by Robert E. Hunter
On May 13-14, President Barack Obama will host leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) at the White House and Camp David. Ostensibly, the meeting is to try convincing these intense skeptics of nuclear negotiations with Iran that the US will not be a patsy for an Iran freed from economic sanctions following a deal.
But before he convenes this meeting “at the mountaintop,” Obama first and finally needs to decide on a long-term game plan, a strategy, for the Middle East. He has put off this moment for far too long. It must now all come together.
The US will reportedly pledge security support for the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. This will likely mean the sale of more high-tech weaponry, following last week’s French agreement to sell Qatar $7.1 billion in advanced aircraft. Obama will also likely offer some form of US guarantee for the security of the regional Arab states, perhaps including the designation of one or more of them as Major Non-NATO Allies (MMNAs). Nevertheless, what is done will fall short of security treaties that would require Senate ratification. But it will be more extensive than informal commitments that already exist in practice if not in theory.
The end goal should be, at long last, putting America’s interest, rather than those of others, first in the Middle East. The United States has several enduring goals in the region. It needs to ensure a free flow of hydrocarbons. It wants to protect Israel and – the elusive goal of the ages – to broker peace between it and the Palestinians. It has to find some way to contain and then counter the spread of Islamist terrorism that is the biggest threat to everyone in the region, which begins with a campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). Finally, if possible, the United States should help the region move into the 21st century, which for many of the Arab states means first moving into the 20th.
On top of these enduring goals, there are more immediate challenges. First in line is to try ending 36 years of confrontation with the Islamic Republic of Iran, if it will reciprocate by giving proof-positive that it will not try to get nuclear weapons. The means for doing do is already on the table, the provisional agreement reached in Lausanne at the end of March between Iran and the so-called P5+1 countries. It is due to be finalized by June 30. Provided that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, does not scuttle the talks and that Obama does not lose his nerve—which has been ironclad so far—there will be an agreement.
In America’s interests, that agreement should also open the way to a slow process of developing cooperation rather than confrontation with Iran. That includes help in untying the various Middle East Gordian knots in which the United States has become entangled. Iran has similar interests in Afghanistan, and the US needs to find a way of extricating itself and other Western states from that almost-lost cause. Iran can help. The US and everyone else needs to have free flow of commerce through the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz. Iran has as much interest in this as anyone else, just as it has had a shared interest in stopping piracy on the high seas. Iran may also share at least some of America’s interest in stopping Iraq from continuing to fester. Maybe there is some compatibility of interests there, maybe not. But the proposition can be tested.
Iran certainly has a common interest in countering the Islamic State. Largely unacknowledged in the West and particularly in the US, Iran has not been an ally but a target of this most vicious form of Islamist fundamentalism.
Reassuring the GCC and Vice Versa
At the White House and at Camp David, President Obama will offer reassurances to the GCC leaders, both about the terms of a deal with Iran and about GCC security. But very quietly and gently, he must also in effect read them the Riot Act. This needs to start by making clear that the US will pursue its own interests in the region, first and foremost. These can be coherent if not coterminous with the GCC’s attainable interests. But first these Arab leaders have to understand their own limits and their responsibilities to the United States.
They cannot expect the United States automatically to take their part in the struggle between Sunnis and Shias, which entered its current phase after the US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq upset the rough balance between the two key confessions in the Islamic world—and which was one of the worst foreign policy decisions in US history. The US does not have a dog in the fight between Sunnis and Shias and it should stop letting anyone believe it does. Saudi Arabia also needs to be told that the US will no longer support its assault on the Houthi minority in Yemen, which Riyadh has pursued on the tenuous premise that the Houthis are somehow just a cat’s paw for Iran.
By extension, the US does not have an interest in toppling the Alawite (Shia) government of Syria’s president, Bashar Al-Assad, without there being something viable to put in its place that will not just lead to an even greater bloodbath and an even broader regional conflict. Sunni states want to get their own back after the toppling of Sunni Saddam Hussein. But this is not in America’s interest, and we should stop acting as though it is.
The US certainly wants to stop IS and to keep the cancer of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other enemies of modernization in the Islamic world from prevailing. But to do so, the US first needs Sunni Arabs, and especially Saudi Arabia, to stop throwing gasoline on the fire.
This is the support provided by rich and/or religious Saudis and some other Arabs for the worst of the worst terrorists on the planet. It has long been no secret that critical elements of the inspiration, arms, and money that launched and still play a critical role in sustaining the Taliban, al-Qaeda (and its ilk), and now IS have come from sources in Saudi Arabia and some of its neighbors. (It was not for nothing that 19 of the 20 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals). So far, however, the United States has done little more than tap the Saudi leadership gently on the wrist. There was no indication that, when the US president went to Riyadh in January to greet the new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Obama even broached this subject. Certainly he did not draw a red line over the conduct of Saudis and others, which, among other things, has cost American lives in the region.
When the GCC leaders are at the White House and Camp David, Obama needs to send a message, quietly but firmly and unmistakably: cut it out or we will cut you off. The US will provide reassurance against a potentially militarily resurgent Iran and any other realistic regional bugaboos. But it comes at a price that must be honored. The GCC countries must put a total stop to support for Islamist terrorism and accept that the US will look for allies in this fight wherever it finds them, including in Teheran.
The United States also has a critical interest in not getting locked into an enduring Cold War with Iran, just at the moment when the confrontation of the last three-plus decades is beginning to ease. That means not allowing regional states to enlist the United States in efforts to play geopolitics at our expense. Behind the issues of the Iranian nuclear program is a deeper struggle of competition for position and influence among various states: notably Iran, Iraq (in time), Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Turkey, Egypt, and Israel. The US has no interest in any on these countries coming out on top, provided that regional security, including America’s special responsibilities for Israel’s security, is achieved. This point needs to be driven home at the White House and Camp David.
Addressing Regional Security
This also means that the administration needs to start thinking about developing a regional security system that is not directed against anyone but in which all states will have a chance to take part—and that means Israel and, if Tehran in time will “play by the rules,” Iran as well. This is key to America’s eventually being able to reduce its heavy military presence in the region, so it can get on with other business in Asia and elsewhere. But it can’t just be a matter of throwing more arms into the region and then walking away. Arms control has to be part of it.
Of course, Iran has to be told that it will not have a free pass to hegemony in the region after a nuclear agreement and sanctions are lifted. But for Iran to attain a dominant position would require everyone else in the region just to lie doggo and the US to drop all of its engagements in the region. Neither will happen.
As part of preventing an intensified rigidity in relations with Iran, the US must keep from drawing a line between it and its neighbors. That includes not buying into the narrative that these countries (and Israel) present about the Iranian “devil.” It also means speaking some home truths to the Arab monarchies about the real challenges they face.
Yes, an Iran no longer subject to sanctions poses a potential threat. But it is military only at the margins. A quick look at the military balance in the region shows that Iran is a pygmy in relation to its neighbors. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Saudi Arabia on its own spends more than five times as much on defense as does Iran. The US also still has enough clout with other arms suppliers—Russia and China excepted, if they want to make money and risk regional instability—to keep Iran from the major military buildup that would be required for it to become a challenge to its neighbors. As for the Straits of Hormuz, closing them or even threatening to do so (which would send insurance rates to stratospheric heights) would hurt Iran at least as much as any other oil-exporting nation.
Iran’s Real Challenge
The real challenge from Iran is partly religious-cultural: the Shia factor. Though even here, co-religionist does not necessarily mean co-combatant or even co-conspirator, as evidenced during the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran War, when Iraq’s Shia’s did not abandon Saddam Hussein for the Ayatollah Khomeini. True, there is Iranian support for Hezbollah (Lebanon) and to a lesser degree Hamas (Gaza), but no one knows for sure how much of this is just tactical rather than strategic, in order for Iran to have a card to play in its struggle with the West. This important distinction can be tested following a nuclear agreement.
More important is the fact that Iran is a far more economically developed country, with a highly educated, entrepreneurial people, than any of its Arab neighbors and is outmatched in the region only by Israel. Despite the clerics’ continuing role in the Islamic Republic, it is one of the most Westernized countries in the region, and its people, on average, are more pro-Western and pro-American than any other, bar none. None of the regional Arab states can currently hope to compete against this Iranian challenge, in significant part because of their resistance to domestic change.
Gulf Arab potentates should worry about this set of factors, not the military balance with Iran, especially since they—particularly the Saudis—stoutly resist serious internal social and political modernization. But there is nothing the United States can do to help in this sphere, and just providing military-oriented palliatives will do little if anything to relieve what should be the genuine fears of the Gulf monarchies.
The GCC states will almost surely raise a final subject at the summit: the future of Palestine. The US shares with them the need to get closure on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So does Israel. But this summit is not the place to talk about that subject except in passing. Neither Israel nor Palestinian will be present.
And this matter must not become a distraction from the real business: the pursuit of an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. The US will start working on a new relationship between Iran and the outside world. It will protect all regional states against external threats – an extension of the 1980 Carter Doctrine. But it will not become partisan in the Sunni-Shia struggle. It will not aid and abet geopolitical competitions in the region. It will looks for friends and allies wherever it can find them in countering IS and its evil colleagues. And it will tell the local states that they have to get on with the business of modernization, particularly in its political and social elements.
This is a lot to do at the White House and Camp David summit. It will require a well-considered strategy and US leadership, as befits a superpower. But above all, as the president approaches this summit, he has to heed Hippocrates: First, do no harm. That should be relatively easy if he starts with a clear analysis of US interests and finally puts together a Middle East strategy to promote them. The tough part is to endeavor to “do good.” That time is now.