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US relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran need a rethink, not reset

A real change in U.S.-Saudi and U.S.-Iranian relations, as well as in the U.S.’s overall position in the Middle East, will not be achieved with a modest course correction.

Analysis | Middle East

As the chances are growing that a Biden administration could take the reins in Washington come January 2021, so is the scrutiny of its prospective policy proposals. When it comes to foreign affairs, there seems to be little doubt among his supporters that some reassessment of U.S. priorities in the Middle East is in order.  At the heart of it lies what Daniel Benaim, fellow at the Democrat-aligned Century Foundation calls in a recent paper the failure of President Donald Trump’s twin policies of the “maximum pressure” against Iran and “maximum latitude” towards Saudi Arabia.

Benaim acknowledges that Trump’s unconditional embrace of the House of Saud has encouraged reckless Saudi behavior that damaged U.S. values and interests, such as the destructive war in Yemen, murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, severe repression of Saudi human rights defenders and overall trend towards the one man rule of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Yet his recommendations for a potential Democratic administration amount to little more than a modest course correction, or, to use his own terminology, a reset rather than rethink.

This is because Benaim does not question the fundamental framework of the U.S.-Saudi “strategic alliance” that has underpinned this relationship for 75 years. He contrasts it favorably with the “foundational anti-Americanism” of the Iranian regime.

The main weakness of this framing lies in a static view of the American alliances in the Middle East. It echoes a well-entrenched Washington dogma about the irrational, irredeemable hostility of the Iranian regime to the United States, no matter the latter’s actual policies. This hostility justifies a tight embrace of the Saudi kingdom — in fact, Benaim stresses the need for a continued “close consultation” with Saudi Arabia on the Iranian threat.  

Yet such a view ignores the evidence that obstacles to better relations lie in Washington as much as they do in Tehran. Iran, in fact, tried to improve relations with the U.S. already during the presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani in the early 1990s. Attempts were continued by his successors Mohammad Khatami and Hassan Rouhani. Iran cooperated with the U.S. against the Taliban in Afghanistan post-September 11, and later against ISIS in Iraq.

Ironically, these precedents of de-facto cooperation set both U.S. and Iran against forces with strong Saudi connections. The Taliban sheltered Osama Bin Laden, the leader of Al-Qaeda and a Saudi citizen, like 15 out of the 19 terrorists who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. And the religious-ideological foundation of ISIS is Wahhabism, the official, and the only tolerated, religious creed of Saudi Arabia. The U.S. and Iran also cooperated to conclude a multilateral nuclear deal in 2015. Yet, on all these occasions, Iran got ultimately rebuffed by the U.S., from George W. Bush’s infamous “axis of evil” speech to Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign.

It is true that there are factions in Iran that thrive on hostility with the U.S., either for ideological or purely opportunistic reasons. As seen above, however, the system also showed enough flexibility to allow some engagement. Failure to build on these openings and using instead Iran’s “destabilizing activities” to cement relations with Saudi Arabia, regardless of both countries’ actual record, would only perpetuate the current U.S. entanglements in the region.

It would also undermine Benaim’s own recommendation to create a regional track for dialogue between the Gulf countries and Iran. He proposes to use both reassurance and pressure to nudge Saudi Arabia in that direction. Yet the two are mutually contradictory: recent history suggests that Riyadh is more inclined to de-escalate when it cannot take the American support for granted. The U.S. refusal to retaliate against the suspected Iranian strike against the Saudi oilfields last year sent a clear message that Washington was not going to fight the Saudi’s war. This is when Riyadh realized,  as Abu-Dhabi did earlier, that it had to reach out to Tehran. Conversely, unfailing U.S. support emboldens Saudi Arabia to pursue more aggressive regional policies, like the war in Yemen, blockade of Qatar, kidnapping of a Lebanese prime minister and confrontation with Iran, as well as to step up internal repression.

To encourage Saudi Arabia to move in a direction that is more consistent with U.S. interests and values, Benaim recommends for a Biden administration to offer Riyadh a sort of probationary period, during which it would have to adjust its policies to new American expectations and priorities.  Yet without clearly communicated deadlines and sanctions in case of non-compliance this approach is unlikely to work. It would amount to simply continuing the policies of Obama and Trump administrations, each of which, in their own way, offered strong support to Saudi Arabia. The risk is that if Saudi Arabia fails to live up to its own side of the bargain Benaim envisages, the region will be further destabilized, and the costs will be higher for U.S. if and when it finally decides to distance itself from the House of Saud.

This holds especially true if, as seems likely, a Biden administration will have to manage relations with Riyadh during the succession from the aging King Salman to the Crown Prince and de-facto ruler Mohammed Bin Salman. The track record of MBS, notably in handling the murder of Jamal Khashoggi that infuriated the U.S. establishment, suggests that his brand of Saudi-first policy is unlikely to accommodate Washington’s concerns. In these circumstances, to keep sticking with him would make the U.S. further complicit in Saudi domestic human rights abuses and regional adventurism, which, in turn, would also undermine attempts to revive diplomacy with Iran.

Another flaw in Benaim’s analysis is that he associates Saudi strategic value for the U.S.  with Riyadh’s increasing outreach to Israel. This confirms an immutable, bipartisan centrality of Israel to the U.S. Middle East policies. However, even if Saudi-Israeli détente may not be a bad development in its own right, in the context of an impending Israeli annexation of Palestinian lands there is no reason why it should qualify as a point in favor of Saudi Arabia in Washington, much less so from a self-professed progressive viewpoint.

A real change in U.S.-Saudi and U.S.-Iranian relations, as well as in the U.S.’s overall position in the Middle East, will not be achieved with a modest course correction. It requires a profound, bold rethink, rather than a mere reset.

Abandonment of both “maximum pressure” against Tehran and “maximum latitude” towards Riyadh will allow the U.S. to rebalance relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran — exactly what an incoming Biden administration would need to extricate itself from excessive Middle Eastern entanglements and focus instead on its heavily-loaded domestic agenda.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.

President Donald Trump poses for photos with ceremonial swordsmen on his arrival to Murabba Palace, as the guest of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, Saturday evening, May 20, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
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