In May 2019, Saudi Arabia's oil facilities were hit by a missile attack, disrupting the global oil market due to the shutdown of several stations for a few days. This threat was enough to trigger major concern within the international community, which believes that oil is the single most important commodity in the world and any disruption to this industry, no matter how small or who the perpetrator is, can have massive destabilizing repercussions for the global oil market.
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The Iran-backed Houthi militia, officially called Ansar Allah, were quick to claim responsibility for the attack despite the incontrovertible evidence proving that the strikes came from the north rather than the south of the Kingdom. However, the Houthis insisted that they were the perpetrators in order to show off their weapon capabilities and boast about their strength, as well as to rule out the theory that Iran's militias in Iraq have taken part in the conflict.
It appears that the tables have turned, and the situation is now completely reversed. The Houthis have rushed to deny their responsibility for the latest attack targeting Saudi territory that was thwarted a week ago. This shift in the narrative is an attempt by the Houthis to demonstrate goodwill to the new US administration, especially after it became clear that the White House is willing to succumb to the pressure imposed by the United Nations to remove the Houthi Movement from the US Foreign Terrorist Organizations list.
The attack can be seen as a clear message from Iran to the United States indicating that its Gulf allies are besieged by Iranian influence on two sides. There is no denying that new variables have come into play, and new players have entered the political arena, necessitating a new reading of the situation that takes into account the new developments, namely the new democratic administration.
Joe Biden, America's new president, is facing the unique challenge of dealing with two opposing legacies; the legacy of former President Barack Obama, with whom Biden served as vice president, which appeased the Iranian regime in an attempt to contain some of Iran’s destabilizing efforts in the region.
Meanwhile, there is also the legacy of former President Donald Trump, who assumed the exact opposite approach and adopted a hardline policy towards Iran by imposing maximum pressure. The severe sanctions have caused insurmountable hardship and suffering for Iran over the past three years, even President Rouhani himself admitted they have caused him considerable distress.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued statements two days ago declaring that Tehran’s decision to return to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal depends entirely on Washington lifting all sanctions, then demanded more time for Iran to make sure that the sanctions have been lifted permanently.
The Biden administration is trying to find a middle ground by sticking to the nuclear deal; however, it is fully aware that the deal is not satisfactory in its current form. The new US administration may not be willing to lift the sanctions, yet it has no problems with luring Iranians to the negotiating table by agreeing to give them a few crumbs.
Iran’s latest provocations have made it one of Biden’s top foreign policy priorities. Iranian militias have tightened their grip on Iraq, and they are cooperating with ISIS and al-Qaeda to drive US forces out of there permanently. Moreover, Iran has played a role in breaking the agreement between Taliban and the Afghan government, which was concluded under American supervision by the previous administration. Iran has also publicly hosted leaders of the hardline Taliban movement in Tehran in an attempt to showcase its influence to the new president.
Many believe that Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office serve as a trial balloon that will reflect on the rest of his term as president; however, we all know that the most important decisions are usually taken later on. It is safe to say that those who argue that Biden’s decision to delist Yemen’s Houthi militias as a terrorist organization promises a return to the Obama era are entirely mistaken.
While it is true that this decision may be unsatisfactory for the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, but the US administration wants to try its luck by taking a different approach. Appointing Timothy Lenderking to serve as the administration's special envoy to Yemen can be deemed as a positive step. It is also important not to dismiss the fact that the US has pledged to protect its allies from Houthi attacks and Iran's hostilities.
As a veteran politician, Joe Biden is fully aware of the reality of the situation, and indeed, his administration stated that it views the Houthis as terrorists, yet the US chose to respond to international demands regarding changing the designation of Ansar Allah and made the decision to remove them from the terrorist organizations list under the pretext that this will only bring more harm and exasperate the humanitarian situation in the northern areas controlled by the Houthis.
In the Gulf, this is seen as an outright extortion from the Houthis. Throughout the six-year war, it has been proven that the areas most affected by the crisis in Yemen are controlled by the Houthis, and the UN itself has proof of Houthi leadership stealing humanitarian aid, oil, and funds.
In light of this, many of us are left wondering why is Biden choosing to appease them? In my opinion, the issue of delisting the Houthis does not bear as much weight for the White House as many believe, and the main focus is placed on strengthening cooperation among the allies to end the war politically.
Washington is pleased with Riyadh's position which aims at reaching a diplomatic solution for the Yemeni conflict and both nations are planning to cooperate to ensure this outcome.
During his presidency, it is likely that Biden will continue to capitalize on this grey area in terms of dealing with Iran, which currently seems to be his best option so far. Biden will not tolerate any harm to his allies; however, it is highly unlikely that he will adopt the same hardline approach against Iran as Trump did.
As for the problematic nuclear deal, we must remember that, for around half its lifespan, the deal remained unimplemented. Recreating it is inventible since the remining period is not worth the effort it will take to reach a mutual compromise.
The biggest mistake the Obama administration made with regard to the nuclear deal was not just dismissing Iran's destabilizing actions in the region through spreading its militias, but rather, excluding the participation of Arab countries in the negotiation process on a matter that concerns their region. It is important for the US to realize that the region is no longer in the mandate period and Arab countries have become more powerful and influential, economically, ideologically, and politically.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.