A window for rapprochement in the Gulf could be in the offing as the US tones down its rhetoric on Iran pushing Saudi Arabia and the UAE to take a step back.

As Robin Wright’s recent piece for The New Yorker explained in great detail, French President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to set up a telephone conversation between the American and Iranian presidents at last month’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) session proved futile.

Also, last month, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom issued a statement blaming Tehran for the Aramco attacks of September 14, aligning Europe more closely with the White House against Iran. 

All signs suggest that President Donald Trump’s administration will continue pushing its “maximum pressure” agenda while Iran maintains “maximum resistance.”

Nonetheless, some indicators signal Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states’ interests in easing tensions with Iran. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani spoke at the UNGA session of an Iranian plan for regional cooperation involving Iran, Iraq, and all six GCC members.

Having announced the plan on the 39th anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war, Rouhani declared that Tehran was interested in forgetting about the history of troubled relations between the Islamic Republic and Arab monarchies in favour of starting a chapter based on mutual respect and cooperation among all Gulf states.

Thus far, there has yet to be any official response from GCC officials. However, the United Arab Emirates (UAE)’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, wrote an opinion piece late last month for the Financial Times which set forth Abu Dhabi’s conditions for a rapprochement with Tehran.

In his article, he explained the UAE’s demands for Iran, which include giving up alleged nuclear weapon ambitions, freezing ballistic missile activity, and cutting off support for regional non-state actors. Gargash also stressed that the UAE would welcome an accord that restricts Iran much more so than the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) did.

The odds are incredibly dim that Tehran would accept any of the conditions that Abu Dhabi has set forth. However, the UAE is possibly just starting from this point and would be willing to expand on the meetings that took place between Abu Dhabi and Tehran earlier this year.

As indicated by the UAE’s modest diplomatic outreach to the Islamic Republic, the UAE’s leadership is determined to avoid being dragged into a military confrontation.

The Saudi-UAE climb down

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia reportedly gave Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi the green light to set up a meeting for Iranian-Saudi talks to de-escalate tensions in the Middle East. 

According to Mahdi’s office, the Iraqi Prime Minister has already been mediating between the Iranian and Saudi governments and he has told both Tehran and Riyadh the conditions that the other side has for talks.

It appears that last month’s Aramco attacks have left Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) convinced that thwarting a military confrontation with Iran best serves Saudi interests.

As the unprecedented missile and drone attacks against Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil installation and the Khurais oil field proved, Iran and its regional allies and proxies can severely undermine Vision 2030’s chances of success, which goes straight to the heart of MBS’s legitimacy in Saudi Arabia.

Although MBS does not want to give states across the region a perception of Riyadh giving up in its quest to counter Tehran’s clout, the crown prince seems to be accepting the fact that engaging Iran would best serve Saudi interests. 

Any such talks that Saudi Arabia would agree to would likely through Iraq, or other non-Western countries that maintain warm ties with both Riyadh and Tehran, such as Iraq, Pakistan, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, or Japan.

To understand why Riyadh and Abu Dhabi might be considering a more diplomatic approach to Iran, one must recognise the role of Trump’s restraint as he seeks to keep the US out of a new Middle Eastern war, at least between now and November 2020.

As underscored by the American president’s response to the downing of a US drone and his decision to avoid military action against Iran following acts of sabotage against tankers and the Aramco attacks of last month, Trump has signaled to Saudi Arabia and the UAE that the US will not fight a war against Iran on their behalf.

Within this context, these two GCC members realise that counting on US armed forces while avoiding diplomacy has left both monarchies in a more vulnerable and weaker position vis-a-vis the Islamic Republic.

Perhaps the key lesson for US policymakers, as well as officials of GCC states is that US military hegemony in the Gulf can prevent badly-needed diplomacy from taking place, ultimately serving as a driver of regional instability. 

Indeed, Riyadh had little incentive to engage Iran diplomatically when the Saudis saw Trump’s hawkish foreign policy as paving the path for Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical position to strengthen to the point whereby Iran would become so weak that Riyadh wouldn’t need to concede much to the Iranians.

Yet after spending billions of dollars on US defence systems and other weapons and after 17 months of Washington no longer being a JCPOA signatory against the backdrop of the White House’s “maximum pressure” campaign, Saudi Arabia does not find itself in a stronger position vis-a-vis Iran.

To the contrary, late last month—shortly after the Aramco attacks—Houthi insurgents in Yemen captured hundreds of soldiers fighting for the kingdom. The episode was a humiliating reminder of the extent to which Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen has been disastrous.

Moreover, US commitment to GCC states’ security is in doubt, as Saudi and Emirati officials have staunchly supported Trump’s rhetoric about Iran but observe how his actions often fail to back up his words. 

Further, what is in question is whether the monarchies in the Gulf can continue relying on the US as their post-1991 security guarantor. Such factors appear to have caused Saudi Arabia to revisit its strategies for countering Iran, which will remain the kingdom’s permanent neighbour, unlike the US, located 10,000 miles away.

Ball in Iran's court?

From Iran’s side, there is also an understanding that the tension in the Gulf has become extremely dangerous, which most likely explains Tehran’s positive initial responses to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh’s diplomatic outreach.

Despite the Iranians being either directly or indirectly responsible for last month’s Aramco attacks and not having been targeted by the US military, officials in Tehran understand that such provocative actions could end differently in the future. 

The speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, stated that his government welcomes the idea of talks with Riyadh, which also bodes well for a potential de-escalation of tensions in the region.

Yet as Shireen Hunter argued, regional initiatives aimed at easing the friction between Iran and GCC states have much higher chances of success if larger global actors, such as the US, Russia, or China, accept such proposals.

Nothing suggests that Moscow or Beijing would oppose it. In fact, the Russian government has already endorsed Iran’s proposal. Nonetheless, there is good reason to fear the Trump administration playing a role that derails any hope for a ‘new understanding’ between Riyadh or Abu Dhabi on one side and Tehran on the other. 

A sign that the US might be concerned about any such reduction in regional friction involving Iran was the Trump administration’s intensification of Arab NATO talks in response to the September 14 Aramco attacks.

Looking ahead, notwithstanding the indicators that both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi want to reduce tensions and Iran’s signs of growing interest in working with the Saudis and Emiratis to create a new order in the Gulf, based on local actors cooperating, there are major stumbling blocks still in play.

Ultimately, regardless of how the US and/or Israel acts, the leadership in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi would be wise to embrace a more pragmatic approach to Gulf tensions that rely on compromise and mediation to improve the chances for long-term peace and reconciliation.

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