Dec 23, 2020 - World

Gulf states wary of U.S.-Iran tensions ahead of Biden's inauguration

Trump at a Gulf Summit in Riyadh in 2017. Photo: Bandar Algaloud/Saudi handout via Getty

The UAE and Saudi Arabia will be closely monitoring any moves from Washington and Tehran over a delicate few weeks ahead.

Why it matters: Jan. 3 will mark the one-year anniversary of the U.S. strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis in Baghdad. In the past few weeks, there have been echoes of the tensions that preceded that U.S. attack.

Driving the news: Last week an attack — still unclaimed — on an oil tanker moored off Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast was the second in less than a month to target international shipping.

  • In November, a missile strike on a Saudi Aramco plant near Jeddah was claimed by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

Flashback: In the months leading up to the Soleimani killing, there were incidents of sabotage against vessels in the Arabian Gulf and Houthi-claimed missile strikes on Saudi oil facilities.

  • Iran was then seen to be playing its hand amid increasing sanctions pressure from the U.S. after President Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal. The killing of Soleimani proved to be an apex of that cycle of tensions.

The state of play: These latest incidents, including the assassination of Iran's top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, have created a new cycle of tensions in the region ahead of President-elect Biden's inauguration.

  • Biden is expected to shift the American posture from maximum pressure to re-engagement with Iran.
  • The concern among Gulf countries is that Iran will test the new administration, or try to take advantage of them.
  • Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia responded to the provocations in 2019 with restraint, and they remain focused on de-escalation.

Worth noting: There are at least two new factors at play, in addition to Biden's election.

  • The U.S. has built up its military force in the Gulf, including a bigger naval presence. And the UAE, Bahrain and other Arab nations have established closer ties with Israel, offering a genuine counterbalance to Iran and its allies and proxies.
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