Despite his pledges to put “America First,” Donald Trump’s foreign policy in the Middle East prioritized the interests of regimes like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel — nations willing to leverage their strong ties with elites in Washington, D.C., to get what they want. And they did get what they wanted: a blank check for foreign policies built on aggression.
Trump’s gift of a free hand to America’s foreign partners enabled, among other things, accelerating Israeli colonization of the West Bank and Jerusalem; a Turkish-backed war between Azerbaijan and Armenia; and an escalated Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen that killed thousands of civilians. Feeling little need to compromise, regimes on good terms with Trump pressed their advantages to the fullest.
Feeling little need to compromise, regimes on good terms with Trump pressed their advantages to the fullest.
With Trump now gone and the U.S. pulling back from the region, there are signs that things might take a turn for the better. Most importantly, a positive change may be on the horizon in the one conflict that has been at the root of so many of the region’s woes: the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Secret talks that began in earnest between Saudi and Iranian intelligence officials last year are said to have gathered steam in recent weeks. A fourth round of talks between the rival powers since 2020 was reportedly held between Saudi and Iranian officials in Baghdad, Iraq, in late-September.
Reports are now emerging that the two sides are close to reestablishing consular relations and are working toward a negotiated end to the war in Yemen, where Iran and Saudi Arabia back opposite sides. In a hopeful sign, officials are increasingly discussing their progress in public.
After the first reports of talks in Baghdad leaked this spring, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman gave an interview to Saudi state TV where he struck an uncharacteristically conciliatory note toward Iran. “Iran is a neighboring country and all we aspire for is a good and special relationship with Iran,” the crown prince said in the April interview. “We do not want Iran’s situation to be difficult. On the contrary, we want Iran to grow … and to push the region and the world toward prosperity.”
Iranian officials recently echoed the conciliatory statement. “The Iran-Saudi dialogue is on the right track,” Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said during a news conference last week from the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, adding that more dialogue was still needed. “The two parties will announce these agreements at the appropriate time. We welcome the continuation of the talks and the results that benefit both sides and the region.”
Statements like these would have been unheard of in the four years prior, when the two countries seemed to perpetually be on the cusp of an open conflict.
The Trump administration was extremely cozy with Saudi Arabia while being unremittingly hostile to Iran. The Saudi government enjoyed close ties with Trump and his family, frequently making a spectacle out of their relationship and orchestrating high-profile arms purchases and other economic transactions that boosted Trump’s political capital at home.
With Iran, the opposite was true. Instead of continuing the diplomatic path with Iran set by his predecessor, Trump — to the delight of the Israeli government and with muted support from the Gulf Arab regimes that would be on the front line of any Iranian retaliation — reversed the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and imposed the harshest ever sanctions on that country.
Contrary to Trump’s claims to being an anti-war president, the U.S. and Iran came closest to war in their history in January 2020 when the White House ordered the assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, who, according to a claim by Iraq’s then prime minister, had been on a mission to deliver a diplomatic message to the Saudis. The Iranians retaliated by firing ballistic missiles at a U.S. military base in Iraq, reportedly coming close to hitting facilities where U.S. service members were present.
The potential for a Saudi-Iran breakthrough shows just how much the U.S. blank check held back progress in the region. While the Iranians and Saudis did pursue periodic covert talks under Trump, the pace only picked up with Joe Biden’s election and the clear pivot away from the region that he has initiated.
“Providing a blank check has fueled destabilizing behavior on behalf of U.S. partners.”
Trita Parsi, co-founder and executive vice president of D.C.-based think tank the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, criticized the blank check that the U.S. has given its allies in the Middle East, characterizing it as a force that has disincentivized parties from carrying out diplomacy necessary to solving their problems. The U.S. withdrawal from the region, now being accelerated by Biden, has also coincided with fresh peace talks between rival powers in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
In other words, the U.S.’s increasing absence from the Middle East as military hegemon is opening up the possibility of a sustainable order to emerge that countries negotiate on their own.
“This is not to say that the U.S. withdrawing from the region will solve all its problems, but the idea that if we leave chaos will automatically ensue, and that the U.S. presence is the only thing defending civilization, is not true,” said Parsi. “Providing a blank check has fueled destabilizing behavior on behalf of U.S. partners. The evidence is quite clear, not that everything will be wonderful once the U.S. pulls back, but that regional countries have agency and will try to resolve their problems diplomatically, while not immediately jumping the gun to military action.”