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How US Withdrawal From Middle East Can Nurture Productive Iran-Saudi Relations – OpEd

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The shift of US strategic priority from the Middle East and the forever war on terrorism to the Indo-Pacific region and the war with the great powers has led to drastic changes to the geopolitical and geostrategic dynamics of the Middle East. The hasty withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan to focus on China has left the Middle Eastern countries no choice but to re-evaluate their regional position.

Waking up to the fact that the Middle East is no longer the number one priority of the United States and it is not going to support them like before, the Arab states like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates have begun their precautionary measures. China and the Indo-Pacific region are now the top priority and restructuring US military deployment from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific region is the common narrative among the experts in the United States. This is crucial for Saudi Arabia and other Arab states since these changes mean that they will no longer be able to enjoy the US umbrella of protection as in the past. 

Therefore, Riyadh has entered into negotiations with Iran in order to manage existing and future crises and find a solution for them. Given the declining role of the United States in the region, Saudi Arabia and Iran have realized that an unprecedented and historic window of opportunity has opened for both sides to freely play their role as regional powers.

This is while, in recent years, Saudi Arabia, in alliance with the United Arab Emirates, has pursued ambitious and adventurous policies to maintain and expand its regional influence, fill the existing power vacuum, and hinder the rise of regional non-Arab rival powers. 

In 2016, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy, in line with President Trump’s America first unilateralist approach, but inconsistent with its central and traditional characteristics, took on a completely aggressive tone and resorted to widespread use of force to achieve its goals. Joining Trump’s campaign of maximum pressure against Iran, military intervention in Bahrain, planning and supporting a coup against Morsi in Egypt, intervening in the Yemeni civil war, supporting General Khalifa Haftar in Libya, imposing a blockade on Qatar, attempting to form a pro-Saudi opposition bloc in Syria, and plotting a coup in Jordan, are some of Riyadh’s aggressive actions in recent years.

Nonetheless, Saudis’ costly and time-consuming actions to advance regional goals and balance power with non-Arab states Iran and Turkey have not been entirely productive. Consequently, given the fading role of the United States in the region, Riyadh has recently initiated efforts to improve relations and reduce tensions with Iran. This reflects the fact that Saudi Arabia is now aware of the failure of its previous policies and is no longer seeking its adventurous and costly policies. 

In the eyes of the Saudi authorities, Iran and its proxy groups will be the main winners of the US withdrawal from the region and will have the upper hand in the Middle East. Riyadh estimates that the United States is also seeking to reduce its differences with Iran and that United States’ return to the JCPOA could strengthen Tehran’s position.

Considering the Biden administration’s disregard for the region, Saudi Arabia started to adopt a much more realistic foreign policy that was pursued before 2010 and cautiously sought their interests through dynamic diplomacy. Accordingly, Riyadh is trying to improve relations with rival countries in the Middle East and work to defuse tensions with Iran with the aim of greater security and stability in the region.

The Yemen war and even JCPOA have long been bones of contention between Saudis and Iranians. The revival of JCPOA can greatly allay Saudi concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. Lowering the tensions between the two countries in Yemen and elsewhere can probably open up an opportunity for Riyad to even play a productive role in the process of US-Iran returns to the JCPOA. Therefore, trying to get closer to Iran has been a natural reaction that was expected from Saudis who are returning to the path of realism and pragmatism.

Reducing US regional threats against Iran could also be a powerful stimulus for Tehran to take steps to further improve and develop relations with Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. This is especially the case as the Arab Spring led to the weakening and elimination of the regional powers such as Egypt, Syria and Iraq.

The Arab Spring fundamentally changed the balance of power in the region and resulted in the rise of Iran and Turkey as non-Arab regional rivals and escalated the power vacuum in the Eastern Mediterranean, Red Sea, south of the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf region.

The reconciliation moves and talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran can revive the dream of achieving peace and stability in the troubled Middle East region. On the fifth anniversary of Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Vision 2030 project in April this year, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman expressed his country’s desire to reduce tensions with Iran and expressed his hope for a good and distinctive relationship with Iran. Bin Salman sees the stability and prosperity of the Middle East in the improved relations with Iran and is confident that the mutual interests of Riyadh and Tehran can accelerate the growth and prosperity of the region and ultimately the global economy. It is noteworthy that Iran warmly welcomed the change of Prince Bin Salman’s tone.

Although the two countries have a long way to go to normalize relations, Baghdad talks, which have been held since April and mediated by the Iraqi Foreign Minister, have so far been positively assessed by the parties, but without any tangible results. This is while a year ago, such headways seemed impossible.

In light of the regional order shake-up, both countries are expected to pursue the resolution of long-standing conflicts, and ultimately establish a new order, independent of outside powers through constructive policies based on mutual interests and values. The road to reconciliation is bumpy and long but leads to more stability in the region. 

*Timothy Hopper, an international relations graduate of American University.

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