Gulf States Reevaluate Iran Policy as U.S. Focuses on China and Russia

If the U.S. reduces its military presence, Gulf states believe, it is best to find a careful route between the superpowers – some of which, like China, have been instrumental in mediating between Riyadh and Tehran
By Amos Harel, HAARETZ

File photo of Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, left, holding hands with his Saudi Arabian counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, right, and Chinese counterpart Qin Gang in Beijing in April.

Viewers from the region who watched the appearance of U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan at the conference of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy did not get much satisfaction. Sullivan, who devoted his remarks to the Biden administration’s policy in the region, first mentioned Iran at about minute 22 of the address. His tone was not especially threatening. When asked about the conciliation agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, a development that is worrying Netanyahu a great deal, Sullivan offered a relatively positive response. The administration, he said, discerns in this a positive potential for regional restraint.

In contrast, the commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), Gen. Michael Kurilla, recently described Iran as the leading threat to U.S. interests in the region. Kurilla, a frequent visitor to Israel, issued a message more comfortable to Israeli ears. A former senior figure in the Pentagon who was asked about the disparity between the two statements said his view leans toward that of the general. Iran is the major danger, and the threat it poses doesn’t stem only from its nuclear project, in which it is closer than ever to achieving its objective, but from its progress in manufacturing and implementing other means of combat: drones, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles.

Perhaps even more than Israel, the countries of the Persian Gulf are aware of the concrete danger inherent in the second threat. In this regard, two consciousness-shaping events were recorded: Iran’s attack on the Aramco company’s oil facility in the fall of 2019, which put out of action half of Saudi Arabia’s production capability for several months, and the drone attack on the United Arab Emirates in the winter of 2022. In both cases, the Sunni states – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait – grasped that the United States does not intend to attack the Iranians for them. That’s the position taken by the last two U.S. presidents – first Donald Trump, now Joe Biden.

In the case of the UAE, the United States even declined to proffer defensive aid. The gap was filled by Israel, according to reports on the subject, which supplied them with a number of drone-interception systems. The only departure from the U.S. approach was Trump’s decision, in January 2020, to assassinate Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. A top Iranian termed the assassination of the legendary general as the equivalent of the damage resulting from wiping out a whole city. But that was a one-off decision. In the former president’s perception, Iran offended him by sending Shi’ite militias to fire dozens of rockets at U.S. bases in Syria and Iraq. Trump took it personally and responded with the operation to eliminate Soleimani.

The events of recent years led the Gulf states to look for alternative paths. If America won’t attack Iran, it would be wise to mitigate the tension with Tehran. And if all the recent U.S. administrations – from Barack Obama to Trump and Biden – are seeking to reduce their military presence in the Middle East and are focusing their interests lately on the competition with China and with Russia, a more cautious line needs to be taken between the great powers and ties need to be strengthened with China, which indeed helped mediate the conciliation agreement between Riyadh and Tehran. The Chinese have also recently started to build a military facility in the UAE.<

The commentator Max Boot this week wrote in the Washington Post that it was actually the signing of the Abraham Accords in the summer of 2020, under the auspices of the Trump administration, that signaled the emergence of a post-American order in the Middle East. Washington indeed played an important role in mediating the agreements with Israel, but the consent of the Arab states stemmed also from their understanding that American regional influence is waning and that they need to carve out their own path.

This, according to Boot, is true regarding their relations with Israel and also, on the other side, regarding their ties with Iran. Among the implications of this are the talks to end the Saudis’ military intervention in the war in Yemen, and Syria’s return – despite the massacres perpetrated by the Bashar Assad regime on its own citizens – to the Arab League (probably the most shocking development of late, though the competition is stiff).

Boot quotes the veteran diplomat Aaron David Miller, who says the United States has only three basic interests in the Middle East – war against terrorism, ensuring international access to the supply of oil and preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons – and it is still getting along well with the first two missions. Israel is unlikely to find solace in that analysis. The regional players are upset not only by Iran’s progress; they are also apprehensive about the possible development of a regional nuclear arms race, if Tehran crosses the red line and manufactures a bomb.

May 14, 2023 | 1 Comment »

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  1. Iran, Saudi Arabia and China are all involved i the Middle East and Africa for non-ideological reasons, centering mostly on control of resources such as oil, gas, uranium and gold. Other very interested parties who are generally allied with them, each for their own self-interest, are Russia (largely through the Wagner Group), and warlords in Syria, Libya, Sudan, Yemen and Ukraine. It’s a knotty situation. Roger Boyes does an excellent job of describing the roles of Vladimir Putin and the head of Wagner — in Ukraine, Sudan and elsewhere.