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The wisdom of détente in the Persian Gulf

New talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran could advance regional and US interests, if spoilers are put at bay.

A recent sign pointing to possible greater peace in the Persian Gulf region — in addition to the reported progress in restoring full compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which restricts the Iranian nuclear program — is the initiation of tension-reducing talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia. That neither of these two governments has yet openly acknowledged the talks is an encouraging indication that both sides are taking them seriously and want to minimize the risk that either foreign or domestic spoilers will disrupt them.

Cross-Gulf détente is in the interests of all the states with a stake in the region, including the two main protagonists. The fundamental underlying reality is that neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia is going away, no matter how much pressure or intimidation either one might try to apply to the other. It thus behooves both regimes — in the interest of the security and prosperity of their citizens — to find ways to share the neighborhood peacefully.

Both regimes have recognized this reality in the past and at times have acted on it. One such time was in 1999, when President Mohammad Khatami of Iran and the then de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Abdullah, met face-to-face. 

As major oil producers, Iran and Saudi Arabia share an interest in the security of the oil trade, which is essential to the economies of both. With Saudi Arabia facing increased financial stringency in recent years, its economic motivations regarding oil probably have become even more similar than before to those of Iran, which always has placed relatively more emphasis on maximizing current revenues than on keeping prices low enough to discourage oil consumers from turning to alternative sources of energy.

The government of Iraq, which reportedly has been mediating the talks, has its own interests in lowering tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Besides realizing that Iraq’s oil exports and other equities could become collateral damage in any cross-Gulf confrontation that escalated into open warfare, Baghdad needs to get along well with both its neighbors for a variety of reasons. That becomes easier the less that everything involving Iran and Saudi Arabia is seen as a zero-sum game. Similar incentives apply to other states in the region, especially Oman and Kuwait, that have at various times helped to mediate between Iran and its rivals.

Most important for the United States, Saudi-Iranian détente is very much in U.S. interests. Anything that lowers tension and the risk of war in that part of the world also lowers the incidence of extremism that could harm U.S. interests. It also lowers the perceived need for U.S. military deployments or other costly commitments made in the name of protecting U.S. friends in the region.

The habitual U.S. obsession with confronting Iran has obscured how, if one gets down to details of exactly how Iran supposedly poses a threat, it is almost entirely an intra-regional issue. The purported threat is to Iran’s neighbors or to U.S. forces deployed to help protect those neighbors. To the extent that relations between Iran and its neighbors are smoothed out, the threat mostly goes away and so does the perceived U.S. need to respond to it.

Of the two Persian Gulf protagonists, Iran — which has been subject to much international ostracism —has had the stronger and more consistent desire for better cross-Gulf relations. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has proposed a multilateral structure to enhance peace and security in the Persian Gulf region, a formula that is entirely compatible with bilateral tension-reducing efforts with Saudi Arabia.

The variable term in this equation has been Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has had several reasons to maintain a confrontational posture toward Iran. One has been fear of Iran stoking unrest among Shia populations in the Gulf Arab states — a fear that had greater basis earlier in the Islamic Republic’s history, at least as far as the subjugated Shia majority in Bahrain is concerned. Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman, or MbS, later made such confrontation a context for asserting Saudi regional influence and making a name for himself as he consolidates his rule, especially through prosecution of the war in Yemen.

Perhaps the biggest incentive for a confrontational Saudi posture has been to use confrontation with Iran as a basis for favorable treatment from the United States, including not only a steady supply of arms but also U.S. tolerance of objectionable practices by a Saudi regime that is a human rights-violating dictatorship. Washington has too often been happy to play along. This pattern reached an extreme under the Trump administration, which stoked hostility toward Iran even more than it responded to genuine Gulf Arab fears about Iran.

More recently, MbS has had good reasons to reconsider this strategy. The Yemen war became a costly quagmire. Within the past couple of years have come reminders — such as a precision missile and drone attack on important Saudi oil facilities in September 2019 — of how damaging escalation of confrontation to warfare could be to the Saudi economy. And with a change of administrations in Washington, it has become apparent that the United States will no longer be making endless hostility toward Iran its overriding priority in the Middle East and may begin devoting some proper attention to the Saudi regime’s objectionable practices.

In pursuing détente, Riyadh and Tehran will have to fend off spoilers, including perhaps hardliners within their own regimes. The biggest external spoiler will be the right-wing government of Israel, as suggested by the lengths it is going to sabotage negotiations to restore the JCPOA, even though such restoration is in Israel’s own security interests. The Netanyahu government has other reasons to promote endless alarm about Iran and to oppose any agreements on anything with Tehran, including: precluding any U.S.-Iranian détente and preserving Israel’s posture as America’s only true friend in the Middle East; weakening and isolating a competitor for regional influence; and distracting international attention from the occupation of Palestinian territory and other Israeli practices that warrant such attention.

Détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia or any of the Gulf Arab states is incompatible with this strategy, and Netanyahu will do what he can to torpedo it. Israel will use its newly upgraded relations with Saudi allies Bahrain and the UAE, and its extensive relations with Riyadh itself, to pursue this objective. One cannot rule out more aggressive Israeli actions similar to what has been used to try to sabotage the JCPOA, such as possible anonymous attacks on Iranian facilities or interests in the Gulf states. President Joe Biden will have to fend off not only the Israeli government but also American hardliners who will also oppose any relaxation of anyone’s tensions with Iran. Officials in the administration probably realize that any relaxation of tensions between Riyadh and Tehran will improve the prospects for success of post-JCPOA follow-on negotiations addressing other issues involving Iran.

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