Managing disagreements, containing Iran

Friday 08/05/2015
What message will Obama bring?

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.