The mutual expectations of Camp David
When US President Barack Obama announced the nuclear framework agreed by the P5+1 and Iran, he was quick to acknowledge the concerns of America’s Middle East allies. He specifically mentioned that he had already spoken with Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud and that he intended to invite the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to a summit. The invitations were duly issued and the allies are to meet at the White House May 13th at the Camp David presidential retreat May 14th.
At a time of unusual strain and suspicion in the relationship, much is at stake in the upcoming conversation. Here is what both sides want to talk about, hope to get and may come away with.
The American side will focus on trying to explain to the Arab delegations what it is doing, precisely, in negotiations with Iran. Washington understands full well that the Arab states could prove very dangerous opponents of an agreement if they decide to obstruct implementation of a deal.
Moreover, it is important to the United States that an agreement with Iran does not come at the expense of traditional Middle Eastern alliances. The US strategic relationship with the Gulf states is, in many cases, very old and deeply rooted. It is based on existing and very serious shared mutual interests and not whims, caprice or experimentation.
From the American point of view, there is no zero-sum relationship between a strategic US alliance with Arab states and efforts to negotiate a peaceful resolution of the dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme. On the contrary, Washington’s perspective is that the Arab states (and Israel) have much to gain from an agreement that, the White House says, provides the only viable means of ensuring that Iran does not become a nuclear power in the foreseeable future. The American side will be stressing that the Arab states, too, will be beneficiaries of the agreement and that it will not be at their expense.
The Arab states are sceptical.
They are not particularly concerned about Iran actually using a nuclear weapon. What they worry about is a hegemonic, and even imperialistic, Iran emerging from an agreement strengthened and more aggressive than ever. The deepest fear is that the United States will, in effect, abandon its opposition to Iran’s threatening regional policies. As long as the Iranians are willing to compromise on the nuclear file, the fear goes, the Americans may no longer care much about Iran’s efforts to expand its influence through proxies that destabilise the region, engage in terrorism and exploit sectarian divisions.
First and foremost, the GCC states will want to know that the United States will continue to oppose, in deed as well as word, the aggressive Iranian posture in the Middle East. The Arab states will want to know what the United States is willing to do with regard to Iran’s influence in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, among other flashpoints.
From their point of view, a complete rejection by the United States of any proactive policy to reverse Iran’s strategic gains in these areas will confirm their worst fears. Washington did, at least rhetorically, support the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen and the Gulf states will want clear signs that this will continue. They will also be looking for support for the joint Arab military force that the Arab League is attempting to assemble.
Both the Arab states and the United States will be asking pointed questions about how best to oppose terrorist groups like the Islamic State (ISIS) or al-Qaeda. Americans will want strong assurances regarding a crackdown on private financial support for terrorist groups, while the Arabs will look for a clear commitment by the United States that the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad must go, which they believe is a prerequisite for breaking the power of ISIS in Syria.
Ideally, the Arab states would have wanted a new strategic arrangement with the United States that amounted to a nuclear umbrella. It has been made clear that they are not going to get that and they understand this.
So they will be looking for more weapons sales and, especially, a new level of technology transfer to give them a qualitative military edge over Iran and its proxies. They will see this military technology transfer as not just practically important but symbolically valuable as a sign of trust.
Both sides will arrive at Camp David with a fairly long laundry list of requests and questions. To protect and preserve their vital strategic relationships, it is essential that neither leaves empty-handed.