March 20, 2024 | The Algemeiner

Reported US-Iran Talks Explain Saudi Sitting Out Red Sea Operations

March 20, 2024 | The Algemeiner

Reported US-Iran Talks Explain Saudi Sitting Out Red Sea Operations

Wafic Safa, a top Hezbollah official, is on an unprecedented visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a country that classifies the Iran-backed Lebanese militia as a terrorist organization.

The visit came less than a week after The Financial Times reported that Bret McGurk, a senior Biden official, had held secret talks with Iranian counterparts in Oman about attacks in the Red Sea.

In December, America invited Saudi Arabia and the UAE to participate in Operation Guardian Prosperity, which was designed to defend international shipping lanes in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden against Houthi attacks originating from Yemen.

Under the Biden administration’s strategy of “regional integration,” America’s Arab allies — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt — are members of Combined Task Force (CTF) 153, whose mission is to guarantee the security of the Red and the Arabian seas. Yet when Yemen’s Houthi forces started targeting ships, these Arab countries passed on Washington’s invitation. Some believe this was because Riyadh and Abu Dhabi correctly calculated that Biden might change course midway and quit, leaving them facing renewed animosity from Tehran and the Houthis.

With McGurk’s reported meeting to ask the Iranians to rein in the Houthis, the Saudis and the Emiratis were proven right. They likely see this as evidence that Biden is an unreliable ally, and that if he thinks that diplomacy is the way forward, Saudi Arabia and the UAE can reach out to Iran, and its proxies, on their own.

Consistency is key to successful foreign policy. The Biden administration has not shown this.

In February 2021, the administration took Yemen’s Houthi militia off the US State Department’s List of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO), despite objections from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In January, the administration reversed its position, re-listing the Houthis, not as an FTO, but as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” group, whatever that means, attesting to the administration’s obsession with word acrobatics at the expense of substantive policy.

Inconsistency has also marred the way Biden has dealt with Israel’s reaction to Hamas’ October 7 massacre of 1,200 Israelis. A week after the massacre, Biden said that Hamas must be eliminated. Less than six months later, as Israel prepared for a sweep of Rafah designed to deal the Palestinian group the final blow, Biden warned Israel against invading Gaza’s southern town, saying that Rafah was a “red line” if the Israeli action there didn’t meet his specifications.

Biden’s position on Saudi Arabia has also been confused. Originally, candidate Biden had promised to turn Saudi Arabia into a pariah state. As president, Biden visited Riyadh and asked the Saudis for favors, mainly to pump more oil to lower global prices, and foreign policy help. When Biden is not applying pressure on Riyadh to raise its production levels, he and some in the Democratic Party spend their time bashing Gulf countries for their energy production, and blaming them for global warming, even though America has been leading the world in global crude oil production, while China leads the planet, by a mile, in carbon emissions.

Then there is the erratic policy of arms sales to allies. Hardware contracts are long-term and require servicing, maintenance, recalls, and upgrades. It is almost impossible to integrate systems from different countries together. This means that countries that buy US arms, and therefore help boost the American economy and create jobs, have to stick to American arms.

But Biden — and the Democrats in general — politicize arms sales and supply, whether to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel, or other clients. No army wants to find itself begging for resupplies mid war. That’s exactly what America did to the Arab coalition that was fighting the Houthis in Yemen: Washington prohibited the sale of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia.

Gulf countries eventually decided to coexist with the rogue Houthi militia on their borders, only for America to come begging the Saudis and the Emiratis to join the coalition to protect the Gulf of Eden and the Mandib Strait.

All of a sudden, the Biden administration declared that it was planning to lift the ban on sales of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia. Riyadh said thanks, but no thanks, your war with the Houthis is not ours, just like our war with them was not yours. For Riyadh, it was payback time. Anyone who knows the Arab society knows the importance it places on loyalty, between individuals as well as between nations. With Biden and the Democrats, the Saudis and the UAE have been having a hard time in this department.

America went to war on the Houthis alone. Only the UK effectively participated.

In Iraq, America responded to attacks of pro-Iran militias on Iraqi bases housing US troops by killing half a dozen senior militia leaders. Tehran and its Iraq loyalists got the message: America was not playing games and was serious in inflicting harm on the militias. The attacks on Americans in Iraq stopped, for now.

In Yemen, however, Houthi leaders enjoyed safety despite American strikes. Had America taken out a few senior leaders, it would have raised the cost of war for the militia significantly, forcing it to change its calculus.

Washington, instead, has reportedly decided to reason with the same Iran regime that has proven, time and again, that it is not interested in deals with America, only in defeating it, its allies, and ejecting it from the Middle East.

Military regional integration is a great idea, but if not backed up with a clear political vision, will, and strategy, it accounts for little. Gulf states were right to stay away from Biden’s confused policy on Yemen. Now they are reaching out to Iran and its militias, on their own. Soon, America could be out of the Middle East, both militarily and diplomatically. Washington should be careful what it wishes for.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. X: @hahussain


Arab Politics Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran-backed Terrorism Israel Israel at War