President Biden Quietly Nudges a Saudi-Iranian Readjustment as he Launches a ‘Stealth’ Visit by Top Security Team
By: John Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer
On the quiet, Saudi Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is discussing a resolution with Iran on its regional intransigence. This, as the U.S. gently tries to nudge Iran back into the nuclear treaty—the one that the ex-president jerked the U.S. out of. Now, President Biden has sent a team out to the Middle East, headed by Brett McGurk, to assure other regional members, Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey that we mean well in trying to help bring stability to that troubled region.
Saudi doing a slow dance around the question of peace with Iran
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently expressed his country’s interest in a discussion with the region’s other major power, Iran, in the interest of peace. Saudi and Iran’s conflict is decades long, aggravated by Iran’s militancy around the Middle East and especially its interference with Saudi’s neighbor Yemen. Iran has, all along, been reluctant to give up its perks of playing the spoiler in the Middle East, though it is anxious to be relieved of the sanctions placed on it by the U.S. To do this, it would need at least to rejoin the nuclear agreement.
To rejoin the nuclear treaty, which the Trump team broke with Iran, according to The National Opinion, “Iran must realize the limits of a diplomatic model built on aggression.” Iran’s threat to regional security was at the heart of the Obama administration’s strategy in 2015 to bring its nuclear program under the treaty. However, the treaty did not include “Tehran’s expansionism, proxies, militia networks, ballistic missile program and asymmetric warfare.” These practices continued to flourish despite or because of the nuclear treaty.
Whether Iran is willing to give up its role in stirring up problems in the region is unclear. And here is where the Saudi-Iran equation comes into play. Iran is now meeting in Vienna to discuss a deal on the nuclear issue. The U.S. is not presently part of these talks, but it is waltzing around the perimeters, listening as it were to the chatter. The U.S., with many of the world’s players, is concerned that Tehran closes down its adventures in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, Saudi’s Crown Prince has indicated some sense that his government is willing to formulate a new, kinder, though still strategic, vision for his country, especially after being coddled by the former U.S. president. He indicated he wants rapprochement with Tehran, on the condition that it rest on a foundation of ending its aggressive practices in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Iran’s leaders, while not all reading from the same music sheet, must decide whether they support the diplomatic model of resolution or their more aggressive model of troublemaking.
The broader picture—U.S. juggling Saudi-Iranian challenge and its own interests
While Iran and Saudi have been carrying on a dialogue that could significantly alter their now troubled relationship, the U.S. has been playing a discrete role in promoting its own place in this Middle East puzzle. While Iran suggests it is in a new place with Saudi, that relationship is much more complex, and it is in this nexus that the U.S. is trying to play a positive role.
Despite the Saudi problem with Tehran’s behavior, including its nuclear program and support of militias around the Middle East, including Houthi rebels in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon, it has begun to express a willingness to negotiate with Iran. According to The Editorial Opinion, Prince Mohammed reported, “We are working with our regional and global partners to find solutions to these problems, and we hope to overcome them for good relations that benefit everyone.”
The U.S., meantime, has been playing a cautious part in attempting to build Arab support for a broad Middle East solution to the many issues facing the region. It turns out that a U.S. delegation headed by Brett McGurk, White House coordinator for the region, has begun to look at the implication of the issues, not only Iran, but Saudi, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. The U.S. at the same time wants to include in any new negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue, the regime’s destabilizing actions around the region.
U.S. chances of success in the troubled Middle East
A trip by President Biden’s Middle East security director, McGurk, is intended to sleuth out the Iran-Saudi relationship and its implications for the renewed Iran nuclear talks. It also seeks to review the link of Syria to Russia, which is playing a part in facilitating the Saudi-Iranian talks. Saudi’s uncertain support of Assad’s Syria makes Russia uneasy, since the Shia connection between Iran and Syria’s leadership is strong. It seems Iran wants to continue its relationships with Syria and Lebanon, including its ties with Shia-based Hezbollah, which is linked to terrorism by some nations.
McGurk’s Middle East trip may be the Biden administration’s way of distinguishing its approach, “signaling to its Arab allies that, unlike during the Obama years, it is not disregarding their concerns by seeking to do business with Iran at any cost.” It is not clear that this approach is sufficient.
A problem with Biden’s approach to supporting Arab countries and his attempt to draw Iran back into a more normalized position of world governance is that it may backfire. Its resolution depends partly on Iran’s control of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which can deviate from the government in its determination. The IRGC seems to have its own funds for weapons and the clout to expand its projects in the region.
McGurk’s trip, now in progress, should address Arab host countries’ concerns with a discussion of detailed plans for dealing with those concerns, such as continued Iran intransigence in the region, the nuclear treaty, war in Yemen, Iran’s role in Iraq, the Syrian situation, and the Israel-Palestine issue, among others.
“How Iran can make peace with Saudi Arabia,” The National Editorial, 4/29/2021
“The curious timing of a US delegation’s visit to the Arab world,” Raghida Dergham, The National Editorial, 5/2/2021
“Iran ready to ‘enter a new chapter of peace’ with Saudi Arabia,” The National Editorial, 4/30/2021
John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He did fieldwork in an east Libyan Saharan oasis and has taught at the University of Libya-Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo. John served with the United Nations as an advisor in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID, the UN, and the World Bank in 65 countries.
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