While the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula remain areas of conflict and significant, and often militarized, tension, several recent developments point to a decrease in the chances for intra-state violence. Under the Biden administration, the United States has signaled that it is adopting a diplomacy-first approach to security issues backed in part by military power. While the chances of a broader war breaking out between the United States and Iran have been lowered with the change in U.S. administration, the underlying security problems remain. Iran remains in a significant rivalry with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that will continue to be played out both in proxy wars throughout the Middle East and in an arms race. Yemen and Syria remain locked in civil wars exacerbated by the involvement of outside states. The civil wars in these states continue to produce humanitarian disasters and destabilizing refugee flows.
As noted in a previous report, the Biden administration has announced that it is cutting off support to Saudi Arabia for its ongoing war in Yemen. This includes stopping the supply of certain offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia that it has used in its air war in Yemen. The new U.S. Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, also announced that in the coming week, the U.S. will lift the terrorist designation that, in its waning days, the Trump administration put on the Houthi in Yemen. The Biden administration has indicated that its focus is now on stopping the war in Yemen in due to the ongoing humanitarian disaster that the war has caused. While these developments signal a shift in U.S. policy, it does not necessarily mean that the civil war will end anytime soon. Iran and Saudi Arabia still have significant interest in continuing their proxy war in Yemen. Even if both Tehran and Riyadh could be convinced to pull back their support for various factions, there is no guarantee that the Yemeni groups themselves are interested in negotiating an end to the war.
The U.S. cutoff of some offensive munitions to Saudi Arabia and a review of the sale of the fifth generation F-35 fighter to the United Arab Emirates do not mean Saudi and UAE will not be able to defend themselves or use military force to advance their interests. U.S. arms sales to both countries will continue as will those from other suppliers.
The mutual interest of Tehran and Washington in coming back into the nuclear agreement (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) does not mean that it will happen. The lack of trust on both sides coupled with fraught domestic politics means that even best-faith efforts may fail. In the meanwhile, however, while both sides posture publicly and potentially meet privately, chances for military clashes are reduced. While it is possible that spoilers within Iran’s system or the realm of chance may cause a military interaction, odds are that Washington and Tehran will keep things calm while they negotiate. Tehran will, however, continue to modernize its military forces and hone new capabilities through proxy wars and more limited violence in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. The nuclear agreement does not cover conventional weapons or missiles. Despite the interest in Washington about a separate agreement covering Iran’s missiles, such an accord is very unlikely.