The real motives behind the American return to the Middle East

Iranian Revolutionary Guards (Photo by Adobe)

Riyadh's foreign policy has prompted Washington DC to reconsider its disengagement from the region, writes Ahmad Abdul-Rahman.

Recently, there has been increased movement from both the Iranian and Americans, indicating the possibility of an escalation of tension. On the Iranian side, the Revolutionary Guards intensified their force in the Persian Gulf by announcing that it would provide its naval units with drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles, as well as conducting manoeuvres on the island Abu Musa, which is administered by Iran but claimed by the emirate of Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates. 

Two American actions coincided with Iranian move. The first was American reinforcements in the Persian Gulf aimed at deterring Iran. More than 3,000 sailors and marines from the US Navy arrived in the Red Sea in response to Iran's recent harassment and confiscation of commercial ships.

According to the US Naval Forces Central Command, since 2019, Iran has detained and intercepted several ships passing through the Persian Gulf, in an attempt to pressure the West when Washington withdrew from the nuclear agreement. This is to act as a show of its strength in front of its neighbours from the Arab Gulf states. However, after the rapprochement between Iran and these states, the military build-up and displays of force have become controversial.

Washington DC has also been keen to highlight its interest in regional maritime security, after years of showing indifference to the region's interactions. This is in light of Washington's strategy of heading east which has pursued since the Barack Obama administration and increased with the Joe Biden administration. This strategy has led to the decline of American interest in the Middle East. A gradual withdrawal has begun, which was confirmed with the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the reduction of American forces inside Iraq and some military bases in the Gulf.

Relations between Washington DC and some countries in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, have cooled, since the latter has pursued economic, political and diplomatic policies that have diverged from the American position. This is especially true as regards to oil prices and its level of production. However, the most important event has been the reconciliation between Tehran and Riyadh moderated by Beijing. This shows growing Chinese interest in the Middle East - an area of American influence and interests - in return for American withdrawal from the region and a return to its traditional political and security role.

The US position finally shifted to re-ignite interest in the Arab Gulf, with the arrival of some US forces to the region, which defence officials have described as a response to Iran's attempts to seize commercial tankers. The Pentagon also announced its intention to deploy additional helicopters and amphibious landing craft to join dozens of US F-35 aircraft. This is in addition to the F-16 and A-10 aircraft and guided missile destroyers, as well as the intensification of joint patrols in and around the Strait of Hormuz.

American interest is said to be for several reasons, including October's deadline for the end of the United Nations sanctions on Iran; or to show some kind of firmness and deterrence in the face of Iran.

Another American action in the Gulf has been linked to Saudi Arabia, whether with regard to resolving the Sudan crisis or the visits of American diplomats to Riyadh. Then, was the visit of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who made another high-level visit to the Kingdom. This was just weeks after President Joe Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, had also visited Saudi Arabia.

American diplomacy towards Riyadh, after a lukewarm period, is the result of Saudi Arabia becoming more independent politically, away from Washington DC's demands, and self-reliance on the sources of threats to its security. The repercussions of Saudi foreign policy has finally led Washington DC rethink its role in the Middle East. It seemed keen to avoid Beijing's moves to portray itself as a diplomatic mediator and source of security support in the region as an alternative to Washington DC. To counter the moves by Beijing, Washington has reconsidered its disengagement from the region, including reconciliation with Iran.

Although reconciliation is not the main motivation and drive for the Biden administration towards the region and its issues, because Iranian behaviour in the Persian Gulf has not changed since the Biden administration took office., the US wants to re-engage, re-consider its diplomatic and security role, and strengthen its partnerships with the Gulf States. Washington's goal is not to give Iran the opportunity to impose its hegemony over the Persian Gulf region. Its recent moves are aimed at giving the Gulf states reassurance for security reasons and to send a message that Washington DC will not leave a vacuum in the region. The Biden administration also seeks to deepen its partnership with Saudi Arabia, given the important role that Riyadh plays throughout the region and how it positions itself in the new global scene.

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Saturday, 30 September 2023