Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) must have scratched his head upon reading Donald Trump’s response to the September 14 missile attack on two Saudi Arabian oil facilities. “There is reason to believe,” Trump tweeted, that “we know the culprit … but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!” After all, the idea that Saudi Arabia should determine how the United States should respond raised basic questions about the benefits of the US-Saudi partnership. Moreover, Trump’s indecorous deference to Riyadh prompted questions about Saudi Arabia’s own capacity to forge a coherent security strategy. Indeed, the idea that Washington should wait for Riyadh to signal “under what terms we should proceed” assumes that Saudi leaders know what they are doing, have a clear vision of how to achieve their aims, and are pursuing goals consonant with US interests. These are dubious assumptions.
Saudi Arabia lacks geostrategic and military capacity and has hitched its own security to a US administration that has pursued a totally incoherent Iran policy.
There are at least three reasons why a coherent Saudi strategy will not materialize. First, Riyadh lacks the geostrategic and military capacity to tackle the security challenges Iran poses. In fact, under MbS’s guidance, Saudi security policy has consisted of improvised actions whose disastrous results in Yemen have prompted buyer’s remorse in Washington and Abu Dhabi as well. Second, Saudi Arabia has hitched its own security to a US administration that has pursued a totally incoherent Iran policy. Riyadh pushed for Trump’s decision to reimpose sanctions on Iran, thus effectively launching an economic war on the Islamic Republic. But that very war pushed Tehran to adopt a strategy of military escalation for which the White House has no obvious military remedy. Third, the only way for the White House to address this dangerous situation is to balance the reasonable, if limited, military steps it is now taking to reassure the Saudis with a robust, multilateral diplomacy—one that keeps open the prospects for negotiations on multiple fronts.
The Trump Administration is loath to focus on diplomacy lest it be seen as tolerating what critics see as Iranian impunity. But the White House’s efforts to show that it is demonstrating US deterrence credibility elides the fact that it was Trump’s reckless decision to indulge Saudi (and Israeli) ambitions of toppling Iran’s leaders that invited the current crisis. The departure of former National Security Advisor John Bolton, coupled with Trump’s calls for restraint, offer only a glimmer of hope that the White House might finally communicate to its regional friends that US policy regarding Iran will be made in Washington rather than in Middle Eastern capitals.
The Yemen Disaster Throws Saudi Diplomacy into Chaos
In their intervention in Yemen’s civil war, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates shared one goal: to reinstate the government of Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, which had been forced into exile after Houthi forces overran Sanaa in January 2015. To be sure, the two countries brought very different perspectives and priorities to their entente. Riyadh was motivated by an abiding hostility toward Iran that rested on both sectarian/religious factors and strategic concerns. With their fears of Iranian influence magnified by the US push for a nuclear agreement with Tehran, Saudi leaders—including the new crown prince—viewed the defeat of all “pro-Iranian” threats at home and in border states as crucial to the kingdom’s survival. By contrast, the UAE viewed the intervention in more pragmatic terms. Governing a modern trading state that has commercial relations with Iran—and which, unlike Saudi Arabia, did not look to a clerical establishment for religious legitimacy—Emirati leaders saw restoring Hadi’s government as a vital geostrategic goal, though one that had little to do with confronting Iran or thwarting Shia influence.
Washington seems unwilling or unable to break its habit of deferring to Riyadh, thus sustaining a relationship that in fact works to Iran’s favor.
That MbS was unprepared for dealing with these tensions may have a lot to do with the fact that the UAE and mercenary forces took on the brunt of the ground war, while Saudi Arabia conducted lethal sorties from the relative safety of the skies. Still, by summer 2019 the colliding strategic, economic, and political priorities of the two countries induced the UAE to begin drawing down its forces in Yemen and to reach out to Iran in a bid to heal a rift that threatened its own interests. Things came to a head in August, when the Hadi government demanded that the UAE be expelled from the coalition.
If Yemen’s scenario of disaster has many villains, one of them surely is the Saudi leaders who got stuck in a quagmire without an exit strategy. Reports suggest that as far back as May 2017, MbS told former American officials that he wanted “out” of Yemen. Yet one month later he joined the UAE and Bahrain in boycotting Qatar, thus telegraphing Riyadh’s allergy to diplomacy. Fast forward two years and it appears that the Trump Administration has begun talks with Houthi leaders and is even trying to induce Riyadh to negotiate. Against the background of White House’s escalating conflict with Tehran, however, Washington seems unwilling or unable to break its habit of deferring to Riyadh, thus sustaining a relationship that in fact works to Iran’s favor.
The Trump-MbS Alliance Puts Iran in the Driver’s Seat
There is little doubt that MbS and his colleagues wish that the Islamic Republic would vanish. However, by hitching their wagon to a US president whose decisions are ultimately fueled by a deeply irrational impulse to repudiate the legacy of his predecessor, Saudi leaders have helped to enable a US Iran policy that has magnified rather than diminished the security threats the kingdom now faces.
Saudi leaders have helped to enable a US Iran policy that has magnified rather than diminished the security threats the kingdom now faces.
The reason Saudi Arabia is worse off now than it was in May 2018 (when Trump pulled out of the nuclear agreement) should be clear: under Trump, the American push to coerce Iran into renegotiating the 2015 nuclear deal was a smokescreen for a strategy of regime change. Confronted by a US administration that has waged economic war, Iranian hardliners have sidelined Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif—who played a pivotal role in the 2015 nuclear agreement—and compelled him to acquiesce to a risky strategy of controlled escalation. Zarif has probably wagered that this strategy might induce more pragmatic US officials (including Trump) to take the idea of negotiations seriously. But hardliners view controlled escalation not as a tactic to press for talks, but rather as a means of hammering a last nail into the coffin of US-Iranian relations. Having watched Trump call off a previous US military attack that he had initially ordered after Iran’s June downing of a US surveillance drone (and surely emboldened by Bolton’s forced resignation), the hardliners are betting that taking the conflict with Saudi Arabia and the United States to a new level is a risk worth taking. For Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his allies in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), more—rather than less—escalation illustrates US weakness.
A US military response could open the door to an extended conflict that would undermine the security of US forces throughout the Middle East and beyond.
Nothing that administration officials, from the president on down, have thus far said or done suggests that this was a mistaken calculation. As Pentagon officials have reportedly told the White House, a US military response could open the door to an extended conflict that would undermine the security of US forces throughout the Middle East and beyond. That Saudi Arabia itself did not rush to directly accuse Iran of perpetrating the September 14 attacks suggests that Riyadh was not eager to see Washington tested in a manner that could produce two bad results for Riyadh: either the United States would attack Iran and possibly spark a region-wide conflagration that would stop all oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz; or the United States would make excuses and not impose a significant military cost on Iran for its actions, thus indicating to the entire region Washington’s flagging capacity to deter Iranian threats.
It was not Iranian “impunity” but rather Trump’s foolish policies that produced this current crisis of US credibility.
The fact that this second scenario is pretty much what has happened is a lesson that leaders in Middle East capitals and in Washington have surely noted. However, all the hand-wringing in the world by US policy experts over “who lost the Gulf” should not obscure one basic point: it was not Iranian “impunity” but rather Trump’s foolish policies that produced this current crisis of US credibility. When US policy helps to invite threats for which Washington has few good military options, the growing task of sustaining deterrence is not a product of Iranian perfidy; rather, it is a product of US and Saudi ineptitude (and, at base, White House impunity).
Difficult Challenges in Washington, Tehran, and Riyadh
Some critics of Trump’s Iran policy argue that the alternative to trying constantly to put out the raging fire that the White House helped ignite may be for the administration to pursue some modified version of Obama’s original nuclear deal. Clearly there are many obstacles to moving from a US policy of ineffective antagonism to effective engagement with Tehran.
On the US side, the challenge is not merely to tame Trump’s unruly impulse to make foreign policy on the fly. The bigger task is institutional and political: to mobilize an intra-agency task force whose double mission must be to define the terms of a diplomatically feasible bargain with Iran and to identify the diplomatic, economic, and military steps it must take to secure support in the Middle East and wider global arena to advance this deal. These steps must include signaling to Saudi Arabia that the White House will not defer to Riyadh’s wishes on Iran or other regional threats, including those posed by Houthi forces in Yemen. For now, there is no evidence that the administration has the political will or authoritative foreign policy leadership that are required for this kind of deep strategic thinking and bold policy action.
On the Iranian side, Foreign Minister Zarif (and President Hassan Rouhani) will have to convince Supreme Leader Khamenei that Iran has more to gain than to lose by returning to negotiations. In New York for the United Nations General Assembly meetings, Zarif appears to be testing the diplomatic waters before reporting back to Khamenei. Thus in a September 24 interview with NPR he seemed to extend a small but potentially promising olive branch:
The United States can have a much better deal with Iran if they started talking to us based on respect and … moving forward. Next Wednesday, there is going to be a meeting in which four of the five permanent members [of the U.N. Security Council] plus Germany … There is an empty chair there for the United States, but there is a ticket for that chair and that is to be law-abiding.
What Zarif means by a “better deal” is hard to know. But he certainly does not need US officials at the table to elaborate on this proposal during discussions with European leaders. Indeed, he probably floated the idea to encourage the Europeans to focus on the wider issue of diplomacy rather than the uncomfortable question of responsibility for the September 14 Saudi oil installation attacks. Nevertheless, having mentioned a “better deal,” Zarif cannot easily walk these words back.
There is no evidence that the US administration has the political will or authoritative foreign policy leadership that are required for deep strategic thinking and bold policy action.
One intriguing question is whether Zarif took a political risk by implying a possibly more forthcoming position. On this score, it is worth noting that Khamenei has not in fact precluded talks with the United States (as was widely reported in the western media). Instead, he insists that there can be no negotiations unless the United States first recommits to the nuclear deal and “backs off and repents” from its maximum pressure policy. This is the basic point that Zarif has repeated since he landed in New York. And he has done so knowing that it will be practically impossible for Trump to swallow this bitter pill. Indeed, Zarif’s demand that the United States “be law-abiding” (a codeword for accepting the nuclear deal) suits Khamenei, who by dint of his governing position, ideology, and temperament, views talks with Washington as a threat to the Islamic Republic. Having subordinated his first-order preferences to what he previously called “heroic flexibility”—and had his fingers burned in the bargain—it is very unlikely that the supreme leader will back talks with this administration.
Thus far, the Saudis have no reason to worry that Trump will stop deferring to Riyadh’s wishes. Indeed, two and a half months before the September 14 attack, Trump met with MbS at the G-20 summit, where he downplayed Saudi complicity in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Kashhoggi while stating that, “It’s an honor to be with the Crown Prince … a friend of mine, a man who has really done things … in terms of opening up Saudi Arabia.” Given such felicitous sentiments, the US decision to send more troops to the kingdom probably suits MbS as much as it does Trump. Neither leader wants war with Iran, while both probably welcome a move that could be seen as improving deterrence without exposing Gulf states to unnecessary risks—and without compelling Saudi Arabia to cease its military operations in Yemen. This is the sweet spot for Riyadh, one that allows MbS to have his tea and drink it, too. Although he is no supreme leader, the Saudi crown prince’s position, abiding hatred of Iran, and enduring need to appease the powerful clerical establishment will ensure that MbS will actively oppose any US effort to engage with Tehran or to pull back from Yemen.
Saying No to Saudi Arabia
While the prospects for US-Iran diplomacy are dim, American interests will not be served by continuing to echo the Saudi line. In fact, the conditions that impelled Iran to escalate militarily in the Gulf not only remain, but with European-Iranian talks making limited progress, the IRGC and/or its regional allies have an incentive to launch strikes at Saudi or even US interests. Thus, the current precarious status quo will not hold.
While the prospects for US-Iran diplomacy are dim, American interests will not be served by continuing to echo the Saudi line. Under the present conditions, the current precarious status quo will not hold.
What, then, can be done? While it is unrealistic to expect the Trump Administration to rework its overall Iran strategy, the White House should keep the door open to the possibility of talks. For this purpose, quiet diplomacy—backed by the Europeans, China, and Russia—will be essential. Further, the White House needs to communicate to all key regional players that Washington is setting the terms of its Middle East policy. This will require backing away from a dysfunctional embrace with Saudi Arabia, one that has encouraged Riyadh to pursue its calamitous military venture in Yemen.
The White House needs to communicate to all key regional players that Washington is setting the terms of its Middle East policy.
Dismay in Congress with Saudi Arabia’s atrocities in Yemen might provide an impetus to push for an internationally backed negotiated process between all the key domestic forces. The December 2018 Stockholm Agreement was meant to create a framework for such talks but it has failed for several reasons, including Riyadh’s determination to gain an impossible military victory over the Houthis. By leaning on the Saudis to talk with their enemies, the Trump Administration could help defuse a regional conflict that has strengthened the Houthis’ military capacities, not to mention their ties to Tehran. But this will only happen if the White House drops the notion that Riyadh should tell Washington how to proceed.