Saudi and Iranian security officials have been holding secret talks since January without any U.S. involvement—a bit of news that has led some to bemoan a decline in American power as President Biden seeks to withdraw from the Middle East. But in fact, this is good news, both for the United States and for the prospects of calm in the region.
The development might also serve as a lesson for U.S. foreign policy broadly—a sign that Washington doesn’t need to involve itself in every conflict in the world, that sometimes its self-vaunted role as a peacekeeper or mediator only heightens tensions, and that sometimes it’s best to let local powers work through their problems on their own.
The secret talks were first reported last month in the Financial Times. The British news site Amwaj.media has since reported that five such meetings have been held, beginning as far back as January, and that some of these sessions have also included officials from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Jordan, on topics ranging from the war in Yemen to security in Syria and Lebanon.*
Soon after publication of these scoops, since confirmed by the New York Times and several others, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—whose spokesman at first denied the report—said in a TV interview, “We are seeking to have good relations with Iran…. We are working with our partners in the region to overcome our differences with Iran.” This week, the chief spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry, said that the Islamic Republic is ready to hold talks with Saudi Arabia “at any level and in any form.”
Saudi Arabia and Iran have had no diplomatic relations since 2016. Their leaders and diplomats have practically hissed war threats at one another since before then. In other words, even if the talks don’t produce many tangible results, we are witnessing a monumental political shift.
By all accounts, this shift was spurred by recognition that the United States is moving away from the Middle East. A senior Biden adviser told me, during the transition between election and inauguration, that the region would rank “a distant fourth” in Biden’s priorities, after Asia Pacific, Europe, and South America.
President Trump also talked about pulling away from the Middle East, but he always kept his heart—and the taxpayer’s wallet—open for Saudi Arabia. The key change is that Biden is hardening his attitude toward the royal family. As Trita Parsi recently put it in Foreign Policy, “It’s not so much anything Washington has done but rather what Washington has stopped doing—namely, reassuring its security partners in the region that it will continue to support them unconditionally, no matter what reckless conduct they engage in.”
What Biden stopped doing most notably was providing arms to the Saudi military for use against Iranian-backed rebels in neighboring Yemen. (Settling the war in Yemen was the main topic in the first Saudi-Iranian talks.) Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have also explicitly criticized the Saudi government’s killing of U.S. journalist Jamal Khashoggi (an act that Trump waved away as inconsequential) and announced a review of all arms sales to Riyadh (in contrast to Trump’s push to sell the royal family as many arms as they wanted to purchase).
Biden’s pushback also marks a departure from President Obama’s policy, which, in many ways, perpetuated Washington’s accommodation of Saudi interests—a carryover from U.S. policy dating back to just after World War II—despite his avid desire to “pivot” away from the region. For instance, in order to placate Saudi anxieties over his signing of the Iran nuclear deal (which would involve lifting U.S. sanctions against Tehran), Obama allowed Riyadh to use American munitions against Iranian-backed rebels in the Yemen war. (Obama later regretted this concession.)
What would have happened if Obama had rejected the Saudis’ request for a green light and simply pursued what he saw as U.S. interests—signing the Iran nuclear deal, perhaps sympathizing with Saudi concerns, pledging to counter any and all acts of Iranian aggression in the region, but also saying, “No, we’re not going to help you wage your dirty war in Yemen”? The Saudis would have expressed outrage. Other Sunni powers in the region might have joined in. But then what? What would they have done to weaken U.S. power, influence, interests, or values?
In an earlier era, they might have stepped up hostilities toward Israel. But in recent years, the Saudi Crown and other Sunni powers have cozied up with Israel, a partner in the cold war with Iran—which, even if the Saudi-Iranian talks are fruitful, isn’t about to vanish.
Ignore moral values for a moment. Is there any reason, on strictly geopolitical grounds, for an American president to accommodate Saudi interests when they compromise our own? No.
This seems to be the conclusion that Biden and his team have reached. Yes, Biden will continue to consult with the Saudis and the other Sunni powers (as well as with Israel) as he and the European leaders try to revive the Iran nuclear deal (which Trump killed). Those countries also have an interest in where those negotiations lead, and our interests converge or coincide on a number of issues. But, like most countries on the planet (very much including Saudi Arabia), the U.S. should pursue its own interests and values—and it should avoid putting those interests and values on the line in trying to settle disputes among other countries, especially since we often end up intensifying those disputes, as turned out to be the case when Obama tried to mollify the Saudis after doing a deal with Iran.
Of course there are exceptions to this rule. We should exert our influence when dealing with solid allies, especially where we are obligated by treaties to protect their security. Mediating the historical tensions between South Korea and Japan, for example, is very much in our interest, as those tensions—between Asia Pacific’s two most powerful democratic countries—impede cohesive policymaking within the larger regional alliance, in some ways our most vital alliance in the world’s most dynamic region.
Exceptions aside, this is not a call for isolationism. It is instead a description—which Biden and his team seem to be groping towards—of what a reasonable policy in a fractured world should be. It’s a policy driven by interests, values, and obligations that really matter—not by vague and outdated notions of what “geopolitics” or “perceptions of influence” might dictate.
Letting Saudi Arabia and Iran reach some modus operandi on their own does not reflect a decline of American power, nor is anyone likely to see it that way. It’s more likely to be seen as a sensible end to the squandering of our resources.
Correction, May 10, 2021: This article originally misidentified Amwaj.media as Amwad.media.
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