Election 2020

The Next Administration Needs a Plan for De-escalation in the Gulf

Confrontation with Iran almost dragged the United States into war. Détente would benefit all sides.

This article is part of Election 2020: What We’re Missing, FP’s series of daily takes by leading global thinkers on the most important foreign-policy issues not being talked about during the presidential election campaign.

Fire and smoke billow from a Norwegian-owned tanker reported to have been attacked in the Gulf of Oman, in a photo obtained on June 13, 2019.
Fire and smoke billow from a Norwegian-owned tanker reported to have been attacked in the Gulf of Oman, in a photo obtained on June 13, 2019. -/ISNA/AFP via Getty Images

Last year, the United States almost got dragged into war in the Persian Gulf. That makes it a good time to think about what the next administration can do to de-escalate tensions in the region.

What little public discussion there is usually boils down to two opposing alternatives. One approach, often articulated by U.S. President Donald Trump and some of his supporters, is to show unconditional support for Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf States while putting “maximum pressure” on Iran. The other, sometimes also embraced by Trump and his supporters—but also by some on the left—is for Americans to wash their hands of the entire region. A better approach would be for a new administration to use hard-nosed diplomacy and smart statecraft to pursue de-escalation and calm.
On the Gulf Arab side there are also good reasons to pursue détente.

Success would be a long shot, of course, but not impossible because both sides have a compelling interest in de-escalation. Iran, with an economy in free fall and a discontented population hit hard by COVID-19, is not only desperate for relief from economic sanctions but knows it would suffer greatly in a direct military conflict. Even if a future Biden administration rejoins the nuclear deal that Trump abandoned, the pressure for Iran to change will be kept up by low oil prices, a dysfunctional economy, and a large youth population eager to end the country’s isolation. And the idea that Iran’s leaders must continue interfering in their neighbors’ affairs to maintain legitimacy or satisfy their population is absurd. The regime governs through force rather than legitimacy, and there is no sign that the Iranian public would rise up if the government started to prioritize domestic concerns such as jobs and health care over support to regional proxies.

On the Gulf Arab side there are also good reasons to pursue détente. The military escalation that took place in the region during 2019—with tankers exploding in the Gulf, missile strikes in Iraq, and a direct Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia’s biggest oil refinery—was a wake-up call for Saudi and Emirati leaders. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates may be militarily stronger than Iran, but they also have a lot more to lose than Iran in a military escalation—just imagine the economic impact of a single drone strike on Dubai. This reality led the UAE last year to downplay the tanker attacks by declining to attribute them to Iran, pull its troops out of Yemen, and even pursue quiet diplomacy with Tehran. Another factor is that, after years of supporting Trump, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is so unpopular in Washington because of the war in Yemen and the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi that some are calling for an end to strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia. Embracing de-escalation would take some of the political pressure off.

Obviously, any de-escalation would be up to the parties, but the United States could help with leadership and diplomacy. This could include, for example, ending U.S. military support to Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen but telling Riyadh that other U.S. arms sales and the broader defense relationship could continue if the Saudis agree to a cease-fire and show willingness to de-escalate on other fronts. To Iran, a new administration could make clear that peace in the region is not a precondition to a nuclear deal, but that abiding by it will not preclude the United States from responding vigorously to Iranian aggression in the region. If Iranian behavior significantly improves, on the other hand, better relations and even direct trade between the two countries could be on offer.

The United States cannot force Iran and Saudi Arabia to get along. But the two countries have coexisted peacefully—and even cooperated—in the past, and both have a profound interest in finding a way to do so again. Given the alternatives, the next U.S. administration should try to steer them in that direction.

Philip H. Gordon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a former White House coordinator for the Middle East in the Obama administration, and the author of Losing the Long Game: the False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East.

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