by Thomas W. Lippman
Sherlock Holmes once found a clue in a dog that did not bark. That is a useful way to look at the muted but generally supportive response of Saudi Arabia and the other Arab States of the Gulf to the multinational agreement designed to restrain Iran’s nuclear program. They may not be happy with it, but there have been no howls of outrage or cries of betrayal. Unlike Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries have decided to stay in the good graces of the only country that could actually protect them against Iran if the need arose.
Over the many months of negotiation that led to the announcement of the Iran pact on Tuesday, President Obama’s vociferous critics, listing the dire consequences they predicted would come from an agreement with Iran, included the likelihood that traditional U.S. allies in Gulf such as Saudi Arabia would break away from their security relationships with Washington and seek new partners. That outcome, the critics said, would undercut U.S. objectives in the region, such as defeating the Islamic State.
There seemed to be some substance to that criticism last month when Saudi Arabia’s youthful defense minister, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and other senior officials went to Moscow and signed weapons-purchase and other agreements with Russia.
GCC Backs Agreement
In fact, however, it has been clear since May 14 that the GCC countries would swallow their antipathy to Iran, and whatever objections they may have had to the negotiations, and stay on board with Obama. That was the date on which leaders of all six GCC states, after meeting with the president at Camp David, issued a statement that “emphasized that a comprehensive, verifiable deal that fully addresses the regional and international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program is in the security interests of GCC member states as well as the United States and the international community.”
At the time, Obama had made clear that he was determined to reach an agreement with Iran if at all possible. Having little leverage over Washington, especially now that the United States is no longer dependent on Gulf countries for oil supplies, the GCC leaders had little choice but to accept the president’s assurances that a successful outcome to the nuclear negotiations would not mean U.S. acceptance of Iran’s other policies in the region.
President Obama telephoned Saudi King Salman on Wednesday, the White House announced, to assure him that the Vienna agreement
will verifiably prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon by cutting off all of the potential pathways to a bomb while ensuring the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program going forward. The President underscored that the United States is as committed as ever to working with our Gulf partners to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region and promote stability as well as resolutions to the region’s crises.
The White House statement did not say how the king responded, but the official Saudi Press Agency did. Using the king’s official title, the agency reported that “the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques confirmed that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia supports any arrangement that guarantees preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons and at the same time includes an inspection mechanism of all sites.”
That response was reflected later in the day in a statement posted by the Saudi embassy in Washington on its web site:
Saudi Arabia has always been in favor of an agreement between Iran and the P 5+1 Group that would prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The agreement must include a specific, strict and sustainable inspection regime of all Iranian sites, including military sites, as well as a mechanism to swiftly re-impose effective sanctions in the event that Iran violates the agreement…Under the nuclear deal, Iran has to use its resources for domestic development and to improve the living conditions of its people rather than use it to incite turmoil in the region, which would only be met with harsh and determined responses from the countries of the region.
The unidentified “official source” to whom this statement was attributed “concluded by saying that since Iran is a neighboring country, the Kingdom is looking forward to build the best of relations in all fields on the principle of good neighborliness and non-interference in the affairs of others.”
That is not exactly strident opposition from the Saudis, or even diplomatically worded disappointment. At most it expresses reasonable and longstanding caution about what Iran might do with the substantial amount of cash it expects to receive once sanctions are eased, probably late this year.
In Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, several news outlets reported that the UAE president, Shaikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, sent a message to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani congratulating him on the agreement. According to the Khaleej Times,
Shaikh Khalifa expressed the hope that the agreement will contribute to regional security and stability. His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, sent similar cables to the Iranian president.
The UAE and Oman, another GCC member, have longstanding economic relationships with Iran and would stand to benefit from an expansion of Iran’s economy once international sanctions are lifted, as they will be if Iran complies with the terms of the multinational agreement.
Kerry Works Overtime
Secretary of State John F. Kerry—who might have been expected to take a day off after his exhausting slog through the final week of the nuclear negotiations in Vienna—telephoned his counterparts in the GCC yesterday to deliver the same message that Obama gave to King Salman. He got the response he wanted from Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, secretary general of the GCC, a Bahraini. In a statement reported by the Saudi Press Agency, he said that “the GCC foreign ministers expressed their appreciation of the contact of John Kerry and expressed their hope that the agreement leads to remove concerns over Iran’s nuclear program in order to preserve security and stability in the region, and avert a nuclear arms race.”
Like the statement issued at Camp David in May, the responses of the GCC states to the nuclear pact were predictable because all of them are heavily dependent on the United States for weapons, military equipment, training, logistical assistance, and intelligence cooperation. None of them can afford an open break with Washington. Over the past seven decades, similar considerations have always prevailed over whatever distress the GCC states might be feeling over the events of the moment—going all the way back to 1948, when Saudi Arabia’s founding king, Abdul Aziz al-Saud, decided not to break relations with the United States or revoke an American consortium’s oil rights after President Harry S. Truman recognized the new state of Israel.
Last week, as the nuclear negotiations neared their final hours, Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the Saudi defense minister, was touring the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, which is patrolling the Gulf. He and all his GCC counterparts are well aware that no other navy is going to take on that responsibility, and no other country will match the U.S. in its troop deployments across the region, from Incirlik in Turkey to Djibouti to Diego Garcia. Over their endless cups of cardamom coffee in the wee hours they may well grumble about the Iran deal, but they are not going anywhere.