Managing disagreements, containing Iran
Washington - A senior Arab diplomat in Washington tells The Arab Weekly that in September 2013, Saudi King Abdullah learned from televised news reports that US President Barack Obama had a change of heart about punishing Syrian President Bashar Assad for crossing the infamous “red line” and using chemical weapons.
This flip-flop by Obama so surprised the Saudi monarch — following days of joint military planning for an action against Syria — that it created an atmosphere of distrust that neither the United States, Obama nor its Gulf Coopeoration Council (GCC) allies have been able to overcome.
Two years later it is those Gulf leaders that the Obama administration is planning to host at a two-day-summit at the White House and Camp David in Maryland, to “strengthen security cooperation while resolving the multiple conflicts”, as the official announcement read last month.
The meeting is also a US attempt to sell the potential nuclear deal with Iran ahead of the June 30th deadline.
Security experts in the Gulf and Washington told The Arab Weekly these goals are ambitious and unrealistic. They see the summit, at best, as an exercise in damage limitation and an attempt at striking a balance by winning support for the Iran deal while promising old allies more defence aid and containment of Tehran’s regional influence.
“At this stage both the US and the GCC are trying to manage disagreements,” says Emile Hokayem a senior fellow for Middle East Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Those disagreements, while highlighted in the Syrian crisis, started even earlier in what the GCC saw as the US abandoning of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in 2011, aggressive outreach to Iran, consistent support for Iraq’s Nuri al-Maliki until the summer of 2014 and the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS).
From Washington’s perspective, GCC members have exaggerated the degree of Washington’s outreach to Iran. Moreover, there is growing ambivalence in the Obama administration about GCC military action in Libya and Yemen and support for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi remains tepid.
Despite those differences, Hokayem tells The Arab Weekly that the summit is a statement “that no one in the GCC or the US has interest in allowing the relationship to lose sight of long-term strategic objectives and will try to focus on workable arrangements until Obama leaves office” in January 2017.
Maintaining low expectations has proven to be an accurate description of most of Obama’s Middle East policy. This is a result of lack of a larger strategy in the Middle East, says Anthony Cordesman of the Center of Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Cordesman writes that against “the mix of strategic competition, arms control, rising threats and indirect cooperation in Iraq” the Obama administration “seemed to be largely reactive and without any clear strategic plan beyond achieving a framework for a nuclear arms control agreement.”
Cordesman speaks of “a high level of strategic distrust [of the United States], particularly in Egypt and Saudi Arabia” and an abundance of “the conspiracy theories that it was somehow turning away from its Arab alliances and planning to somehow partner with Iran.”
The White House has been seeking experts’ opinions on what Obama can offer to assure his Gulf guests on Iran.
While defence treaties and a nuclear umbrella have been rumoured as possible incentives, neither seems attainable. The first would require ratification from the US Congress and the second faces regional hurdles, according to a diplomatic source, because a nuclear umbrella would make it harder for GCC countries to start their own nuclear programmes.
Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and senior director on the National Security Council under George W. Bush, tells The Arab Weekly that “what Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States want most of all is not arms or security guarantees, but, rather, they want the US to contain Iran.
“They want the US to push back hard against Iranian proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.”
This issue will be right, left and centre at the summit, as military operations continue in Yemen and increased talk about establishing safe zones in Syria is heard in Washington.
While Doran makes it clear that “the Gulf States do not believe that the Iran nuclear deal is a good deal or that it will achieve its stated goals”, Hokayem emphasised that the GCC will not oppose it.
“The international backing for the deal and the realisation that it is a priority for Obama” makes repeating a scenario predicted by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu unlikely with the GCC leaders, he said.
Instead, the Camp David summit presents an opportunity to offer support for a potential Iran deal in return for what the GCC wants most: Countering Tehran regionally.
In other words, a bargain that would leave everyone content but without providing a strategic outlook or long-term solutions.