by Robert E. Hunter
The most recent crisis in the Persian Gulf, pitting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against Qatar, is underscoring a basic requirement: that at long last the United States should begin to craft an overall strategy for the region that can make sense for American interests. Such a strategy has been absent since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, 14 years ago. The alternative is even deeper US engagement in the region, greater costs in blood and treasure, a rising chance of expanded regional conflict, and an inability to turn US attention to things that matter more, of which the rise of China and climate change are most significant.
Ostensibly, Saudi Arabia took the lead in confronting Qatar, to the point of sealing it off from the rest of the Persian Gulf’s southern littoral, because of Doha’s support for terrorism. For any attentive observer, this must provoke a horse laugh, given that the leading supporters of terrorism, both in the region and beyond—extending to Southeast Asia and deep into Africa—are located in Saudi Arabia itself. Nevertheless, during President Trump’s May visit to Riyadh, the Saudis managed to sell a bill of goods about its own rejection of terrorism, including the high-profile dedication of a Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology. The US president, along with the secretaries of state and defense, bought this line of argument—and Saudi Arabia bought more than $100 billion worth of US weapons. These, supposedly, are designed to protect the Arab states of the Persian Gulf against Iran, although the balance of forces in the region is already such that Iran would have to be profligate in arms purchases for many years just to catch up with today’s Arab capabilities.
This is Qatar’s second sin: that it has sought tolerable relations with Iran, with which it shares the world’s largest offshore gas field. After all, the United States has still not got over the assault on its amour propre caused by the Iranian hostage crisis of four decades ago. In the process, Washington has both fully signed onto the Sunni side of the long-standing Sunni-Shia struggle—where the United States has nothing to gain—as well as to the geopolitical ambitions of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, Egypt, and Israel, again where there are no benefits to the United States from becoming parti pris.
Qatar’s third sin is its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which deposed Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak, won an election, then was itself deposed by the current Egyptian strongman, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. And the fourth sin is that Qatar is home to the television network, Al Jazeera, which is the closest thing to an open source media outlet in the entire Arab Middle East. That is enough to outrage the Gulf monarchies, which depend for their survival on the suppression of information and political debate.
While visiting Saudi Arabia, President Trump and his team gave Saudi Arabia a free pass on terrorism, as well as on its continued brutal repression in Yemen, one of the least-reported human tragedies on the planet. But, as so happens in international politics, Riyadh had its own agenda and, without as much as a by-your-leave from Washington, used its green light from the Trump administration to do what it had long wanted to do by going after Qatar. In a virtual panic, the Pentagon noted that its premier military base in the region, critical for operations against the Islamic State, happens to be in Qatar. Thus, there was a hurry-up signing ceremony at the Defense Department with the Qatari defense minister, ratifying a multi-billion-dollar sale of F-15 aircraft, plus a hastily arranged port visit to Doha by two US Navy combat vessels. But the damage was done, and Washington now finds that one of its key objectives, to try building an anti-Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and Iran-countering coalition based on the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, is in tatters.
This should be a time to take a step back, think again, and consider the basics of US interests in the region, which need to include avoiding any new wars (in this case potentially involving Iran), riveting its focus on countering IS instead of being sucked into regional competition games, ceasing its combat support for Saudi military actions in Yemen, and beginning to consider steps to reduce rather than increase tensions between Iran and Arab states on the other side of the Persian Gulf. The last-named should include proposing an incidents-at-sea regime (patterned on the one concluded between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1972 at the height of the Cold War), an arms control regime involving all the regional parties, and strategic talks, at whatever level can be initiated, between the United States and Iran—working through European proxies at first if need be. The eventual goal should be a regional security system including all parties. That’s impossible now, but in time perhaps it will become the least-worst approach, with every country gaining more security than any have now.
Changing both the politics and psychology of US-Iranian relations of course comes up against domestic factors in both countries. In Iran, hard-line clerics and the Revolutionary Guards fear any lessening of tensions with the United States, however difficult it has become to sell at home the concept of the American Great Satan. Their ace in the hole is to continue vilifying Israel, which is not at all in Iran’s interests but which plays effectively in US domestic politics to prevent any lessening of Washington-Teheran tensions. Here, President Barack Obama went to great lengths to secure the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, which has trammeled the latter’s capacity to acquire nuclear weapons. But with continued intense congressional opposition to improving relations with Iran, along with Teheran’s continued support for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and Hezbollah, Obama lacked the latitude to go further in trying to end the cold war with Iran. He was opposed in his efforts even by people in his own administration, notably at the Treasury Department, who dragged their feet in meeting America’s pledges of reducing sanctions against Iran. Indeed, responsive to political lobbies, Congress has just piled on more.
Even if President Trump were inclined to look afresh at US interests and policies in the region, he would be inhibited in doing so. The Pentagon clearly opposes anything to do with Iran and sees US military ties to Saudi Arabia as most critical. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has still not made the transition from being CEO of Exxon Mobil to being the chief foreign policy official of the United States. In a small but telling example, he recently spoke of the “Arabian Gulf,” the first and only time that a State Department official has departed from the time-honored term “Persian Gulf.” Everyone in the region took note. Further, given the pressures that Trump is under regarding the sheer legitimacy of his election, he could no more shift ground on anti-Iranian attitudes regarding the Middle East than he can pursue his instincts in seeking a new basis for dealing with the Russia Federation.
At this great distance, the crisis over Qatar may not seem like much. But it does contain the potential for exacerbating conflicts in the region, stymying efforts to put together a coherent anti-terrorism coalition, allowing Saudi Arabia to continue saying “Who, me?”, and making the United States look as though it doesn’t have a coherent approach to the region that can meet American interests. Which is, in fact, the case.
Photo: Rex Tillerson (State Department/Flickr)