The meagre signs of openness in the otherwise locked tensions in the Gulf have emerged over last few days, prompting hopes of de-escalation after the Iranian-initiated attack on Saudi oil facilities in mid-September.
Restraint by Saudi Arabia and its close allies, mainly the US and UAE, has helped avoid a war in the region, but tensions are still high and a large-scale military struggle could flare up at any moment.
Toned-down statements are also coming from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, paving the way for negotiations that could lead to a new comprehensive deal between Iran and the rest of the world. They indicate that the Gulf Arab countries are returning to their traditional path of détente to fend off escalation while keeping the pressure up to deter Iranian aggression.
The unprecedented drone and missile attack on Saudi oil giant Aramco facilities in the eastern region of Saudi Arabia in September had led to a halt of almost half of Saudi oil production.
Yemeni rebel Houthi militias backed by Iran claimed responsibility, but Saudi Arabia and almost the whole of the rest of the world considered Iran to be responsible. Iran denied responsibility, but still justified the attack as a self-defence response by the Houthis to the war in Yemen where an Arab Coalition is fighting the Houthis led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Though Saudi Arabia has said that it reserves the right to respond appropriately to the attack, the Americans backed off in their response after initially strong rhetoric that had led many to expect an American strike on Iran.
As the days passed and Aramco restored its lost oil production, the tensions started to ease to the extent that a much-talked-about meeting between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and US President Donald Trump at the UN in September overtook the news of the Aramco attack.
The meeting did not materialise, much to the dismay of French President Emmanuel Macron who had tried to broker it, as each party held firm to its position: the US wanted a dialogue with no precondition to agree to a new Iran deal, while Iran wanted the American sanctions lifted before any dialogue.
Iran’s calculation that the US will not fight a war on behalf of the Gulf Arab states has worked so far, and it seems its neighbours are getting the message as well. Despite the severity of the attack on Saudi Arabia and its strategic implications, the Gulf countries have avoided a disastrous war that would mean losses to them all.
This week, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been focusing on a “political solution” to the Iran crisis, probably starting from Yemen. On Sunday, UAE State Minister of Foreign Affairs Anwar Gergash wrote in the London Financial Times and Saudi Crown-Prince Mohamed Bin Salman spoke on American network CBS favouring a political solution rather than war with Iran.
Détente as deterrence was the clear Saudi message. In a pre-recorded interview for the CBS programme 60 Minutes, Bin Salman warned that crude oil prices could rise to “unimaginably high numbers” if the world did not come together to deter Iran.
But he added that he would prefer a political solution to the crisis rather than a military one. “If the world does not take strong and firm action to deter Iran, we will see further escalations that will threaten world interests,” he said.
He talked about Yemen’s hinting that the ball was in Iran’s court to stop the war and start a political settlement process. He repeated calls for Tehran to stop backing the Houthi militants in Yemen’s civil war so a peaceful solution could be achieved.
“First, if Iran stops its support of the Houthi militia, the political solution will be much easier… Today, we open all initiatives for a political solution in Yemen,” Bin Salman said.
Responding to a partial ceasefire offer by the Houthis, he was cautious, simply saying that “we will see.” News reports about US contacts with the Houthis in Yemen that surfaced just before the Aramco attacks have added to the conclusion that all the parties in Yemen are exhausted of the war and looking for a settlement to the conflict.
Bin Salman also urged Trump to meet Rouhani and craft a new deal on Trehan’s nuclear and missile programmes as well as its dangerous meddling across the Middle East.
The Saudi message was almost echoed by the Emirati minister’s article in the Financial Times. In it, Gergash focused on the efforts by the European signatories to the Iran nuclear deal – the UK, France and Germany – to start new negotiations with Iran for a more comprehensive deal after Trump withdrew the US from the deal last year.
He reiterated that “we only want Iran as a normal neighbour” in the article.
Gergash wrote that “we believe that there is an opening for Iran to reach a new understanding with its neighbours and the world. Tehran should see that a new agreement could offer it the space, confidence and resources to refocus its attention on its own people rather than on its proxies abroad. A deal would be a ticket to re-enter the global trading system, build prosperity and expand opportunity. It is a blueprint for a new, shared and more stable regional order.”
A comprehensive deal with Iran would not only be with the six world powers that signed a deal with Iran in 2015 that mainly focused on its nuclear programme and the alleviation of sanctions on Tehran.
A new deal, reportedly supported by the Gulf Arab countries that want support from the US and UK, would cover all concerns about Iran, ranging from its missile programme to curbing its proxies in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and other countries.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.