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A restless US keenly watches Iran-Saudi Arabia talks

What is upsetting Washington about any reset of Iran-Saudi Arabian relations, midwifed by Qatar, is that the US is not in the driving seat of this initiative 

May 14, 2021 / 05:35 PM IST

Just as proverbial ‘Rome was not built in a day’, the notion of a Saudi Arabia-Iran rapprochement will not become a reality any time soon. Yet, the circumstances in which contacts between the respective Shia and Sunni behemoths have taken place are giving the Near East bureau of the United States State Department sleepless nights.

After the US lost the plot in Syria during the Donald Trump administration and Shia Iraq was lost to Shia Iran for all practical purposes earlier when Barack Obama was in the White House, US President Joe Biden does not want his country’s vital interests in the crucial Gulf region to be whittled down.

Notwithstanding everything that seven generations of Saudi Arabian kings, especially the more recent monarchs, did for the US, such as keeping Wall Street flush with Saudi Arabian investments and denominating the price of oil in US dollars, the younger generation in the House of Saud realises that Washington cannot be trusted any more. Biden and Kamala Harris make up a US President-Vice President duo who have no financial stakes in the Saudi Arabian kingdom. Or for that matter in any of the states of the oil-rich Gulf region.

US Presidents And Oil

The Bush family of Texas, the energy capital of the US, had varied interests in oil. Bill Clinton, in his second term as US President, prepared the ground for his post-retirement life as a lavishly paid adviser to some Gulf interests. It was only First Lady, later Senator Hillary Clinton’s appointment as US Secretary of State, which forced the 42nd US President to give up that lucrative career. Between his tenures as US Secretary of Defence and the country’s 46th Vice-President, Dick Cheney was Chairman and CEO of the oil giant, Halliburton. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s Secretary of State, came to the job after 42 years — the last 11 years as Chairman and CEO — with another oil conglomerate, ExxonMobil.

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As far back as anyone can remember, oil has influenced US politics and so did Saudi Arabia. The famous photo of Prince Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, the kingdom’s ambassador to the US for 22 years, sitting on the armrest of a White House sofa and talking to the US President was emblematic of this relationship.

With Obama and Biden as President and Vice-President for eight years, oil lost much of its ability to grease the most powerful palms in Washington. Without that ability, the House of Saud was powerless to stop Obama from concluding a nuclear deal with Iran in 2015 and putting the US signature on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the deal is formally known.

With the US now self-sufficient in energy, the House of Saud realises that their relationship with the White House has fundamentally changed: Saudi Arabia is no longer the client state which has overwhelming influence over the controlling state, the US.

Tehran’s Cards

Iran, on the other hand, feels twice bitten thrice shy. The older generation of Persians have memories of how the US unceremoniously dumped their ally of 38 years, Shah Mohammad Reza, once he was no longer of use to them. The deposed Shah had to go from country to country for 10 months before he was let into the US for cancer treatment. Only briefly.

Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat have him asylum where he died a year-and-a-half after fleeing Iran and its Islamic revolution. After painfully negotiating the JCPOA with six major world powers and making concessions, Iran’s moderate leaders were let down when there was a change of guard in Washington and Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal, re-imposing sanctions on Tehran.

Biden wants to deal with Iran, but the trust deficit between the two sides has left heavy baggage from the Trump years.

An olive branch from Riyadh to Tehran, even if it does not produce immediate results, strengthens Iran’s hands in hard-nosed JCPOA negotiations. Ironically, it suits the Saudi Arabians too. They do not want a resurrection of the JCPOA, and if a defiant Iran makes impossible demands of the West as an insurance for the new deal’s longevity, a new deal may not be reached at all.

At any rate, Riyadh is looking to buy time by stalling another deal. The dynamics of Iran’s domestic politics will also play a part in the outcome of the peace initiative. This is an election year in Iran for multiple institutions.

What is upsetting Washington about any reset of Iran-Saudi Arabian relations, midwifed by Qatar, is that the US is not in the driving seat of this initiative. Since the war for liberating Kuwait 30 years ago, Washington’s wish has been a command for all the Arab Gulf states. The anodyne statements so far by the US State Department barely masks its concerns that this may change if Iran and Saudi Arabia are talking under a regional arrangement nurtured in Doha. Even if they are only talking.
KP Nayar has extensively covered West Asia and reported from Washington as a foreign correspondent for 15 years. Views are personal.
first published: May 14, 2021 05:35 pm

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