The regional diplomacy taking place in the Persian Gulf must not be dismissed
Mehran Haghirian and Henrietta Toivanen
Al Sharq Strategic Research
July 27, 2022
Donald Trump’s trip to Riyadh in May 2017 kickstarted the most tension-filled era in the Persian Gulf region. These tensions lasted until Joe Biden’s victory in the November 2020 US presidential elections. In the less than two years leading up to Biden’s trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia in July, the region has witnessed a complete geopolitical transformation.
Since November 2020, the blockade on Qatar that had created a rift between member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ended, Baghdad brought together the regional countries for a summit on cooperation and partnership, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has redoubled the global attention to the Persian Gulf region, and, as importantly, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi restarted diplomatic engagement with Iran.
Nonetheless, aside from pushing for more Israeli integration in a never-to-be-unified Arab world, Washington has decided to largely ignore the regional diplomacy taking place between the Arab states and Iran. Exclusion of Iran has been the constant variable in the approach of every US administration towards the Persian Gulf region and the Middle East more broadly since 1980 and Joe Biden is continuing the same modus operandi.
With rising pressure on Tehran, regional tensions have likewise increased. The Iranian government – across administrations and ideological cleavages – has made it clear that isolation and pressure will be met by resistance and counter-attacks. Iran has shown that when it is excluded, conflict ensues.
In the Trump era, the region saw the most direct military exchanges between the United States and Iran. The actions by both sides in the waters and skies in and around the Persian Gulf turned the region into a precarious tinderbox. Aside from direct actions between Iran and the United States, Saudi Arabia was hit by drone and missile strikes at two of its most important oil installations in Khurais and Abqaiq, and the UAE faced repeated drone and mine strikes in and around its shores.
Today there is a collective understanding that past tensions are the root cause of most domestic security and economic issues and that a new regional approach is necessary in order to improve conditions within the Persian Gulf. Thanks to the recent diplomatic interactions, the region has been tentatively calmer, more stable, and increasingly cooperative. Except for Bahrain, all participating states in the Jeddah Summit for Security and Development -the regional summit which Biden attended during his visit to Saudi Arabia- are now diplomatically engaging Tehran, including Jordan and Egypt.
While the Saudi Crown Prince publicly shunned any possible dialogue with Iran in 2018, he shifted his position last year, saying that “Iran is a neighboring country, and all we aspire for is a good and special relationship with Iran.” This statement came after the first rounds of talks took place between the two countries through Iraqi mediation in Baghdad. In March, Mohammed bin Salman said “I hope we can reach a position that is good for both countries, and a bright future for Saudi Arabia and Iran.”
The UAE has also further advanced in its diplomatic engagements with Iran. While the talks were initially focused on maritime security cooperation, the diplomatic interactions that followed led to numerous bilateral visits. Emirati presidential advisor Anwar Gargash recently stated that there are plans for full diplomatic ties to be restored and ambassadors exchanged soon. “Iran is a neighbor,” he said, and that the UAE has “complete conviction that the way is not confrontation, because confrontation will complicate the regional scene as a whole.”
Qatar and Oman have been at the forefront of the GCC’s ties to Iran. Both countries enjoy amicable relations with Tehran and have multiple economic, political, and security partnerships with the Islamic Republic. Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, paid a visit to both countries back in May.
Iraq is also a key actor in the new regional diplomatic engagements. Having hosted the Baghdad Conference on Cooperation and Partnership in August 2021, Iraq positioned itself as a mediator in regional diplomacy. Interestingly, President Biden expressed his appreciation for Iraq’s “forward-thinking diplomacy in the interest of a safer, more stable region” and “commended the Baghdad Summit.”
Nonetheless, actions speak louder than statements, and the Biden administration has taken actions that directly oppose or obstruct these bilateral and multilateral regional diplomatic engagements. Rather than create an environment that could help foster and further regional diplomacy, the Biden administration is aiming to build on the Abraham Accords by creating military partnerships and alliances aimed exclusively at countering Iran -in essence obstructing the Persian Gulf region from moving towards de-escalation.
Alongside the US Secretary of State, the Israeli foreign minister brought together his counterparts from the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and Morocco for a summit in Negev in March. The goal of the summit, according to the host -who is now the Prime Minister of Israel- was to build a new security architecture to intimidate and deter “our common enemies, first and foremost Iran and its proxies.” Around the same time, another US-brokered meeting took place between military officials from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, and Egypt in Sharm el-Sheikh to develop integrated air and missile defense architecture and discuss defense coordination against Iran. Backed by a congressional bill, the US is now leading efforts to form a new joint aerial and missile defense partnership between the GCC states, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Israel, dubbed the ‘Middle East Air Defense Alliance’.
These meetings resemble past American and regional efforts to establish exclusionary regional security frameworks, almost always aimed at containing Iran. The 2018 Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) which aimed to establish a NATO-like organization amongst Arab states, Washington, and Tel Aviv, was one such example. The Warsaw Summit in 2019 also had the same objective. These efforts by successive US administrations ignore the fact that attempts to create a regional security architecture in the MENA region that excludes a regional player have already failed countless times. Rather than tame regional tensions, they have always only inflamed them.
While the Israeli intention, with Washington’s backing, is to form an anti-Iran coalition through the Abraham Accords, the regional states are not all on the same page. Regional countries are themselves aware that forging a security framework that excludes Iran or is aimed at containing it has not worked in the past. This is precisely why they are engaged in bilateral and regional diplomacy, reject participating in some of these meetings, or are simply hedging between regional and global powers. Washington’s European partners also realize this fact. The European Union’s Strategic Compass for Security and Defense acknowledges that “Iran is central to security in the region.”
Alas, the Biden administration is continuing Washington’s unchanged and decades-long binary approach towards the region, where excluding Iran from regional geopolitics has superseded all other considerations. Even though Biden is keen on reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) -also known as the Iranian nuclear deal- it has no plans to build on the agreement to decrease the deep-seated conflicts with Tehran or support the regional shifts towards cooperation and partnerships.
This is not to say that the GCC states do not have security concerns when it comes to Iran. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain feel directly threatened by many Iranian actions and policies, and the UAE continues to be concerned about Iranian intentions. The sale and transfer of military equipment from Israel to some GCC states or as part of its new mandates through CENTCOM are also important to consider. Having a security guarantor will undoubtedly alleviate the GCC states’ security concerns, which is why some states have sought to expand defense and military cooperation with Washington, even requesting treaty-like assurances. This will prove even more important to GCC leaders if the JCPOA is not restored and US-Iran tensions in the Persian Gulf are exacerbated.
Nevertheless, GCC states have realized that overreliance on the United States has not only failed to produce the necessary guarantees they have sought, but that their concerns have instead multiplied as US-Iran tensions have grown. Recognizing the importance of reduced tensions between Tehran and Washington for their own prosperity, Qatar and Oman, for example, have attempted to mediate or facilitate dialogue between Tehran and Washington. Over many decades, Oman has calibrated its relations with Iran in ways that have provided a unique diplomatic gateway for reducing tension between Iran and the United States. Today, Qatar has also taken on the role of honest broker between Tehran and Washington.
Rather than push for defense partnerships and NATO-like alliances to fuel further tensions in the region, Washington should help support the GCC states in their diplomatic engagements with Iran. It should do so, not by enhancing their position of strength through additional military exports, but by facilitating the grounds for further regional cooperation and integration that is inclusive of Iran. This should be Washington’s policy with or without the revival of the JCPOA.