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Maneuvering the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry in the Middle East: How the United States Can Preserve and Protect Its Long-Term Interests in the Region

Authored by Mr. Gregory Aftandilian.

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Iranian-Saudi tensions are at their worst level in decades. Not only are diplomatic relations broken, but also the two countries are involved in several proxy wars in the region. The United States has sided with Saudi Arabia in these disputes largely because of longstanding strategic ties to Riyadh and because it sees Iran as a regional threat and a destabilizing force in the area. However, pursuing a one-sided policy in this rivalry carries long-term risks for Washington, because the close embrace of Saudi Arabia’s problematic external and internal policies, such as the war in Yemen, denigration of Shia doctrines, and human rights problems, may have an ill effect against the United States. The one-sided policy can also alienate the younger generation of Iranians who want better relations with the United States and are Iran’s future. Hence, this monograph argues that U.S. policymakers should maneuver with more dexterity through the Iranian-Saudi rivalry, avoid entanglements in the Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict, and keep their eye on long-term U.S. interests, which involve bringing about stability in the region.

The monograph recommends that U.S. policymakers should devote sufficient time and resources to end the proxy wars in the region, as a first step toward easing Saudi-Iranian tensions. It also recommends the facilitation of dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran to air grievances, and come to some common ground such as non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. Although the current environment may not seem conducive to such a dialogue, it should be remembered that relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia were not always acrimonious, and the two countries have cooperated in the past. To assuage Saudi concerns that such a policy might be perceived as a U.S. tilt toward Iran, the monograph recommends more joint military exercises between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia militaries as well as the deployment of U.S. Army’s Stability Force Assistance Brigades (SFAB) to the Saudi kingdom for training and defensive purposes.

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Middle East and North Africa
Military Strategy and Policy
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