by Hany Ghoraba
Special to IPT News
August 1, 2023
Last March, Saudi Arabia and Iran resumed diplomatic relations after years of animosity, exchanged threats and proxy wars. The signed deal that was brokered by China, accompanied a ceasefire in Yemen where Saudi Arabia was involved in supporting ousted President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi against Iran-backed militias, the Houthi movement. Hadi stepped down as president in April 2022 after attempts to defeat Al Houthis failed to restore him to power in Yemen.
“Despite being two major powers of the Muslim world, Iran and Saudi Arabia have never kept their sectarian divisions within bounds in favor of what they both tout as the imperative of Islamic solidarity. In their efforts to gain the upper hand as the leader of the Islamic community,” said Iranian award-winning journalist Kourosh Ziabari who spoke to the Investigative Project on Terrorism, “their ideological differences have continued to play out, and indeed the top authorities in both countries are to blame for the perpetuation of this vicious cycle of Shia-Sunni vendetta.”
While possessing a more superior firepower at the beginning of the war in Yemen in 2015, Saudi Arabia could not decisively end the war in its favor, as eight years later, Saudi Arabia’s southern cities were reeling from the drone and missile attacks by the Iran-backed Houthi.
The main goal of the campaigns was to eliminate the Yemini Shite Islamist group Houthi and neutralize its threat with the rampant Iranian influence on its southern borders. The war was supposed to be of short duration but eight years later, the Saudis were in the same place in which they had started, but were more vulnerable to Houthi attacks.
Under pressure from the continuous Houthi attacks and lack of regional and international support, the Saudis accepted the cease fire and the restoration of diplomatic ties in exchange for Iranian support.
“This is ultimately a victory for the besieged people of Yemen who have been reeling from war and poverty for years, and this can be primarily chalked up to the Iran-Saudi Arabia reconciliation deal, which is a promising development,” said Ziabari.
Biden’s Iran-First Policy Left the Saudis No Choice
A feckless policy by the Biden administration toward the Iranian regime left the Saudis vulnerable to further political and terrorist attacks which reached the Saudi cities and forced the Saudis to accept what would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
“Biden’s policies closely resemble those of Obama. In both cases, they believe that working with Tehran will manage the problem of Iranian nuclear weapons,” said Dr. Daniel Pipes, U.S. foreign policy analyst and President of the Middle East Forum, who spoke to the Investigative Project on Terrorism.
This is an opinion shared by other Middle East experts.
“Biden made matters worse. Several factors are at play, the first being incompetent Obama apparatchiks rehired for sensitive security positions who never got past their ideology and have no real life experience operating in the Middle East,” New York-based human rights lawyer and journalist Irina Tsukerman told the Investigative Project on Terrorism.
“Most have never spoken to anyone in the region – only with local Iranian lobbyists and activists in the U.S. The Biden administration consists of quarrelling factions united only by some vague desire to return to some sort of a deal with Iran – without any experience or strategy for successful negotiations, or goals, or understanding of the regime,” Tsukerman continued.
Further, the weak leadership of the Biden administration allowed China to gain ground in the Middle East and replace the United States as a major player on many issues, including the recent Saudi-Iranian reconciliation.
“Biden has no consistency or follow through on any policy that he adopts and just seems to do random things. Moreover, the administration actually is welcoming to China’s and Russia’s alliance with Iran and presence in the Middle East as a way to free up attention and to advance climate change goals so that enhances the disastrous impact of poor decision making,” said Tsukerman.
But feuds between Iran and Saudi Arabia have not been resolved and they even extend to economic interests, which is ironically one of the reasons that the Iranian regime has expedited the efforts to reconcile with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are in a dispute with Iran over the rights for the maritime field called Arash by the Iranians and Durra by the Saudis. The field is estimated to produce 20 trillion cubic feet of gas and 310 million oil barrels.
Last December, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to develop the disputed maritime field. The move was dubbed “illegal” by Iran. The Iranian government claims that the northern part of the field lies within its maritime borders.
“There is no doubt that it is only a matter of time before Tehran and Riyadh are once again squabbling, no matter how much the Old Guard wants to make this work. At the end of the day, cultural and religious differences and economic distinctions will prevail and even the Old Guard in KSA is at the end of the day answerable to assorted local interests and concerns,” said Tsukerman.
Removing the Terrorist Designation on the Houthis Only Emboldened More Terrorist Attacks
President Biden’s lack of support of Saudi Arabia in curbing Iranian-backed attacks on the country became apparent in the last years of the war. The Biden administration even lifted the designation of the Houthi group from the U.S. list for global terrorist organizations on the pretext of facilitating humanitarian support for Yemenis. But the exact opposite effect took place, as days after the delisting, the Houthis launched an offensive on cities such as Maarib which hosted large number of refugees.
The Houthis’ slogan, “God is the greatest, death to America, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, victory to Islam,” is inspired by the Iranian revolution slogan. But that didn’t deter Biden from delisting the group from the global terrorist organizations.
“Biden’s zeal to delist the Houthis – mostly to spite Trump and to please Iran – was disastrous for the region, and did a huge disservice to the Arab Coalition unity, already challenged by internal dissent among various interests, and to the reformists in KSA who had wanted to pursue a military victory against the Houthis but who were being consistently pushed out of the way by the pro-Houthi and pro-Islamists factions in the foreign ministry,” said Tsukerman.
The Houthis unabashedly continued to launch attacks on civilian targets, including hijacking sea vessels in the Red Sea. Claiming an Emirati vessel was engaged in “hostile acts,” the Houthis declared in March 2021 that they had seized it.
But it was not just the Saudis that Biden’s administration alienated. Other U.S. allies received similar treatment.
“Egypt has been largely abandoned completely with the exception of an occasional outburst about human rights at the behest of Islamist lobbyists. Israel is being treated like a disobedient colony; Biden is happy to do endless training exercises and regional working groups, but his administration is more interested in meddling in Israel’s internal affairs than in cooperating strategically to advance common goals in an effective way,” said Tsukerman. “With Saudi Arabia, the administration has been all over the map from threatening the Kingdom with isolation to trying to bribe them with energy related promises to begging for oil, while failing to meet local security concerns or provide any meaningful assistance where it matters.”
These policies pushed the Saudis into taking steps for a reconciliation with Iranians that looked unthinkable at one time, given the deep conflict between the two countries that began during the early days of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979.
“Iran’s role in the Yemen conflict has been essentially counterproductive and only reproduced the hostilities, especially when it reinforced the perception that the Islamic Republic was meddling in what was broadly considered an Arab world issue,” said Ziabari.
With the notorious Iranian regime suffering economic losses resulting from unyielding riots and internal pressure, it found a way to cut these losses by forging agreements with former enemies.
Never Has a Non-Deal Been as Dangerous as the One Biden Has Offered to Iran
But Biden is taking the policy a notch further now as news from the inner circle of the President indicates he is willing to accept a “non-deal” with Iran. A non-deal would not offer any guarantees that Iran will stop seeking to produce nuclear weapons.
“It (the non-deal) has enormous implications, presenting every country in Iran’s neighborhood (except Israel) with the choice of acquiescing to Tehran or confronting it,” said Pipes.
“There are several factors that may explain Biden’s bizarre and inconsistent policies, not the least of which is the “sunken cost fallacy,” an error in reasoning that causes entrenchment in one’s positions at the expense of possible better opportunities after one expends sufficient resources and is reluctant to back down on the investment,” said Tsukerman. “But aside from that, the policy is driven by the blind arrogant ideology of people who think they know better, and who are obsessed with undoing Trump’s legacy.”
Iran is closer to producing its first nuclear weapon and former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani clearly declared that point in 2021.
“Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization can enrich uranium by 20% and 60% and if one day our reactors need it, it can enrich uranium to 90% purity,” said Rouhani.
Despite this declared fact, the Biden administration remains reluctant to act in recognition of the reality of the grave emergency arising.
Tsukerman remains skeptical of an adequate response from Biden’s administration in case Iran carries on with its plans to develop a nuclear weapon.
“Despite Pentagon comments that the U.S. has a strategy for that event, the most likely outcome is that the U.S. will simply accept it as it has accepted nuclear China and Pakistan and use it as an excuse for perpetuating a pro-Iran policy across the board. This will likewise strengthen the hand of fearmongers and propagandists,” said Tsukerman.
Similarly, stated Pipes, “I expect this will be somewhat like North Korea: much concern and discussion but little effective action.”
The Robert Malley affair: Did the President’s Top Negotiator Effectively Spy for Iran?
Biden administration members, including envoy to Iran Rob Malley, met pro-Iranian propagandists last March in Washington. This action is a telltale sign that Biden’s administration is willing to accept the Iranian regime’s conditions without having the courtesy to declare so publicly in fear of a Congress backlash.
“There is also the echo chamber effect of the administration having hired pro-Iran propagandists at various levels of administration so the groupthink from these circles eschews common sense and alternative ideas on Iran policy,” said Tsukerman.
But Malley’s entanglement with the Iranian regime became even more controversial after his security clearance was suspended without any official statement from the Biden administration.
“Despite increasing evidence of a serious violation, which includes the involvement of the FBI, the Biden administration continues to shirk public accountability over ‘what did the President know and when did he know it’ when it comes to the timeline of Malley’s allegations and suspension without pay,” said Tsukerman.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul demanded on July 14 more information about the allegations that initiated a State Department investigation into Iran envoy Rob Malley‘s handling of confidential documents. But despite a classified briefing from the State Department on the matter, State provided no significant new information, according to a Committee spokesperson, and would not explain why Mr. Malley’s security clearance was suspended.
“While there is a significant embarrassment natural to any administration and desire to avoid negative publicity, the avoidance of response to Congressional inquiries is far more serious than merely ignoring inconvenient questions from the media because Malley, as the point man on Iran policy in general and the recent negotiations in particular, is the lead on any potential deal or treaty that would need to be reviewed by Congress as required by law,” said Tsukerman.
Moreover, 15 Republican senators led by Sen. Paul Hagerty sent a letter to the State Department’s Office of Inspector General urging it to investigate whether officials at the department followed all laws and rules when suspending Malley’s security clearance.
“This story is more than just the typical partisan desire to protect its own appointees, this is the recognition that Malley’s violations may put under scrutiny the entire process of negotiations with Iran – the keystone of the Biden foreign policy, and could potentially implicate other officials, particularly if they knowingly covered for Malley’s violations during the period they are refusing to acknowledge, and by extension endangered national security concerns,” said Tsukerman.
The details of Malley’s suspension remains murky, just as the extent of the damage he may have done during his job as an envoy to Iran.
“Unlike previous administrations where Iran policy was distributed among various national security officials including the National Security Adviser, the Special Envoy on Iran, and the Secretary of State, Malley seems to have accumulated unprecedented powers for his office and appears to have kept even leading foreign policy figures such as NSA Jake Sullivan in the dark about some of his dealings,” said Tsukerman.
Given the Iranian regime’s track record of the past 40 years, it is highly unlikely that it will abide by any signed deals with Saudi Arabia once the circumstances are more adequate to resume its expansionist policies in the Middle East. But this reconciliation resulting from Biden’s lack of support for the U.S.’s closest allies is a much-needed respite for the Iranian regime to use to regain its strength after years of sanctions and domestic riots.
“Appeasing Tehran is an unmitigated disaster from the point of view of U.S. interests,” said Pipes, describing the recent policies toward Iran. “The more Iran is legitimized politically, the more it can restore itself by expanding its network and use its relations to crackdown on dissent and prop up its bureaucratic institutions, and the less incentive there is for middle of the road non-activist Iranians to get involved in dangerous activity against the regime,” said Tsukerman.
IPT Senior Fellow Hany Ghoraba is an Egyptian writer, political and counter-terrorism analyst at Al Ahram Weekly and a regular contributor the BBC. He is also the author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy
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