The United States, meanwhile, is pursuing its own sensitive dialogue with Iran, through a Swiss diplomatic channel, about a possible exchange of prisoners. At the top of Iran’s list is Masoud Soleimani, a scientist arrested last year in Chicago for allegedly attempting to export biological materials to Iran. The United States has a long list of prisoners for release in any swap. If the Swiss-brokered negotiations succeed, they could be the start of a broader U.S.-Iranian engagement.
The new diplomatic activity concerning Yemen was evident in a visit to Washington this week by Yusef Alawi Abdullah, the foreign minister of Oman, which has traditionally been a key intermediary between the United States and its allies and Iran.
He told me Tuesday, following a visit the previous day with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, that he was hopeful about a settlement of the war in Yemen because of recent talks between Saudi Arabia and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels there.
“It’s time now for the parties in Yemen to settle their differences,” the foreign minister said during the interview. “I hope that next year will be a great year for achieving this.” He told Omani television after meeting Pompeo: “There are consultations; there’s mediation and the desire to solve the conflict.”
Progress in Yemen has emerged through Saudi meetings with the Houthi rebels, with strong U.S. encouragement. According to U.S. and UAE officials, this push for a Yemen settlement has been led by Saudi Prince Khalid bin Salman, the deputy defense minister and brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the impulsive leader who launched the ruinous Yemen war in 2015. The latest positive step was the Saudi announcement Tuesday that the kingdom had released 200 Houthi prisoners.
“I’m optimistic,” said one senior gulf diplomat who follows the Yemen talks carefully. “A year ago, I couldn’t tell you that Saudi Arabia was involved in a peaceful dialogue. I can say that now with confidence.”
Tensions seem to be easing on other gulf fronts, as well. After Iranian attacks on tankers in UAE waters in June, the UAE in late July sent a delegation of its coast guard to Tehran for talks with the naval forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. That meeting produced a memorandum of understanding between the two countries on maritime border security.
Saudi Arabia is also weighing a string of offers to mediate with Iran — from Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan, France and Japan. So far, it hasn’t led to any formal channel between the two countries. The Saudis want Iran to pledge it will stop exporting its revolution and respect the sovereignty of its neighbors, before any talks begin. A Saudi source told me the kingdom made its demand in a private letter to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but Tehran hasn’t delivered the desired assurances.
Iran is chumming the water with other diplomatic proposals. President Hassan Rouhani proposed in September what’s known as the “Hormuz initiative,” which would bring together countries on both sides of the gulf for dialogue, based on standard United Nations principles such as noninterference and nonaggression. Kuwait has encouraged the proposal, but other gulf countries have been silent, probably because the effort doesn’t now include the United States.
“The trend is toward diplomacy and de-escalation, for sure,” said one senior UAE official. But he cautioned that his country wants a clearer statement from Iran that it will stop meddling in the region.
“Saudi and UAE cynicism about Iran hasn’t changed, but their calculus of the U.S. has; they realize that Donald Trump doesn’t have their backs, and they need to fend for themselves,” explains Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The poisons stewing in the Persian Gulf are as dangerous as ever, and the risk of war remains. But it’s been more than two months since Iran’s devastating strike on the Abqaiq refinery. The Saudis haven’t retaliated or even publicly blamed Iran.
What’s in the wind instead is a diplomatic process that’s already delivering some progress on Yemen and could expand — but not without a clearer signal of what the United States wants.