Last year, the United States almost got dragged into war in the Persian Gulf. That makes it a good time to think about what the next administration can do to deescalate tensions in the region.
What little public discussion there is usually boils down to two opposing alternatives. One approach, often articulated by U.S. President Donald Trump and some of his supporters, is to show unconditional support for Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf States while putting “maximum pressure” on Iran. The other, sometimes also embraced by Trump and his supporters—but also by some on the left—is for Americans to wash their hands of the entire region. A better approach would be for a new administration to use hard-nosed diplomacy and smart statecraft to pursue deescalation and calm.
Success would be a long shot, of course, but not impossible because both sides have a compelling interest in deescalation. Iran, with an economy in free fall and a discontented population hit hard by COVID-19, is not only desperate for relief from economic sanctions but knows it would suffer greatly in a direct military conflict. Even if a future Biden administration rejoins the nuclear deal that Trump abandoned, the pressure for Iran to change will be kept up by low oil prices, a dysfunctional economy, and a large youth population eager to end the country’s isolation. And the idea that Iran’s leaders must continue interfering in their neighbors’ affairs to maintain legitimacy or satisfy their population is absurd. The regime governs through force rather than legitimacy, and there is no sign that the Iranian public would rise up if the government started to prioritize domestic concerns such as jobs and health care over support to regional proxies.