The very real threat of open conflict between the United States and Iran still looms large in the wake of September’s attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil installations. What remains of the Iran nuclear deal is quickly crumbling, and we’ve arrived at the logical conclusion of several years of escalating hostility between the United States, its Gulf allies, and Iran. Fortunately, staring down the barrel of war has had a sobering effect on Saudi, Emirati, Iranian, and American policymakers, who have all sent limited but noteworthy signals of their desire to reduce tensions. The Trump administration, already mired in more crises than it can manage, should not miss the opportunity these signals present to walk the region back from the brink.
Since stepping away from the Iran nuclear deal, President Trump has presided over a rapid deterioration of security and stability in the Persian Gulf. But the problem is not unique to this President. Successive administrations have struggled to manage a growing rivalry between Saudi led Gulf monarchies and Iran that has helped spawn an arc of crises stretching from Baghdad to Beirut, where the mixing of geopolitical competition and identity-politics has proven to be a particularly violent alchemy. The past few months have proven especially volatile, as a financially-squeezed and economically-suffocated Iranian leadership lashes out, downing an American spy plane, supporting attacks on US allies and disrupting the flow of Middle East oil. In June of this year, the United States came within minutes of overt military action against Tehran that would almost certainly have plunged the region into even deeper levels of violence and chaos.
Nevertheless, glimmers of restraint that have broken through the cycles of escalation suggest that all sides fear they may have bitten off more then they can chew, and provide an opportunity for the United States to lead efforts towards de-escalation. In July, the UAE broke with Saudi Arabia and began withdrawing its ground troops from Yemen. Recent developments suggest that the Saudis and Houthis are also looking for exit ramps, including the unilateral declaration of a ceasefire by the Houthis, which was reciprocated by Saudi Arabia. Mohammed Bin Salman, the deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia, perhaps sensing his growing isolation, has explicitly stated his desire for a political settlement to the conflict that has been at the heart of regional proxy conflict since 2015. The administration has already sought to initiate direct talks between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, an encouraging development after 5 years of war.
While the United States was quick to point the finger at Tehran for limpet mine attacks against shipping vessels harbored in Emirati ports, the UAE was more circumspect, declining to directly assign blame.
Outside of Yemen, the surprisingly reserved responses of Gulf states to a series of escalating attacks that bear the hallmark of Iranian involvement also points to noteworthy efforts to avoid conflict. While the United States was quick to point the finger at Tehran for limpet mine attacks against shipping vessels harbored in Emirati ports, the UAE was more circumspect, declining to directly assign blame. Similarly, a recent attack on Saudi Arabia that cut Saudi oil production in half elicited an unexpectedly muted reaction from Riyadh. Initially eschewing the certainty that characterized American indictments of Iranian responsibility, the Saudis spoke in ambiguous terms, noting the Iranian origins of the weaponry involved, while reservedly calling for a “thorough” investigation before rendering a final verdict of guilt.
Even still, the Saudis have chosen not to respond militarily to what would be considered the most audacious attack on the Kingdom in many decades. In declining to immediately assign blame to Iran, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have both sought to avoid the obligation to respond more violently, leaving open the possibility for dialogue that would have been unthinkable just a few short months ago. Recent reports indicate that Riyadh has taken tentative steps to open indirect talks with Tehran, and has worked with allies Pakistan and Iraq to act as mediators.
For its part, Iran has also sent some small signals it is open to peace overtures. President Rouhani has indicated his willingness to engage diplomatically with the United States on the nuclear issue, as has the Iranian speaker of parliament. More tellingly, Iran’s purported attacks against Saudi Arabia and its announcement expanded uranium enrichment have drawn a sharp rebuke from Iran’s European partners, who have acted as a bulwark against even harsher international economic sanctions against its already broken economy. The message is clear: Tehran is overplaying its hand and risks re-unifying the Western front that had been split by Trump’s decision to abandon the JCPOA.
Despite the erratic nature of this particular administration, President Trump’s general aversion to military confrontation seems genuine. He has voiced strong support for diplomacy with Tehran, was more reserved than other members of his administration in apportioning blame for the Saudi attack, and has voiced eagerness to meet directly with President Rouhani. Though such a meeting seems unlikely, the signal it sends to diplomats and other bureaucrats managing an array of issues in the region is positive, and should encourage progress on less contentious areas that can serve as a proxy for broader peace discussions.
There is no doubt that steps towards peace will be interspersed with messages of vitriol and chauvinism, and there will be actions from all sides that are likely to undermine efforts to de-escalate tensions. Nonetheless, signals that the region is looking for a way out of its path towards conflict shouldn’t be dismissed. Simply put, the region is too ripe for miscalculations and misunderstandings that can quickly spark a wider conflict. President Trump may have won his Pyrrhic victory in effectively killing the Iran deal, but it’s now his responsibility to capitalize on the region’s desperate gestures towards peace.
Elias Yousif is a Program and Research Associate with the Security Assistance Monitor Program at the Center for International Policy, where he analyzes the impact of US arms transfer programs on international security and human rights. He was previously a Campaigns and Research officer with Crisis Action, both in DC and Beirut, where he worked on advocacy and policy proposals to improve civilian protection, humanitarian access, and conflict resolution in Syria. He has published commentary on issues including US arms transfer policies, the war in Syria, and conflict in the Arab Gulf.