Sensing US reluctance to respond forcefully to Iranian aggression in the region, and following the devastating September attack on its oil facilities blamed on Tehran, Saudi Arabia is quietly moving toward possible rapprochement with the Islamic Republic, according to multiple media reports.
The New York Times reported Friday that the Trump administration’s failure to react militarily to the September 14 missile and drone attack on Saudi oil facilities, which jolted global oil prices and temporarily knocked out nearly 6 percent of the world’s daily crude production, had led Riyadh to recalculate.
“The worst outcome for the Saudis is to move to a confrontation with Iran expecting the US to support them and find out they won’t,” Philip Gordon, a former White House Middle East coordinator told the Times. “This administration has shown it’s not really ready to take on Iran.”
The strikes were claimed by Houthi rebels in Yemen, but Saudi Arabia, the US and other Western powers have said the attack was sponsored by Tehran. In its aftermath, US President Donald Trump was presented with a range of military options, including potential airstrikes on targets inside Iran. But he was also warned that military action against the Islamic Republic could escalate into war, according to US officials familiar with the discussions.
Trump during a White House meeting last Friday put off, at least for now, any immediate military strike on Iran, but approved a broader effort to beef up security in Saudi Arabia and the region. He told reporters that showing restraint “shows far more strength” than launching retaliatory strikes now.
Washington also did not respond militarily to Iran’s downing of one of its drones in June, an event for which Trump approved a retaliatory strike, before calling it off at the last minute.
Last month Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, claimed the country had “defeated” the US military before the world, and that the Guards had “paved the way” to defeat the nation’s enemies in the region.
On Friday, Israel’s Channel 13 news reported concerns in Israel that an emboldened Iran will seek to replicate its success in Saudi Arabia with an attack against the Jewish state.
Gordon told the Times that Iran’s growing boldness, coupled with US hesitancy, had given rise to “cracks in the armor suggesting Saudi Arabia is interested in exploring a new relationship with Iran.”
The Times, Newsweek, Middle East Eye and others reported that Riyadh has recently made overtures to Tehran seeking a diplomatic solution to the conflict between the regional foes, through Iraqi and Pakistani mediators.
Iraqi officials told the Times that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman asked the country’s prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, to help mediate.
Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani told Al-Jazeera this week: “Iran is open to starting a dialogue with Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region…An Iranian-Saudi dialogue could solve many of the region’s security and political problems.”
Speaking to CBS on Sunday, the Saudi crown prince, also known colloquially as MBS, said war with Iran would devastate the global economy. Though he called for “strong and firm action to deter Iran,” he also said he preferred a non-military solution to tensions.
Still, official Riyadh denied any effort to appease Tehran, telling the Times “Efforts at deescalation must emanate from the party that began the escalation and launched attacks, not the kingdom.”
Martin Indyk, the former US administration’s Middle East peace envoy, tweeted on Thursday that with Iran hawk John Bolton fired from his position as Trump’s national security adviser and with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in danger of losing power, “The Anti-Iran Alliance is not just faltering, it’s crumbling.”
He said that the United Arab Emirates, which has recently moved to reduce tensions with Tehran, “has struck a deal with Iran. MBS is not far behind.”
The Anti-Iran Alliance is not just faltering, it’s crumbling. Bolton is gone; Bibi is going; MBZ has struck his deal with Iran; MBS is not far behind. And our fearless leader? Having failed to deter Iran he’s now desperate for a deal with them. https://t.co/ocF0SOW2R7
— Martin Indyk (@Martin_Indyk) October 3, 2019
“And our fearless leader? Having failed to deter Iran he’s now desperate for a deal with them.”
According to a report this week in the New Yorker, French President Emmanuel Macron was close to brokering a phone call between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines on the UN General assembly last month, but the French president’s secretive effort fell apart because of the Iranian leader’s lack of trust in the US president.
Trump was waiting on the line, but Rouhani left him hanging, The New York Times elaborated.
Trump has appeared eager recently to hold direct talks with Rouhani, but the Iranian leaders has demurred, saying Washington must first end all sanctions it has reimposed on his country since quitting the nuclear deal last year.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia gave a “positive” response Friday to a truce offer from the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen and called for its implementation.
Saeed Shariati, a political analyst in Tehran, told the New York Times: “We have reached the peak of Saudi-Iran tensions and both sides have concluded this balance of fear is detrimental to their interests.”