Several months into office, Joe Biden should have finally realised what every US President must understand – he does not understand the Middle East better than the regional powers like Saudi Arabia. The Biden administration has started competing with Saudi Arabia for a ceasefire in the Yemen war. Both the US and Saudi Arabia made separate attempts to resolve the Yemen crisis through dialogue with Iran-backed Houthis but it seems Riyadh is the one, which will resolve the conflict.
FT reported that Saudi Arabia and Iran held secret talks in Baghdad. Senior officials from the two regional rivals held direct talks to ease the soaring tensions between the two sides. Moreover, a regional source revealed that the meeting was centred around Yemen, where a Saudi-backed military coalition and Iran-backed Houthis have been battling each other since March 2015. After the media reports of a Saudi-Iran meeting, Tehran declared that it is ready for talks with Riyadh.
The report of a secret meeting with Iran and Tehran’s readiness for a future dialogue is a big victory for Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia. US President Joe Biden has been needling Riyadh over the Yemen war ever since he came to power earlier this year.
Citing the humanitarian crisis created by the Yemen war, Biden ended American support for the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen in February this year. This was a part of Biden’s strategy to vilify MBS over human rights violations. Soon, Biden and MBS got locked in a low-profile, yet crucial battle to end the Yemen war.
Last month, Biden made a huge mistake by proposing a peace plan in Yemen. But the Houthis rejected it, and Houthi spokesman Mohamed Abdelsalam said that the US plan did not include ceasing fire or breaking the siege. He also claimed that it would have led to a resumption of the blockade.
Days later, MBS decided to propose a new peace plan, which did include a UN-supervised ceasefire between the Houthis and Saudi-led military coalition. The plan went a step further by proposing the reopening of vital air and sea links, as well as the imitation of political negotiations.
Houthis rejected Saudi Arabia’s ceasefire offer too. But it need not be mentioned that Iran would have found the Saudi offer far more acceptable than the American offer. And this also gets reflected by how Iran and Saudi Arabia reportedly held secret talks in Baghdad.
Within the US, Saudi’s apparent success in moving towards an effective peace plan did trouble the Biden administration. In fact, a Western diplomat in the region reportedly said that the US and Britain were informed in advance about the Saudi-Iran talks. The Biden administration probably even tried to derail the bilateral dialogue by suggesting that it would approve the sale of F-35 fighter aircraft and Reaper drones to the UAE, apart from allowing the sale of self-defence weapons to Saudi Arabia.
The Biden administration was perhaps in the illusion that by offering weapons to the Arabs, it will tempt MBS into withdrawing himself out of any potential Yemen peace plan. But MBS has clearly outsmarted the US President here. Not only has the Saudi leader proceeded with attempts at Yemen peace, but now he will also manage to secure some arms deals from the Biden administration.
More importantly, Tehran says it is open to talks with Saudi Arabia presumably over the Yemen war. We can fairly assume that the inclusion of one thing is the exclusion of the other, and Iran is implying that it can talk to Saudi Arabia instead of the Biden administration.
The secret talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia illustrate how the regional powers want to keep the US at bay. Even Iran understands that it is locked in an ideological and religious struggle with Saudi Arabia for the leadership of the Muslim world. The two sides keep fighting each other, but at the end of the day, it is better to resolve regional conflicts internally rather than letting an outside power interfere.
Iran also understands that Biden is moved by what the deep State and American military-industrial complex want. The US has no genuine ambition of ensuring peace in Yemen. So, Tehran has also made up its mind to negotiate with Saudi Arabia instead of the US and this is a huge setback for the sitting US President.