Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, November 2019
WAM / Handout / REUTERS

As U.S. President Joe Biden explores returning to the Iran nuclear deal, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—two of only three countries in the world that opposed the agreement—insist that they must be included in future negotiations over its fate. Their inclusion, representatives of the two countries argue, would rectify the agreement’s supposed flaw: its failure to rein in Tehran’s regional policies.

But in truth, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have less interest in strengthening the nuclear deal than in sustaining the enmity between the United States and Iran. When the original deal was negotiated in 2015, these states acted as spoilers, seeking not to defuse tensions but to perpetuate them, to the extent that doing so would ensure that the United States remained actively engaged in protecting their interests in the region. Biden needs to change the preferences of these states if he is to make them useful partners in negotiations with Iran.

Past as Prologue

Today, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel argue that the 2015 Iran nuclear deal should have encompassed regional concerns. But back when the deal was being negotiated, Saudi Arabia and the UAE insisted that U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration refrain from bringing regional conflicts into discussions with Iran in their absence. Israel, too, opposed expanding the negotiating agenda beyond the nuclear file for fear that doing so would lead Washington to compromise on the nuclear front in exchange for regional concessions. Now, these three opponents of the nuclear deal claim that the agreement’s main flaw is its exclusive nuclear focus.

Nor are the Gulf states particularly invested in the deal’s nuclear restrictions. In their private consultations with the Obama administration, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi did not press for stricter inspections or longer restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program. “We never had a single conversation with [the Saudis] about the number of centrifuges,” Colin Kahl, a senior adviser to then-Vice President Joe Biden, told me in 2015. “It was rather: How can you make a deal with this regime?” If forced to choose, Riyadh preferred an isolated Iran with a nuclear bomb to an internationally accepted Iran unarmed with the weapons of doom.

Saudi Arabia did not show much interest in regional diplomacy when, a few months after negotiating the nuclear deal, the United States moved to address Iran’s role in Syria through multilateral negotiations in Vienna. The Saudi government at first refused to participate, acquiescing only after Obama intervened personally with the Saudi king and taking umbrage when Obama suggested in an interview that the Gulf states needed to “share the neighborhood” with Iran.

Deep U.S. engagement in the Persian Gulf region has come under question.

By contrast, together with Israel and the UAE, Saudi Arabia supported former U.S. President Donald Trump’s decisions to breach the nuclear agreement and impose “maximum pressure” on Iran through sanctions. Riyadh hardly blinked when these actions proved counterproductive to restraining Iran’s regional policy and nuclear development.

Maximum pressure served Saudi Arabia’s purposes for the simple reason that it made sanctions, and thereby enmity, between the United States and Iran all but irreversible. So long as the United States and Iran view each other as adversaries, Washington will sustain its military commitment to the Middle East. That commitment provides a security umbrella on which Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel have come to depend. Moreover, so long as the United States works to contain Iran’s political influence and undermine its economy, the balance of the region will artificially tilt in favor of these states—a tilt that their own power cannot sustain.

Breaking the Deadlock

Given that these three U.S security partners—Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel—have an interest in sustaining hostility between the United States and Iran, and given their track records as spoilers, including them in renewed nuclear negotiations would be a devastating mistake that would all but ensure the end of diplomacy. But the Biden administration also envisions follow-on negotiations on Persian Gulf security that will be of little meaning without these powers. Washington must therefore find a constructive way to include them in that later phase.

The United States will have to begin by disabusing the three countries of any notion that they can simply add their concerns about Iranian conduct to the agenda without making their own policies subject to negotiation. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have legitimate issues to raise regarding Iran’s support for the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, its transfer of arms to Houthi forces in Yemen, and its support for nonstate actors throughout the region. But Tehran has its own problems with Saudi and Emirati policies—such as the funding and arming of militias, the Saudi propagation of Wahhabism, and the extensive purchases of American weaponry by the Saudis and the Emiratis, as well as the Israelis. If Riyadh and Abu Dhabi show up to follow-on negotiations unprepared to compromise on such matters, they will not only fail to break their region’s deadlock, but they will actively, perhaps purposely, perpetuate it.

Indeed, the Saudis and the Emiratis may have very little incentive to engage in such regional diplomacy in good faith so long as they believe that the United States has the interest and political will to continue to dominate the region militarily. The success of any such talks would likely entail painful compromises and a reduction of arms purchases from the United States. Washington might even seize the opportunity to withdraw its military from the Persian Gulf. None of those prospects are attractive to Saudi or Emirati autocrats. They much prefer the status quo—that is, enjoying a de facto American security umbrella underwritten by American taxpayers, while the United States and Iran permanently remain at loggerheads.

To reach a real regional peace will require the United States to take—or to acknowledge—a painful and consequential step. The deep U.S. engagement in the Persian Gulf region has come under question in Washington and grown unpopular with the American public. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will soon release a Global Posture Review that will no doubt show that the strategic importance of the Gulf is dramatically waning, making the cost of maintaining military dominance there increasingly impossible to justify.

For the House of Saud and its Emirati allies not to play spoilers in regional diplomacy, the United States must first remove any doubt that the era of American hegemony over the Persian Gulf is coming to an end. Only under those circumstances will Riyadh and Abu Dhabi conclude that successful regional diplomacy is their best option and agree to become the United States’ partners in peace.

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  • TRITA PARSI is Executive Vice President of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
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