Détente with Iran Could Unlock a Foreign Policy Gold Mine
Bringing Tehran back into the diplomatic fold would foster other progress.
Jared Kushner and his allies from the Trump administration recently founded an organization called the Abraham Accords Institute, named after the September 2020 agreement that established diplomatic ties between Israel and Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco. They lauded the agreement as “the dawn of a new Middle East,” but the continued destruction of Yemen and this week’s violence in Jerusalem and Gaza are just a few examples of how these lofty claims fell short.
Now, the Biden administration has an opportunity to actually realize yet another unfulfilled Trump administration promise.
If the Biden administration successfully returns to the Iran nuclear deal—also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA—they will unlock a diplomatic goldmine for the region. It would start with detente between Riyadh and Tehran, which would aid efforts to end the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, while decreasing tensions across the region.
Step one: JCPOA
The JCPOA would bring Iran into the diplomatic fold, instead of keeping them isolated and free to pursue a regional posture of resistance. The Trump administration implemented a “maximum pressure” policy, which was a moral and strategic failure. Iran continued its interventions in Syria and Yemen and reversed the limits on its nuclear enrichment program, while the United States barely missed full war with Tehran. Meanwhile, the Iranian people suffered under draconian sanctions that decimated their livelihoods and limited medical supplies in the country—including during the Covid-19 pandemic.
If the Biden administration re-enters the JCPOA, Iran will be willing to engage the United States and the region without the constant threat of force. Tehran's need for leverage in the region would be lowered, opening the door for greater diplomacy on topics like Syria and Yemen.
It is productive and in our best interest to engage Iran, rather than pursue a failed pressure policy fueled by domestic political and ideological actors. To do so, we must tackle the nuclear issue first, to send a necessary diplomatic signal to Tehran after years of dangerously high tensions.
Step Two: Iran-Saudi detente
Saudi Arabia and Iran have been in conflict for years. While they have been regional competitors at least since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, tensions increased when civil wars broke out in Syria and Yemen in 2011 and 2014, creating new arenas for proxy war. Relations got even worse in 2016, when Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr was executed in Saudi Arabia—leading Iranian protesters to attack the Saudi embassy in Tehran..
The Trump administration emboldened Riyadh. With the appointment of Iran hawks to senior positions, including John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, the administration’s hard line against Iran not only became more threatening to Tehran, but assured Riyadh that the U.S. would take care of its regional nemesis. After the administration ignored Congressional pressure and refused to condemn Saudi leaders for the brutal killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman knew he could truly take U.S. backing for granted, creating a moral hazard problem for the United States. During this time, MbS called Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei the “new Hitler,” called dialogue with Iran impossible, and said “we will work so that the battle is on their side, inside Iran, not Saudi Arabia.” This posture by MbS is why Iran was quick to point the finger at Riyadh after Arab separatists launched a terrorist attack in Ahvaz, killing 25.
Iran, on the other hand, has employed a consistent strategy, continuing its support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and Houthi rebels in Yemen. While supporting Assad’s brutal campaign to retake control of Syria has cost Tehran military personnel and billions of dollars, the war in Yemen was an opportunity for Iran to increase costs for Saudi Arabia with minimal investment. Khamenei boldly hosted the rebels in Tehran in August 2019.
The dynamic between Riyadh and Tehran changed in late 2019, when Iran attacked Saudi Arabia’s oil fields and President Trump chose not to respond. Saudi Arabia pivoted and reached out to Tehran to make sure conflict did not escalate further. After all, Saudi Arabia’s goal has been the containment of Iran through U.S.-led sanctions and bases, without fighting a war itself.
Now, with the Biden administration advocating for a return to the Iran nuclear deal and subsequent regional diplomacy, Riyadh knows it must engage Iran. Between Covid-19, China, and climate change, the United States under the Biden administration has more important priorities than risking war with another mid-tier regional power in the Middle East. In other words, the moral hazard that U.S. overcommitment to Riyadh had created is not the same it once was.
As a result, Saudi Arabia and Iran recently met in Iraq to discuss mutual security concerns—especially Yemen. Iran has long called for a regional security framework, most recently with its “Hormuz Peace Initiative.” With less evident U.S. support, Riyadh may finally be listening.
Saudi Arabia’s realignment is not limited to Iran. The Turkish foreign minister recently travelled to Riyadh to mend ties for the first time since the Khashoggi killing. The Iranian foreign minister is also planning to visit the UAE, a close Saudi ally. The United States opened the door to these small, but still significant, diplomatic breakthroughs by sending modest signals—including withdrawing from Afghanistan and signaling its interest in returning to the JCPOA and lowering tensions with Iran—that its greater interests lay elsewhere. It should continue to do so.
Step 3: U.S. advances regional diplomacy
The Biden administration has an immense opportunity. Its indirect talks with Iran in Vienna are progressing well. But the progress within the region has not been U.S.-led. In fact, these powers had room to pursue dialogue because of what the U.S. has not done in the region. However, Washington is still selling “defensive” arms to Saudi Arabia, has bases and naval assets in the Persian Gulf, and has troops sitting in Syria. Further military reductions will aid regional diplomacy.
Alongside military reductions, the U.S. should assist diplomatically. The United States still has a close relationship with Saudi Arabia, and it could use its economic and military relations as leverage to ensure Riyadh follows through with talks with Iran. Active U.S. participation could help lead to a more comprehensive deal as well, covering even more regional issues that the U.S. remains involved in. Between the JCPOA and its relationship with Saudi Arabia, the United States has the power to help make these talks successful. It would also support a smooth pivot away from the region.
When John Kerry was secretary of state, he was engaged in the JCPOA breakthrough in a very personal way. He had Iranian diplomat Javad Zarif’s cell phone number, would meet with him one on one, and traveled back and forth from Europe over months (and a bike accident) in order to see the deal through. President Biden should empower Secretary Blinken and other regional experts like Rob Malley in the same way, to see regional diplomacy succeed and truly reorient the United States away from the Middle East, which is no longer in our direct national security interest.
The Abraham Accords was not it. Saudi Arabia’s allies made public covert relations that were already long on their way, and nothing on the ground changed, whether it be for the Palestinian, Syrian, or Yemeni people. By engaging adversaries and encouraging intraregional diplomacy that will actually make a difference, President Biden can substantially change the stubborn status quo for the Middle East and avoid getting the U.S. into another unnecessary quagmire.
President Biden is taking the right step in trying to return to the JCPOA. The failure of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy almost led to another forever war. The faster the United States and Iran return to compliance and speak directly, the better. That could open the way to a “new dawn” in the Middle East.
Shahed Ghoreishi is a Fellow at Defense Priorities.
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