from Trita Parsi, for The American Prospect

First published December 15, 2021

Convinced that the U.S. has lost faith in the strategic value of the Middle East, prime ministers and kings alike are scrambling to find their strategic footing in the region. Amidst the confusion and uncertainty of a world without American protection, two models are emerging.

One is represented by the fledgling Iraqi effort to promote inclusive regional diplomacy. The other is manifested in the Abraham Accords, with its emphasis on facilitating the reconciliation between Arab dictatorships and Israel in order to counter Iran’s influence.

The former emerged and evolved without American involvement. The latter depends on the U.S. and necessitates continued American military commitments to the Middle East.

Perhaps counterintuitively, America’s interest is best advanced by the Iraqi-led Baghdad dialogue, precisely because it aims to make the Middle East stand on its own legs and end the draining dependence on the United States.

America’s Withdrawal Spurred Regional Diplomacy

Regional diplomatic efforts in the Middle East have intensified dramatically in the past year, though they have garnered little attention in the United States.

The Turks are talking to the Egyptians again, the Emiratis are patching things up with TurkeySaudi Arabia and the UAE are burying the hatchet with Qatar, and Syria is resuming dialogue with several of its neighbors. The most consequential dialogue, however, is arguably that between Tehran, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi, courtesy of Iraqi facilitation.

Secret talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia actually started under President Donald Trump, for reasons that Washington’s foreign-policy elite may find problematic. The Saudi leadership was shocked when Trump opted not to go to war with Iran after an Iranian-attributed attack on Saudi oil fields in 2019.

Trump essentially abandoned the Carter Doctrine, much to the chagrin of Riyadh and many of Washington’s foreign-policy elite, who had long asserted that without American hegemony, the Middle East would descend into chaos.

Recognizing that the U.S. military was no longer at their disposal, the attacks prompted Saudi Arabia and the UAE to try secret diplomacy with Iran instead. “It made Riyadh understand that they have to diversify their relationships and reduce their reliance on the United States,” a well-placed Saudi source told me.

Through Iraqi facilitation, messages were exchanged between Riyadh and Tehran with the aim of defusing tensions. Iran suggested a peace plan based on a mutual Iranian-Saudi pledge of nonaggression.

The UAE, in turn, sent a senior military official to Tehran to calm the situation in the Persian Gulf and get itself out of the line of fire. Much to the Trump administration’s annoyance, Abu Dhabi even released $700 million in funds to cash-strapped Iran. (Indeed, Trump’s former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley recently bemoaned the Arab-Iranian dialogue, accusing President Joe Biden of pushing Iran and Arab countries into each other’s arms.

“The idea that they’re actually having conversations and negotiations was unthinkable a couple of years ago,” she added, ironically ignoring that a couple of years ago was the date these secret talks began.)

Had the U.S. not appeared poised to back out of the region, there is little to suggest that these two autocratic Arab partners would have shifted toward diplomacy. But once they no longer could hide behind America’s military might, their appetite for peaceful coexistence grew exponentially. “These conditions have encouraged diplomatic outreach among the regional powers,” wrote Hussein Ibish, a commentator at the UAE-funded Arab Gulf States Institute.

Though this window for diplomacy was cut short by Trump’s subsequent assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani—who was in Iraq to deliver a message to Saudi Arabia as part of the secret Iraqi-facilitated dialogue—it resumed once Trump left office. The Saudi leadership correctly understood that under Joe Biden, America’s unconditional support for the House of Saud was coming to an end.

Washington was now seemingly trying to avoid entangling itself in the quarrels of its regional partners, reconfirmed by Biden’s pullout from Afghanistan, which left the leadership in Riyadh “very shaken,” according to former CIA hand Bruce Riedel. “The images of Americans abandoning Afghanistan are scary for the Gulf Arabs,” he told Slate.

The message regional powers perceived was crystal clear: Going forward, America will focus on the Middle East only to figure out how to leave it, not how to enmesh itself further in its many quarrels.

Regional diplomatic efforts in the Middle East have intensified dramatically in the past year, though they have garnered little attention in the United States.

America’s pending exit prompted the Iraqi government to take its secret diplomacy to the next level. Instead of merely facilitating dialogue between Saudi and Iran, Baghdad began mediating between the two historical rivals, all the while expanding the dialogue to include almost the entire region, culminating in the Baghdad summit in August of this year.

For the first time in almost two decades, senior leaders from Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Turkey, and many others shared a stage as they took the first stumbling steps toward resolving the many conflicts through dialogue and concrete actions.

For instance, the Iraqis proposed to Saudi Arabia and Iran that they should build an international highway that links Mashhad in Iran to Mecca in Saudi Arabia via the Iraqi city of Karbala, in order to strengthen economic ties and build confidence.

“Part of what we need to do is manage our region better. There is a vacuum and whenever there is a vacuum there is trouble,” Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the UAE president told the World Policy Conference in October. “Am I very positive about the reach out to Iran? Yes, I am. Am I very positive that Iran will change its regional course? I have to say I am more realistic here, but I am betting Iran is also concerned about vacuum and escalation.”

By now, the Saudi-Iranian dialogue has “reached a point of maturity,” according to Amwaj.media, with numerous meetings between senior Iranian and Saudi officials, including Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Jubeir, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s younger brother, Khalid bin Salman, with the two sides reportedly being close to an agreement to restore diplomatic relations.

Diplomacy, the Trumpian Way

Though the Trump administration opposed the outreach between Riyadh and Tehran, they did favor a different kind of diplomacy, between Israel and Muslim nations that had yet to recognize the Jewish state.

The Abraham Accords—which saw the normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE, and later Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan—is widely touted as Trump’s most important diplomatic achievement in the Middle East. The Biden administration also embraced the accords, with hopes of expanding the number of states willing to normalize relations with Israel absent the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

The accords were hailed by Trump as a major advancement toward regional peace, though they merely normalized relations between countries that never had been at war with each other. The plight of Palestinians and Israel’s continued illegal occupation of Palestinian land was not even an afterthought in the accords.

Instead, the agreement flipped a key principle for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue on its head: Recognition of Israel was now granted without any movement toward peace, further reducing Israel’s incentives to end the occupation. There was no give-and-take in the agreement between Israel and the Arab states, and no mention of Palestinian statehood.

All concessions were instead made by the U.S. The United States shifted its long-standing position on West Sahara in order to bring Morocco on board. Sudan was taken off the U.S. terror list. The United States even agreed to sell the UAE, a key destabilizing actor in the Middle East, one of its most advanced fighter jets, the F-35.

The Israelis didn’t even need to pledge to negotiate with Palestinian leaders, let alone commit to Palestinian rights or independence. As Jeffrey Goldberg pointed out: “Israel gets something for nothing: relations with two more Arab states without so much as a settlement freeze.” Not surprisingly, the Palestinians viewed the agreement as a stab in the back. “Tangible improvements in the lives of Palestinians” is promised, as is “security, opportunity, and dignity,” but not statehood.

The Abraham Accords shifted the focus to the idea that it lies “in the interests of countries across the region and around the world for Israel to be treated like any other country”—even as Israel continues to occupy Palestinian territory. According to Jared Kushner’s August 2021 Annual Strategy document of the Abraham Accords Peace Institute, the objective is not to achieve peace by resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, but rather to “move beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

Given this, it is not surprising that the accords have failed to enhance peace, as was made clear by the war earlier this summer that left some 260 dead in Gaza and 13 dead in Israel. Beyond failing to achieve peace, they are arguably destabilizing the region as a whole while pushing peace out of reach.

Baghdad or Abraham?

At its core, the Abraham Accords reboot the unsuccessful U.S. strategy of organizing the Middle East around isolating Iran, dividing the region between America and its partners on one hand, and Iran and its allies on the other.

The Emiratis insist that the accords are not an anti-Iran alliance, but Kushner tells a different story. According to his strategy document, the “Accords serve to constrain shared threats from the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

This approach presumes that the rivalry of regional partners with Iran also is America’s fight, effectively equating America’s interest in the Middle East with that of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. It cements conflict while preventing collaboration between parties to resolve it. Tellingly, from the time that the U.S. first began organizing its policies in the Middle East around isolating Iran in the mid-1990s until the present, armed conflicts in the region have grown from 5 to 22.

The accords differ in one very significant way, however: Instead of the United States acting as de facto security guarantor for the Sunni Arab kingdoms bordering Iran, Israel (with U.S. support) is now envisioned to fulfill that role.

This dynamic was on full display recently as Israel, Bahrain, the UAE, and the U.S. held joint naval exercises in the Red Sea, in a move widely interpreted as targeting Iran. The exercise also demonstrated the effect of the accords as a mechanism to keep the U.S. military engaged and present in the Persian Gulf, albeit at a lower level of intensity.

Moreover, the accords will require constant reinforcement and support from the United States. The Abraham Accords Peace Institute is crystal clear on this point: “U.S. leadership proved absolutely critical to the development and early implementation of the Accords; absent sustained investment, the historic agreement will fail to achieve its potential.” It calls for a “U.S.-led regional security architecture built to safeguard an economic foundation that can endure,” staving off a failure that would allow Iran to “regain disruptive footing throughout the region,” while opening the door “to malign influence by Russia and China” as well as the resurgence of ISIS and al-Qaeda.

In sum, this amounts to continued American hegemony in the Middle East at a lesser cost. Since the accords cement rather than resolve tensions, there are few reasons to believe that this strategy will prevent the Middle East from being plagued by continuous warfare and instability—or that it will spare America from more endless wars.

At its core, the Abraham Accords reboot the unsuccessful U.S. strategy of organizing the Middle East around isolating Iran, dividing the region between America and its partners on one hand, and Iran and its allies on the other.

In almost every way, the Iraqi initiative is the opposite of the Abraham Accords. Instead of dividing the region into blocs, the Baghdad dialogue seeks broader stability and peace by resolving regional disputes rather than by building coalitions aimed at targeting and defeating other states.

Moreover, while the accords were largely imposed upon the Middle East, with the United States bribing or pressuring states to come along, the impetus for the Iraqi diplomatic initiative came from within. Innovatively, for Middle Eastern standards, it seeks stability without requiring a taxing dependence on Washington’s political and military resources.

Meanwhile, only one of these diplomatic initiatives may be sustainable. Opposition to accepting the Israeli occupation remains strong in the Middle East, including in many of the countries party to the accords.

When Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid visited Bahrain, he was met with street protests denouncing the visit and the accords. Both Shia and Sunni leaders in Bahrain publicly renounced normalization with Israel and the opening of the Israeli embassy in Manama.

In Sudan, the decision was even more unpopular. The Arab Opinion Index of 2019-2020, conducted in 13 Arab countries representing some 300 million people, revealed that 79 percent of respondents in Sudan opposed establishing relations with Israel before Palestinian rights are secured. Region-wide, opposition to normalization was even stronger, with 88 percent rejecting the idea.

Normalizing relations, however, does help suppress opposition against Arab dictators, including their acceptance of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Arab rulers in the Persian Gulf have been using sophisticated Israeli cyber technology to track peaceful dissidents at home as well as abroad.

These advanced technologies will likely enable Arab dictators to keep the opposition in check in smaller countries. In more populous states like Morocco and Saudi Arabia, silencing dissent may prove too difficult.

To many human rights defenders in the Middle East, the accords are seen as an instrument to help undemocratic but Israel-friendly regimes “cement their control over their peoples.” This should make Washington mindful of the radicalization and extremism that American support for Arab dictators has historically helped spur.

Perhaps most importantly, the strategy underpinning the Abraham Accords has a track record of locking in conflicts, raising tensions, and even increasing the risk of a military confrontation. As Steve Simon of the Quincy Institute has pointed out, if the UAE gives Israel access to its bases, it will significantly enhance Israel’s ability to bomb Iran and, by that, potentially increase Israel’s inclination to do so.

Most analysts agree that such a measure would likely lead to a region-wide war that ultimately would suck in the U.S., at a time when Washington has finally managed to begin ending its wars in the Middle East.

The Baghdad dialogue carries with it no such destabilizing risk. While resolving the numerous disputes and establishing region-wide peace is a herculean task, even hard-line Saudi commentators recognize its potential to, if not achieve piece, at least usher in an era of “better-managed tensions.”

Still, as a senior Iraqi official told me, while reduced Saudi-Iranian tensions was the original objective of the initiative, better-managed tensions can “set the foundation for a broader effort toward regional dialogue and security.”

An Exit Ticket for America

For those in Washington who favor Washington’s Middle East policy of the past three decades, the Abraham Accords provide an attractive path toward continuity. At a time when the American electorate’s desire to end military engagements in the Middle East is growing increasingly potent, the Abraham Accords aim to ensure continued American dominance of the region at a slightly lower cost.

The Baghdad dialogue, on the other hand, has the potential to offer the United States an exit ticket. Its mechanisms for conflict resolution and prevention will help stabilize the region, while by arming U.S. partners and cementing division, the Abraham Accords prepare the Middle East for war, and make it more likely.

Experience has shown that without outside protection, all powers in the region will be forced to be more realistic with their demands. The U.S. has ostensibly demanded that its allies and security partners worldwide take greater responsibility for their own security. But for the accords to work, the Arab states must remain dependent on American security, which, in turn, means that the United States must remain militarily committed.

Perhaps most importantly, the Baghdad dialogue can eventually expand to include Israel, reduce tensions between Israel and Iran, and even move toward normalization with Israel, accompanied by the establishment of a Palestinian state. In contrast, the Abraham Accords cannot tolerate the rapprochement between Iran and Arab states that the Iraqis are aiming to achieve.

As Zvi Bar’el of the Israeli daily Haaretz writes, an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia “will be the final chapter of the anti-Iranian coalition” on which the Abraham Accords are founded. Indeed, the Abraham Accords Peace Institute explicitly identifies “accommodation with Iran” and the potential for improved relations between Arab states and Russia and China as threats to the accords.

Thus far, the Biden administration has kept a calculated distance from the Baghdad talks. It has welcomed the dialogue and praised Baghdad for its initiative, but has wisely kept itself out of the deliberations, for fear that American involvement could derail the effort.

But if the Biden administration is serious about reducing America’s military footprint in the Middle East, then the choice between the Baghdad dialogue and the Abraham Accords is clear. The former will rely on regional resources and leadership without American involvement. The latter will give new life to Middle Eastern rivalries that are bound to drag the United States back into the quicksands.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. In this post-9/11 world of make believe, nothing that Biden could do or not do would change anything in the Middle East. Republicans in Congress would never vote to ratify any version of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, to pull US troops out of Syria, or to treat the Palestinians as human beings.

    It simply isn’t going to happen, not until we come to terms with how the USA became entangled in the forever wars in the first place. They were meant to bankrupt us both financially and morally, just like what Netanyahu said would happen in 1990. And, the next horrible war that we’ll be forced into by Israel will be even worse.