As a new wave of unrest in Lebanon, Iraq and Sudan signals that the Middle East will keep coming back to knock on the White House’s doors, news about successful rounds of talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran have observers wondering if rapprochement between the two rivals is possible. Despite the positive remarks from both sides, the recent Gulf lash back against Lebanon indicates the confrontation is deepening. This means the Saudi Iranian negotiations are not about trying to deescalate tensions in the Persian Gulf and on Saudi southern borders.
After concluding several rounds of talks, both between Saudi Arabia and Iran expressed their satisfaction and anticipation of more dialogue. The exchange of diplomatic pleasantries and public optimism should not obfuscate the growing undercurrents of tensions in the region coupled with the current uncertainty around the negotiations of the JCPOA 2.0 in Vienna and the talk of US officials about alternative plans.
Saudi Iranian talks cannot be an alternative to failed American efforts to stop its nuclear programs nor can they be used to convince Iran to stop its regional adventurism and both the Saudis and the Iranians are well aware of this. The recent Arab moves against Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon and signs of what may be an attempt to wean Assad’s Syria off Iran show that as the US examines its Iran options, Arab states have an independent strategy.
Already struggling with political collapse, Lebanon found itself last week at the center of the Arab-Iranian tensions as the Arab Gulf States decided to diplomatically isolate it following the Lebanese Minister of Information’s anti-Saudi remarks. For many, the Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini lash back and expulsion of Lebanese ambassadors was a surprising overreaction, but in truth, the minister’s statements seem to have provided an excuse for a plan in motion.
This much could be understood from the recent remarks of Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud, who said, “I think we have come to the conclusion that dealing with Lebanon and its current government is not productive and not helpful with Hezbollah’s continuing dominance of the political scene, and with what we perceive as a continuing reluctance by this government and Lebanese political leaders in general to enact the necessary reforms, the necessary actions to push Lebanon in the direction of real change.”
It is important to mention that Hezbollah has been heavily involved in training and assisting anti-Saudi Houthi rebels and Yemen as well as being responsible for most of the narcotics being smuggled into Saudi Arabia.
On the Syrian front, Arab states have been carefully moving towards normalizing relations with Syria’s Assad with what seems to be tacit approval of the Biden administration. This came through in the gas pipeline project bringing gas from Egypt through Jordan and Syria to Lebanon as well as in the restoration of diplomatic ties between Syria and Jordan.
Some observers have pointed out that this reflects an Arab strategy to attempt to wean Assad off Iran and restore Syria to the Arab fold, a strategy that may also reflect a Russian wish. However, it would be naive to assume that Iran would let go of one of its most strategic relations this easily, especially as the tensions between Iran and Israel rise. Iran certainly wouldn’t mind seeing Arab states providing help to its allies in Beirut and Damascus, but this is likely to lead Iran to become more, not less assertive.
Lastly, we turn to the current status of the US strategy towards Iran following news that Iran is willing to come back to the negotiations table at the end of November, but the prospects of a nuclear deal are close to nil given the impossibility Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA.
In retrospect, the Biden strategy provided Iran with assurances and not threats. Iran has been successfully biding time as it was betting on American disengagement from the region while hiding its true intentions. In Vienna, it is now obvious Iranian officials were simply going through the motions with other goals in mind.
Parties negotiate when they are convinced that the status quo is no longer tenable and that resorting to force is not a viable option. In other words, the bleeding caused by a certain hurting stalemate is painful and can no longer be tolerated. Iran abstaining from serious negotiations shows that the Iranians calculated that they get more by waiting it out, while American eagerness to negotiate showed the Iranians that the US didn’t think using force was a viable option. In other words, the American strategy has been completely self-defeating.
The failure of the Vienna negotiations and the events in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq show that the Saudis are in a tougher position than they were a year ago. They may negotiate with Iran to deescalate tensions, but not to achieve any sort of final agreement. Therefore, the road is still open for Israel to consolidate regional alliances and partnerships to plan for a military intervention against the Iranian nuclear infrastructure. At this moment, the United States needs to provide assurances to Israel that it can rely on American support in stopping Iran.
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