With President Joe Biden having departed the Middle East, the region’s two prime antagonists are thinking about just getting along. Iran and Saudi Arabia, having completed five rounds of talks in Iraq over the past year, both said recently that they were moving toward higher-level negotiations on reconciliation. Paradoxically, this budding rapprochement between friend and foe offers important opportunities for Washington.
After severing diplomatic ties following a January 2016 mob attack on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, the Riyadh government hoped sanctions on Iran by president Donald Trump’s administration might produce a change in Iranian conduct. Instead, Iran became more aggressive than ever, culminating with a devastating missile strike on Saudi Aramco facilities, in September 2019.
The Trump administration, usually bellicose toward Iran, turned a blind eye, noting that no Americans had been killed. That proved a final straw for the Saudis. They were already upset that the Obama administration’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran ignored two main concerns: Iran’s drone and missile arsenal, 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 top security issues involving Tehran to be on the negotiating table, they were going to put them there by themselves. After the 2020 US election, that realization dovetailed with the Biden administration’s encouragement of diplomacy over the use of force in the region.
The formal reconciliation talks began in April 2021 at the Baghdad airport in Iraq, serving as something approximating neutral ground. Initially, little progress was made. The Saudis focused on getting Iran to pressure its Houthi clients in Yemen to agree to a cease-fire and eventual peace settlement 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 the growing sense that Iran was stubbornly blocking Biden’s effort to revive the nuclear deal, there was a minor but real breakthrough. Responding to Iranian prodding, the Houthis finally agreed to a truce, which has lasted more than two months and allowed significant humanitarian relief into the beleaguered country.
The Saudis’ securing and maintaining the cease-fire in the bloody conflict pleased the White House and Congress. Riyadh also took the opportunity to finally rid itself of the obstreperous 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 moment in US relations with friends and foes in the Middle East. Biden’s visit was intended to repair strained US-Saudi relations. But perhaps more importantly, the president encouraged Saudi Arabia to join other Arab countries, and even Israel, in building a set of informal cooperative security arrangements. These would include air – and missile-defense systems to offset Iran’s increasingly powerful arsenal.
The eventual aim of such expanded collaboration is for the US military to reduce its Middle East footprint, doing less with more, because regional cooperation could prove more effective and sustainable than outside intervention.
Not everything is going smoothly. There are already signs that the Houthis may break the uneasy truce in Yemen. Iran will play a central role in whether that happens, because it uses such militias to increase or relieve pressure on its adversaries, adjusting violence like turning a spigot.
It’s also clear that Tehran hopes to use the reconciliation talks with Riyadh to drive a wedge between the US and Saudi Arabia. The idea is to make the Saudis choose between either rebuilding close cooperation with Washington or achieving rapprochement with Iran and extraction from the Yemen war.
It’s a crude trap. Washington can outflank Tehran by strengthening security commitments to Saudi Arabia, while making it clear it expects greater Saudi cooperation on energy production and pricing, keeping Russia and China at arm’s length, and being open to greater regional security coordination. The Gulf Arab countries still have major doubts about US commitment and reliability, but they understand there’s no practical alternative to American support.
Iranian media are playing up Saudi Arabia’s supposed enthusiasm for wide-ranging reconciliation but, in fact, the Saudis remain highly skeptical. The US and Saudi Arabia can give the Iranians a set of clear choices: They can have relations restored with the Saudis, a renewed nuclear agreement with Washington, and respect for legitimate security concerns, but only on reasonable terms, starting with curbing violence by their regional proxies.
The partnership between Washington and Riyadh may not be as strong as it once was, but it’s clearly on the mend. And it’s certainly still strong enough to be able to show Iran that it can’t score cheap victories by trying to divide them.
The writer is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.