AMU Intelligence Original

Why the US Is Talking with Both Saudi Arabia and Iran

Earlier this month, news outlets reported that the White House is involved in separate negotiations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. It appears that the White House’s goal is to show some achievement in foreign affairs before the next election, when there will be virtually no time to conduct foreign policy talks.

These negotiations also suggest that the White House has comprehended that China has made headway in the Middle East. China and the Middle East are partnering with each other, which has a subsequent effort on economics and by extension, politics.

A Secret Talk with Saudi Arabia

On August 9, Dion Nissenbaum of The Wall Street Journal noted that the White House is participating in secret talks with Saudi Arabia concerning a realignment of the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Relations between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. soured after the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi intelligence in 2018 and the public condemnation of Khashoggi’s death by President Biden.

After this public condemnation and the lack of American response to the Iranian-backed attack of Saudi oil fields, it seems that Riyadh has been recalculating its relationship with the U.S. Biden, in turn, has attempted to walk back his anti-Saudi position. The Iranian-Saudi deal that was reached with China’s assistance probably alarmed the White House and the State Department and forced them to reengage in a more meaningful way with Middle Eastern nations.

According to Nissenbaum, “The stepped-up efforts come after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met in Jeddah two weeks ago with Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, in a bid to accelerate talks. Negotiators now have moved to discussing specifics, including addressing Saudi requests that the U.S. help them develop a civilian nuclear program and offer ironclad security guarantees.”

Nissenbaum notes that these negotiations are focusing on a U.S. commitment to Saudi security. Riyadh wants to be clear and unequivocal about this commitment after the U.S. silence regarding the Houthi attack on Saudi oil fields, executed with Iranian backing and approval. The talks also mention assistance in the creation of a civilian nuclear program and finally a peace deal with Israel, assuming Israel will make concessions to the Palestinian Authority.

This route seems to be picking up momentum. Barak Ravid of Axios reported that President Biden is considering a meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, during the G20 summit that will take place in New Delhi, next month.

Related: Syria Is Readmitted to the Arab League After 12 Years

Secret Talks with Iran Might Be on the Verge of an ‘Unofficial Understanding’

The New York Times reported that secret talks have occurred between Iran and the U.S. Instead of a written agreement that will replace the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, there will be an unofficial understanding. This understanding will involve:

  • The Iranian enrichment of uranium to 60%
  • The unfreezing of Iranian oil revenue funds, frozen in South Korean bank accounts
  • A prisoner swap involving the release of several Iranian-Americans, who have been held due to espionage accusations and political reasons

Qatar has been facilitating the talks between the U.S. and Iran. The removal of Robert Malley, formerly the State Department’s special envoy for Iran, from these talks might have proved to Tehran that the Biden administration will be less amicable to Iranian demands in the future.

The immediate result of the discussions was the release of five Iranian-American prisoners to house arrest. Assuming the talks continue to advance, those prisoners may be allowed to return to the U.S.

Related: Iran and the Taliban Exchange Fire over Water Rights

Unfreezing Iranian Funds from South Korea

According to Christiane Amanpour, Jennifer Hansler and Kylie Atwood of CNN, “Among the roadmap are plans to make $6 billion in Iranian funds that have been in a restricted account in South Korea more readily available for ‘non-sanctionable trade’ of goods like food and medicine by moving them to ‘a restricted account elsewhere.’”

The CNN reporters noted that “a source said that this would not be giving new funds to Iran, noting that those funds are currently in South Korean accounts and able to be used for humanitarian purposes and non-sanctionable trade. There have been challenges in converting the Korean currency. There is also expected to be a prisoner swap component to the deal, though the source said that ‘no prisoners held in the US will be released in exchange for these Americans moving to house arrest.’”

Why Is the US Interested in Negotiation with Iran and Saudi Arabia?

The events of the past few years have changed the U.S.’s position in the global arena. After the catastrophic collapse of the Western-backed government in Afghanistan and the continued isolationist rhetoric so popular in American political discourse, Russia and China saw this change as an opportunity to gain more influence in the global arena.

Russia tried to acquire more global dominance with its Ukraine invasion and has paid a high price for it. By contrast, China has been more cautious. Beijing has become more verbally aggressive towards Taiwan and active in new regional arenas, including the Middle East.

But achieving some kind of resolution with Iran and Saudi Arabia will give the White House several achievements before the 2024 election. First, a Saudi Arabia agreement will counteract the Trump era’s Abraham Accords and might even get the current president a Nobel Peace Prize.

That will show U.S. voters that the relative failure of the West to stop the war of attrition in Ukraine will be balanced by the calming of Middle East tensions by the current administration.

Second, negotiating with Iran and Saudi Arabia will also allow the U.S. to maintain a more stable, cheaper flow of oil from the Gulf States. It will also curb China’s growing influence in the region.

However, it is important to understand that any unofficial understanding with Iran has a limited shelf life. So much can go wrong with the clerical regime in Iran; this regime has proven it is willing to continue with its nuclear efforts and disregard its JCPOA obligations.

One thing is clear: the populist rhetoric about isolationism in the U.S. is not realistic. American jobs and the stability of the dollar as the international arbiter of world economy mean that the U.S. has global interests and must inevitably work with other nations like Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Ilan Fuchs

Dr. Ilan Fuchs is a scholar of international law and legal history. He holds a B.A. in Humanities and Social Science from The Open University of Israel and an M.A. in Jewish history from Bar-Ilan University. Ilan’s other degrees include an LL.B., an LL.M. and a Ph.D. in Law from Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of “Jewish Women’s Torah Study: Orthodox Education and Modernity,” and 18 articles in leading scholarly journals. At the University, Ilan teaches courses on international law while maintaining a law practice in several jurisdictions.

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