Top US diplomat: We encouraged Gulf allies to talk with Iran
Saudi Iran deal brokered by Beijing built on talks the Biden administration encouraged its Persian Gulf partners to pursue with Iran to try deescalate regional tensions, end Yemen war.
One day before the surprise announcement last week of a Chinese-brokered agreement for Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore diplomatic ties, the top American diplomat for the Middle East explained that when the Biden administration came into office two years ago, it set about encouraging its Persian Gulf partners to pursue diplomacy with Iran, and to heal rifts with each other, in order to deescalate soaring tensions and conflicts in the region.
Early in the Biden administration, a number of the United States’ Persian Gulf partners “talked candidly with us at the outset about their thinking in the direction of opening up their own diplomatic channels with Iran,” Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf said at an Al-Monitor Pro event on March 9.
‘Diplomacy is not a tool you use only with your friends’
“And notwithstanding all the challenges and threats that Iran presented, in fact, precisely because of them, we encouraged that, because diplomacy is not a tool you use only with your friends and in happy times,” Leaf said. “It’s quite important. It’s almost more important to have that as a tool as a channel with your adversaries and in times of threats and crises. So it's one of many tools, and it's not by any means the only one.”
Leaf’s comments on the primacy that the Biden administration placed on deescalating tensions in the Middle East helped explain the White House’s fairly low-key response to the Saudi-Iran deal to restore diplomatic ties announced after secret talks in Beijing on March 10, even as the reaction in some other quarters treated the development as a black eye for America’s diplomatic prestige, as well as a set-back for Israel’s hopes to normalize relations with Riyadh.
“We support any effort to deescalate tensions there in the region,” National Security Council strategic communications official John Kirby told journalists March 10. “We think that’s in our interests. And it’s something that we’ve worked on through our own effective combination of deterrence and diplomacy.”
Major regional rivals, Iran and Saudi Arabia broke off diplomatic ties in 2016 after a mob attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashhad, following Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Saudi Shia cleric. Their rivalry has continued through the war in Yemen, where the Iranians support the Houthi rebels that have launched drone and missile attacks into Saudi Arabia, and a Saudi-led coalition has bombed the Houthis, leading to one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. A UN/US-backed ceasefire has been holding in Yemen for a year, though it officially expired last October.
Saudi/Iran escalation was also exacerbated by the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, which aimed to cut off Iran’s oil exports and strangle its economy after Trump in 2018 quit the Iran nuclear deal. Iran was suspected of being behind a massive attack on a Saudi oil facility in 2019, seen as a response for Tehran’s perception of Riyadh’s alignment with Trump’s maximum pressure policy.
When they came into office, the Middle East “was a highly pressurized region,” said the State Department’s Leaf. Under pressure both from “Iran’s own very disruptive and predatory activities,” she said, “but also by the concomitant pressures that had been built up over time” by the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran, that lacked, Leaf said, a diplomatic component to try to resolve issues.
So, Leaf said, she, as then-National Security Council Senior Director for the Middle East, and Brett McGurk, the NSC coordinator for the Middle East, set out to try to deescalate “several of the open conflicts…,” in Yemen and Libya, and to a lesser extent in Syria. “And then begin the hard work, the diplomatic slog… [to] try to actually drive to a diplomatic solution,” she said. “De-escalating in the broadest sense… in this region where people….were at odds with each other.”
Early Biden administration message to Iraq and Iran: ‘We would not make Iraq a battleground’
The Biden administration also reached out to the Iraqis, and through them, sent messages to the Iranians, that the U.S. would not make Iraq a battleground between the U.S. and Iran, said Leaf, who previously served as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, and as U.S. Consul in Basra, Iraq.
“With respect to Iran, which presented a multiplex of threats and challenges…, one thing that we did at the outset was speak very candidly with the Iraqis and through them to the Iranians, knowing that the message would get through them, that we were not looking to make Iraq a battleground,” Leaf said. “We would not make Iraq a battleground.”
Iraq served as the venue for Iran-Saudi talks from 2021-2022, that were paused by Iraqi post-election government formation turmoil. Oman has also hosted talks on trying to find a settlement to the Yemen civil war.
“It appears to us that this roadmap announced [in Beijing] was the result of multiple rounds of talks, including talks that were held in Baghdad and Oman,” the NSC’s Kirby said. “And we’ve always supported that process…to work hard towards an end of the war in Yemen.”
But Kirby threw some shade on the announced deal’s prospective durability, and implied that the Saudis might be more grateful for the deterrent capabilities that the United States had been helping provide it to deter attacks from Iran and Iranian-backed proxies.
“We believe that what likely helped bring Iran to the negotiating table with Saudi Arabia is in fact the pressure that it’s under internally, as well as an effective deterrence against attacks from Iran or its proxies in Saudi Arabia,” Kirby said. “We’ve been working with the Saudis …to deter attacks for quite some time.”
Kirby also said it remains to be seen if the Iranians would live up to their commitments in the deal.
“We’ll see,” he said. “This is not a regime that typically does honor its word. So we hope that they do. We’d like to see this war in Yemen end…But it really does remain to be seen whether Iran is going to meet their obligations.”
As to the suggestion that Washington might feel humiliated by Beijing’s diplomatic triumph, Kirby shrugged it off.
“I get the question about China, but we believe…that what helped bring Iran to the table was the pressure that they’re under…and not just an invitation by the Chinese to talk,” he said. “In the end, if this deal can be sustained, regardless of what the impetus was, or who sat down at the table,… we welcome that.”
Former Defense Department official Jonathan Lord agreed that much of the legwork for the Saudi Iran restoration of diplomatic ties had been started before China got involved.
“China, of course, is going to trumpet this and use this to sort of extend their position internationally as some sort of international broker,” Lord, now with the Center for New American Security, said in an interview. “But the truth is that Tehran and Riyadh have been working towards this for at least two years. It's quite possible that all of this was very close… before they moved to Beijing. That really just kind of put a stamp on it.”
Lord also cast doubt on the suggestion from some in Washington and Israel that the Saudi Iranian rapprochement reflected a failure by the Biden administration to provide enough inducements to Saudi Arabia to agree to normalize relations with Israel.
“The truth of the matter is, I'm not sure…that there's a level of cooperation that the US could provide that will put the Saudis in a position where they wouldn’t want to have diplomatic relations with a neighbor,” Lord said. “That itself is a stabilizing element, no matter what.”
Lord suggested that the Saudi Iran deal might, counterintuitively, provide the Saudis cover for deepening their behind the scenes cooperation with Israel.
“The Saudis always take the position of having to publicly hedge a little bit so that they don't incur… attacks… as they continue to try to build their own capability, and in this case, play a bit of footsie with Israel, potentially,” he said. “So in some sort of…perverse way, it actually might give them a little bit more backbone and comfort and assurance in knowing that there's a degree of plausible deniability that they're going to continue to work closely with CENTCOM to build their military capabilities…and at the same time, may quietly seek to move closer to Israel in exchange for some guarantees from the US.”
And the diplomatic rapprochement has real limitations, said Abdolrasool Divsallar, a political scientist who specializes on Iran defense issues.
The deal to restore Saudi Iran diplomatic ties “is a step forward,” but is unlikely to substantially change how Iran and Saudi Arabia see each other as major military threats, said Divsallar, with the Higher School of Economics and International Relations (AZERI) at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan and a Non-resident Scholar with the Middle East Institute.
“I think for Saudi Arabia,… Iran remains a major regional threat,” Divsallar said in an interview. “And the deal, though it can provide some mechanisms to reduce this level of threat perception, it cannot change it. At least not in the short to medium term in a substantial way.”
“For Iran, on the other hand, it is a very new thing, just in recent years…that Iran military doctrine has shifted from seeing the US and Israel as its main threats, to Saudi Arabia,” he said. “I think that is also not going to change.”
Even with those limitations, de-escalation of the Iran-Saudi rivalry has seemingly contributed to a cease-fire in Yemen holding for the past year, one that the administration would like to see become permanent.
“We’ve had the longest sustained, guns falling silent for the longest period of time coming on a year now,” Leaf said. “But it is a really important peace. It's important for the Yemeni people, it’s important for the security of the peoples of the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa as well.”
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