the Iraq war in 2003, then with the outbreak of civil wars in Syria and Yemen and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Tensions reached a peak particularly dangerous in 2019, when Iran launched a sophisticated military attack on Saudi oil facilities. Today, the two rivals continue to fight in Yemen and compete for a position in Iraq and Lebanon, and may prepare for new competition in Afghanistan as the US pulls out and the Taliban takes territory. .
Yet despite all this, in April senior Saudi and Iranian military and intelligence officials met in Baghdad after a particularly intense period of drone and missile attacks launched from Yemen and Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has leveraged his relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Tehran to bring the two sides closer together. Soon after, bin Salman adopted a rare conciliatory tone, saying he wanted “good relations” with Iran and expressing his openness to dialogue with the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. The Iranian government spokesman has shown similar optimism about a breakthrough, and the Iranian press predicted an imminent resumption of diplomatic relations. Since April, there have been additional meetings under the supervision of senior security officials from both sides, including Iranian force commander Quds; after a hiatus around the Iranian presidential election, talks are expected to resume when Ebrahim Raisi takes office this month.
Persian Gulf rivals have a long way to go to mend barriers, but their budding rapprochement offers the best chance in years for a return to regional stability in the Middle East. The United States will benefit immensely from an ongoing diplomacy that moves both sides in the right direction. And while Washington is not at the table, it can provide critical support to the process by providing Saudi Arabia with the right mix of encouragement and reassurance, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that a reduced US presence in the Middle -Orient does not lead to disaster.
It is questionable whether Saudi Arabia is truly engaged in talks with Iran. Riyadh could use the dialogue to appease Washington by presenting itself as a constructive regional player or to buy time to consolidate its position and find ways to counter Iranian drones. Yet Riyadh has good reason to bury the hatchet with Tehran. For now, the Saudi leadership wants to end their costly war in Yemen, which requires Tehran to pressure the Houthis to end their offensive and engage in serious negotiations. In the longer term, Saudi Arabia can no longer count on unwavering American support, and its relations with the United Arab Emirates have frayed over disputes over oil production. And as competition between Iran, Israel and Turkey intensifies, de-escalation with Iran could allow Saudi Arabia to expand its influence by playing a balancing act in the contested arenas of the Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.
Riyadh plays a weak hand and knows it. The country is stuck in a quagmire in Yemen and is vulnerable to Iran’s drone warfare. He retreated to Lebanon, lost in the Syrian civil war, and has been on his heels in Iraq since 2003. Iranian influence, on the other hand, is firmly anchored in the Levant. And thanks to Riyadh’s ill-fated bet in 2017 to isolate Qatar, Tehran has also extended its influence to the southern shores of the Persian Gulf. A nuclear deal with the United States would only boost Iran’s confidence, ending Tehran’s international isolation and allowing its regional economy and trade to flourish.
But successful talks are also in Iran’s interest. Tehran’s boast masks concerns about the cost of its unchecked regional rivalry with Riyadh, and the Iranian government’s desire for a reduced US presence could be thwarted by ongoing regional tensions. Iran would also like Saudi Arabia to end its support for ethnic separatist forces in Iran and for the media in exile who are encouraging regime change. After the announcement of the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran underestimated the ability of its adversaries to undermine the deal. This time around, he sees regional engagement as essential to securing and sustaining an agreement with Washington. And as Iran contemplates competition with Israel and Turkey, it wants to prevent Saudi Arabia from fully supporting these rivals.
The emerging rapprochement between rivals in the Persian Gulf offers the best chance in years for a return to regional stability in the Middle East.
Talks have so far focused on narrow security concerns, primarily in Yemen, where the most pressing and controversial issues concern the oil-rich province of Marib. (As one Saudi official told us, “It’s all about Marib.”) Iran wants Riyadh to end its economic blockade of Houthi-controlled areas and stop airstrikes on Houthi positions, including included around Marib. Such a deal would ensure, the idea is, a Houthi victory in Marib that would allow Tehran to dictate the final settlement in Yemen while continuing to threaten Saudi Arabia with drone and missile attacks. Saudi Arabia, for its part, is trying to buy time while strengthening its air defense systems and pushing to end drone attacks launched from Iraq by Iranian-backed militias (three of which have recently managed to strike a royal palace in Riyadh).
At the end of the day, Iran and Saudi Arabia want different things outside of the talks. Tehran hopes they will lead to a normalization of Iranian-Saudi relations, while Riyadh wants its security concerns resolved, especially a resolution in Yemen and an end to cross-border attacks. Saudi negotiators, therefore, wait for normalization until they get real concessions, while Iranian negotiators resist limited deals on Iraq and Yemen, as such deals would address Saudi concerns without changing the situation. global relationship. The dynamic is made more complicated by the fact that although Iran knows what it wants, Saudi officials are hampered by uncertainty over the direction of U.S. policy – on the details of a deal with the Iran, the presence of US troops in Iraq, and the broader US policy in Iraq. the region. Such uncertainty undermines the confidence Saudi officials need to strike meaningful deals.
Washington can help build Saudi confidence, and thereby encourage real progress in the talks, by providing Riyadh with a clear guarantee that it will defend the kingdom against a direct Iranian attack. The United States can also help by pointing out to Iran that unlike the unconditional United States withdrawal from Afghanistan, the troop reductions will depend on a lasting security agreement between Iran and its Arab neighbors, as well as on the end of attacks on Saudi assets and territory. . An explicit commitment by the United States to try to prevent the fall of Marib to the Houthis would also help – an outcome that would only prolong the war in Yemen and cause a dangerous escalation by all parties – and to exert international pressure. on Iran if the Houthis continue their march on Marib.
Above all, the United States can help by persuading both Iran and Saudi Arabia that their own security interests are best served by successful talks. Each side should see the progress as essential to what its leaders want: US security guarantees in the case of Riyadh and a smaller US military footprint in the region in that of Tehran. The two goals are not mutually exclusive: The United States has a large military presence that comes with specific security commitments to Saudi Arabia – an arrangement whose shortcomings became very clear when Iran attacked the facilities. Saudi oil companies without American response. Instead, Washington should aim for a smaller military presence, but with specific commitments to Saudi security. Such efforts could stimulate exactly the kinds of measures that, over time, will generate momentum, build confidence, and create new facts on the ground – the building blocks, in turn, of a regional security architecture that could survive an American withdrawal from the Middle East. East.