This article is part of Election 2020: What We’re Missing, FP’s daily series of leading thinkers on key foreign policy issues that were not discussed in the presidential campaign.
Last year the United States almost went to war in the Persian Gulf. This is a good time to think about what the next government can do to ease tension in the region.
The little public discussion usually consists of two opposing alternatives. One approach often formulated by US President Donald Trump and some of his supporters is to unconditionally support Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states while putting “maximum pressure” on Iran. The other, sometimes believed by Trump and his supporters – but also by some on the left – is for Americans to wash their hands from the entire region. A better approach would be for a new government to use persistent diplomacy and shrewd statecraft to achieve de-escalation and calm.
Success would of course be a long way, but not impossible, as both sides have a compelling interest in de-escalation. Iran, with a free-fall economy and a discontented population badly hit by COVID-19, is not only desperate for economic sanctions easing, but knows that it would suffer badly in a direct military conflict. Even if a future Biden administration rejoins the Trump-abandoned nuclear deal, pressure on Iran will be sustained by low oil prices, a dysfunctional economy and a large youth population eager to end the country's isolation. And the idea that Iranian leaders must continue to meddle in their neighbors' affairs in order to maintain legitimacy or to please their people is absurd. The regime is ruling by violence rather than legitimacy, and there is no sign that the Iranian public would rise if the government began prioritizing domestic concerns such as labor and health care over supporting regional proxy officials.
There are good reasons to relax on the Arab side of the Gulf too. The military escalation that took place in the region in 2019 – with tankers exploding in the Gulf, missile strikes in Iraq and a direct Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia's largest 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 attack on Dubai. That reality led the UAE to downplay the tanker attacks last year by refusing to attribute them to Iran, withdrawing its troops from Yemen and even conducting silent diplomacy with Tehran. Another factor is that after years of supporting Trump in Washington over the war in Yemen and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is so unpopular that some are calling for an end to the strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia. De-escalation would ease some of the political pressure.
Of course, any de-escalation would be a matter for the parties, but the United States could help with leadership and diplomacy. This could include, for example, ending U.S. military assistance to Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen, but telling Riyadh that other U.S. arms sales and broader defense ties could continue if the Saudis agree to a ceasefire and are ready to grant others de-escalate fronts. For Iran, a new administration could clarify that peace in the region is not a prerequisite for a nuclear deal, but that compliance with these provisions will not prevent the United States from responding vigorously to Iranian aggression in the region. On the other hand, if Iranian behavior improves significantly, better relations and even direct trade between the two countries could be offered.
The United States cannot force Iran and Saudi Arabia to get along. But the two countries have lived together peacefully – and even worked together – in the past, and both have a deep interest in finding a way to do it again. Given the alternatives, the next US administration should try to steer them in that direction.