Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 6 August 2020

Renewed diplomacy 'should be central policy of new US president'

Security experts say America could scale back troops in the Gulf region if potential new US government scores diplomatic victories with Iran

Iranian ships circle a mockup of a US aircraft carrier during military exercises near the Strait of Hormuz. IRIB/AFP
Iranian ships circle a mockup of a US aircraft carrier during military exercises near the Strait of Hormuz. IRIB/AFP

A new US president should use diplomacy as a key tool to bring peace to Gulf region and Iran into line, leading American commentators have said.

They have also called for a mutual non-aggression pact to be agreed between Iran and Saudi Arabia to end hostilities.

America should also consider reversing its policy of applying maximum pressure on Iran, which uses sanctions to force Tehran to the negotiating table, the webinar hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies heard.

The debate on the large US military presence in the Gulf region is intensifying with pressure mounting on Washington to put more resources in the Pacific to face the growing Chinese threat.

A regional non-aggression pact would be a “win win win” in that the threat perception would be lowered with Iran and the burden on the US would be lightened, too, said Daniel Benaim, a fellow at The Century Foundation think tank.

“That would be difficult to do but I think for a lot of reasons it may be less impossible than in the past and worth trying,” he added.

Influential American thinkers were also suggesting a non-aggression pact similar to one made in the 1990s, Kirsten Fontenrose of the Atlantic Council said. A pact could lead to a “tit-for-tat de-escalation that pulls us back from where we are towards negotiated peace in the region”, she said.

America has a large military presence in the region to deter Iran, reassure Gulf allies and help US counter-terrorism operations as well as secure shipping lanes. But in recent years politicians have raised concerns about the financial cost and political exposure of the deployment.

Mr Benaim believed that a US government under Joe Biden, the expected Democrat challeneger to Donald Trump, would “likely see a reassessment of the maximum pressure policy on Iran in favour of an approach for an opening for diplomacy”.

He added that a new government would look for key Middle East states to lower tensions and de-escalate the situation using diplomacy.

“I think we are headed towards a reassertion of diplomatic and civilian engagement and towards a measure of commitment in terms of more than the number of carrier groups,” he said. “I think you will see the State Department put forward diplomacy as a tool of foreign policy.”

He added that the US military posture was “not set in stone” and numbers had risen by tens of thousands amid tensions with Iran. “If we are able to address those tensions with more diplomacy we may not need quite so many troops,” he added.

The greater use of American diplomacy was also suggested by Becca Wasser, a fellow at the Centre for a New American Security. “I think there is a tool in the US toolkit that has gone underutilised and that is diplomacy.” She added that diplomacy would give America “more space to look at what our military options are and what our footprint should be”.

With Joe Biden widely eight points ahead in the US presidential polling, it appears that President Donald Trump’s chaotic policy in the Middle East might come to an end.

“I do think the diplomatic terrain looks a little bit different and that gives me cause for optimism that there might be a whole different US approach to Iran and new Democrat administration might pursue such an approach,” Mr Benaim said.

He added how the Gulf region engaged with the possible new government would be important to “shape the debate” and “build confidence”.

Updated: July 28, 2020 07:14 PM

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