The U.S. killed Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani on Friday, prompting Tehran to promise revenge and bringing the U.S. closer than it’s been in years to an outright war with the Islamic Republic. Though U.S.-aligned countries in the Persian Gulf are happy about the death of a skilled opponent, they’re also anxious that they might suffer from Iran’s response ― and that Trump won’t help if that’s the case. The anxiety, along with Iran-linked attacks since the summer that reminded Gulf Arabs how vulnerable they are, has led officials to consider how their own choices have made peace harder to achieve and what they can do differently.
If those countries shift away from confrontation with Iran, it would have huge implications for the stability of the region and its hundreds of millions of people. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have brutally fought pro-Iran forces in Syria and Yemen, and have pushed the U.S. and other Western countries to take a hawkish stance toward Iran through influential officials, paid lobbyists and sympathetic contacts in industries such as the arms trade and finance. A meaningful move toward diplomacy with Tehran would be a major shift that would make American saber-rattling more difficult.
“This is one positive consequence in all this: [Persian] Gulf countries are becoming more unified and realistic than they were before,” said Yasmine Farouk, a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Now, she said, the nations are “asking themselves questions about whether the U.S. knows where this all is going.”
Iran responded to the Soleimani assassination with strikes on American positions in Iraq on Wednesday. Trump then announced new sanctions against the country. He said he wants to eventually negotiate with the Islamic Republic but wants its behavior to change before a bargain can be struck.
His friends in the Middle East don’t want to wait much longer for an agreement to de-escalate tensions, Arab officials and analysts say. The risk of U.S.-Iran conflict remains dramatically high, and other events that could spark a spiral ― such as Tehran retaliating further over Soleimani’s death, especially since its initial response is now tied to the tragic downing of a civilian airliner, or U.S. forces and Iranian proxies veering into fighting in Iraq ― aren’t hard to imagine.
American policymakers, politicians and pundits tend to assume the more assertive Persian Gulf states are driven above all else by wariness of Tehran. Officials including White House adviser Jared Kushner have relied on that assumption to try to influence the region on issues like an Israeli-Palestinian pact. By centering its Middle East strategy on Iran, the Trump administration appeared to think it could make unprecedented gains in American influence.
But instead, Trump’s plan has made America’s friends feel significantly less safe and freshly interested in finding new ways to achieve peace without the goal of total Iranian capitulation. European leaders have thought that way for years. It’s significant that more bellicose Arab counterparts are coming around, too.
“This perception that the Gulf countries might enjoy any of what is happening right now is a false perception,” said Emma Soubrier, a visiting scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
The Arab monarchies moved quickly to stress de-escalation after the Soleimani assassination ― and spread the same message despite their disagreements with each other. Riyadh sent its defense minister and the brother of de facto ruler Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman, Prince Khalid, to Washington. Qatar’s leader spoke with Trump and sent his foreign minister to Iran. Although Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. are officially boycotting Qatar, their neighbor and fellow U.S. partner, over its regional policies and relative willingness to engage with Iran, the three countries are now aligned in a way they haven’t been for years.
Israel has also avoided involvement or the encouragement of escalation.
The turn comes after recent indications that Iran’s nervous neighbors were interested in a new way of dealing with the Islamic Republic. Saudi Arabia is negotiating with the Houthis, an Iran-backed militia it’s been fighting in Yemen since 2015; in July, U.A.E. officials met with Iranians to talk about maritime security in shared waters for the first time in six years.
A Sept. 14 drone attack on the Saudi oil company Aramco, which a Reuters investigation found was planned by Iran to punish the U.S. for withdrawing from a landmark 2015 global agreement on its nuclear program, reminded regional officials how much they have to lose from outright fighting. The Saudis blamed Iran (as did the U.S., Britain, France and Germany) but notably avoided retaliation, a decision that other Arab governments saw as wise even as Iran hawks in the U.S. suggested it was important to respond with a show of American power.
“None of [the Arab governments] were calling for a military response after the Aramco attack ― such calls essentially came from the Washington bubble,” Soubrier said.
The attack on Aramco epitomized the danger of the U.S.-Iran standoff for American partners in the region. If the U.S. intervened to help them, it would almost certainly make further attacks by Iran and its allies inevitable. Or even worse, Washington might prove how little it cared. Trump stated after the incident that it “was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us” ― an unmistakable message to Iran that left its neighbors feeling even more exposed.
Trump’s moves since then haven’t done much to change their view. He did not inform Saudi Arabia, his closest partner in the Muslim-majority world, of the Soleimani strike beforehand, a Saudi official told HuffPost. In his post-assassination comments, he noted, “We are independent, and we do not need Middle East oil.”
Iran and the neighboring U.S.-aligned states need to figure out a way to coexist, as do other global players with stakes in the region, such as China and Russia. So, despite Tehran’s bloody recent track record around the Arab world, particularly in Syria, Trump’s counterparts feel they can’t just try to punish and ignore it as he has. For Iran, that represents an opportunity to appear more rational than the U.S. ― and shape a new regional status quo on its terms.
“You have a lot of signals by Iran that they are in a maximum resistance campaign against the U.S. for obvious reasons ... but that in complement to that they are actually open to talking and building new initiatives with pretty much anyone,” Soubrier said. “The U.S. keeps pushing, pushing, pushing, but if you look in the region and elsewhere in the world, most countries are calling for de-escalation… . It’s interesting to see how much Trump’s choices are actually pushing everyone else together.”
Forging a broad agreement would be hard for Iran and America’s Arab partners to do. “There’s a huge problem of confidence between the two parties,” Farouk said, and some officials in those nations worry, too, about being excluded from some kind of U.S.-Iran rapprochement the way they felt they were from President Barack Obama’s nuclear talks. Past periods of relative reconciliation have ultimately faded, and informal diplomacy hasn’t resulted in much concrete improvement. But it’s not impossible; Tehran and the Gulf states might, for instance, ask third parties who have tried to encourage U.S.-Iran talks, like the Europeans and Japan, to be involved in making guarantees so that both sides live up to their commitments, she said.
But the countries’ room for maneuver is ultimately limited by the U.S., which right now means Trump and his anti-Iran Cabinet.
The president hasn’t protested the Gulf nations’ limited outreach to Iran so far but would likely do so if, for instance, those countries sought to make a wider deal with Tehran in private, said Rob Malley, a top Mideast adviser to Obama and now president of the International Crisis Group. As Arab leaders wait to see how Washington and Tehran proceed, “I just don’t know how much they can do” to influence either side’s decisions, Malley said.