By Samuel M. Hickey
The United States and Iran appear to be circling in on an informal, unwritten understanding to prevent the simmering nuclear crisis from boiling over. Avoiding a nuclear crisis in the Middle East is in the United States’ interest, particularly as Washington remains preoccupied with other parts of the world.
The Biden administration wants to keep global attention on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and negotiating an iron-clad verification and monitoring agreement with Iran is not immediately feasible due to Iran’s recent crackdown on protesters and drone sales to Russia. However, region-led efforts to de-escalate tensions across the Middle East are complicating U.S. efforts to strengthen deterrence against Iran should the nuclear crisis reach criticality. Instead of relying on U.S. security guarantees, states are generating new security concepts to reduce tensions and establish mechanisms to maintain peace and stability. While the Abraham Accords have more openly integrated Israel into the region’s economic and security plans, the Arab Gulf states are signaling that they will not take part in Israel and Iran’s shadow war.
For the United States, the challenge is finding a way to align its non-proliferation strategy with region-initiated de-escalation initiatives. The United States’ previous efforts to isolate Iran and impose a smattering of economic sanctions have reached their limits as policy tools. Moving forward, it is imperative for the United States to demonstrate restraint and employ coercive threats exclusively in constrained situations where the alternative threatens U.S. security.
Rapprochement Across the Middle East
In 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that if Iran were to build a nuclear weapon, the United States would contemplate extending “a defense umbrella over the region;” potentially providing any state Iran might threaten with the extended deterrence assurances the United States has reserved for NATO, South Korea and Japan. Not only is the Middle East a fundamentally different security environment, but the comment elicited concern from the region that the United States would accept a nuclear-armed Iran. However, the fundamental question for the Gulf states has been whether they will choose to live indefinitely under the United States’ security umbrella, or change the security environment to ensure their independent prosperity.
In recent years, there has been mounting evidence toward the latter. The rapprochement framework signed between Tehran and Riyadh in March 2023 was the result of years of quiet diplomacy to restore relations and lay the foundation to resolve the perennial rivals’ numerous disputes, potentially paving a way to end the disastrous war in Yemen. While facilitated by Beijing, the United States’ quiet support for the negotiations achieved U.S. foreign policy aims by strengthening regional stability and reducing reliance on the United States. Further, if Iran or Saudi Arabia fails to uphold the détente, then Beijing will suffer the economic and diplomatic fallout as its economic security will be threatened and its influence will be called into question.
The Emirates have similarly restored full diplomatic ties with Iran by returning its ambassador to Iran in August 2022, and have signaled they do not want to be part of an anti-Iran coalition. Amid growing fears of Israel striking Iran’s nuclear facilities, the Emirates have assured Iran that its territory would not be used by Israel to launch a military strike on its nuclear program. The Saudi-Iranian détente may have also reduced the likelihood that Saudi airspace could be used by Israel for the same purpose. The cherry on top is the potential for Egypt to follow the two Gulf powers and reestablish relations with the Islamic Republic, which have been absent since 1980.
In a similar vein, Bahrain and Qatar are resuming relations, Syria is re-joining the Arab fold, and Qatar and the UAE are reopening their embassies after a six-year break in relations. However, these dynamics, which are not reliant on the United States, are making it difficult for the United States to raise the pressure on Iran as it creeps closer to cementing its nuclear threshold state status. The United States’ coercive bargaining efforts have grown increasingly one-sided, as it has made its threats more credible, but neglected its ability to assure an adversary of restraint.
Over the past few months, the United States and Iran have engaged in indirect discussions to de-escalate tensions on multiple fronts. Recent reporting suggests that the two are in discussion to bring three Americans imprisoned in Iran home, halt proxy attacks on U.S. forces in Syria, and draw clear red lines around Iran’s nuclear activity in the absence of a deal. In return, Iran might expect the United States to not tighten sanctions, not seize Iranian oil tankers, and not seek penalizing measures at the United Nations or the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Beyond abiding by such an understanding, there is more the United States can do to deconflict its non-proliferation strategy with regional de-escalation efforts. First, bolster the credibility of the red line threat. The United States has wielded red line threats before, and the line has moved so many times over the past decade that Iran may not know where it truly lies. Showing restraint on other crisis matters in the region will bolster the credibility of the threat and reduce the chances of miscommunication. Second, the United States should support closed-door diplomacy without demanding credit. On the Saudi-Iranian détente, it appears that the Biden administration took that approach and swallowed the bitter pill of letting Beijing take credit for the breakthrough. The benefits to Beijing were not transformative and ensuring the Europeans have access to non-Russian hydrocarbons is critical to the United States’ strategy to support Ukraine. Not taking credit has already yielded diplomatic dividends and demonstrating restraint will make U.S. coercive tools more potent for future use.