Obama needs to restore trust with GCC allies

Sunday 17/04/2016

When US Presi­dent Barack Obama visits Saudi Arabia to consult with Gulf Arab allies, he will face unprecedented scepticism. His comments and policies, such as the nuclear agreement with Iran, “pivot to Asia” and the lack of robust engagement on Syria — have left Washington’s Gulf allies extremely uneasy. Obama will have to dig deep to begin to repair the frayed trust.

The six Arab states that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have long sought a more formalised security relationship with the United States. The United Arab Emirates, in particular, has, in recent years, advocated a for­mal alliance treaty.

US Secretary of State John Kerry recently suggested that NATO might enter into a formalised defence relationship with the GCC. This is precisely the kind of initiative that would be most wel­come in Gulf capitals. Anxieties there focus on the ascendancy of Iran, coupled with a perceived reduction in US engagement and fears of a potential rapproche­ment or even eventual partnership between Washington and Tehran.

Formalising defence relation­ships would go a long way towards offsetting those concerns. How­ever, Kerry’s suggestion must be viewed as, at best, a trial balloon. If pursued, it may come with very challenging conditions. Still, it is clear that Washington understands what would really reassure its Gulf allies.

Of course, mutual confidence is not a one-way street. The Gulf states will have to reassure their American interlocutors about their commitment to counterterror­ism and counter-radicalisation, including a crackdown on private financing of extremist groups and a willingness to take steps to­wards social and political reforms. Obama has made it clear that he believes that stability in the Gulf and successful counterterrorism and counter-radicalisation efforts will require significant domestic reforms.

Obama can be expected to emphasise three main points dur­ing his trip: a return to the theme of domestic reform; a reiteration of unwavering American com­mitment to Gulf security; and, perhaps most important, stress the strong American opposition to Iran’s aggressive regional posture and sponsorship of terrorism as well as the importance of working with regional allies to confront that mutual threat.

Kerry has also spoken about Washington’s aspiration to seek friendship with both the Arab Gulf states and Iran, while acknowl­edging that Tehran must alter its behaviour for that to happen. This reflects the Obama administra­tion’s ongoing search for an open­ing with Iran beyond the nuclear deal. Iranian Supreme Leader Aya­tollah Ali Khamenei, however, has made it clear that Iran is not going to negotiate with the United States beyond the nuclear deal. Tehran has intensified rather than eased its aggressive regional policies.

The United States, under Obama, could be characterised as having wanted to ask itself wheth­er Iran could serve as a regional strategic ally, at least in terms of securing open shipping in the Gulf and other core aspects of stability. Because of Iran’s response to the nuclear deal, which has been to double-down on its expansionist agenda and continue to behave as a transnational revolutionary organisation more than as a state, Americans have not had to ask that question. Tehran has already answered it with a resounding “no”.

The bottom line, as is becom­ing crystal clear in Washington, is that its Arab Gulf allies agree with about 90% or more of long-term American strategic goals, while Iran opposes almost all of them, with the exception of the terms of the nuclear deal. Even if the Unit­ed States finds itself, coinciden­tally, on the same page tactically as Iran and its allies in contingent, extreme situations such as Iraq, Afghanistan and even, to some extent, Syria, that does not mean Iran is a plausible strategic ally.

It is undeniable that Iran remains adamantly opposed to al­most all of Washington’s long-term strategic goals. Wishful thinking will not change that fundamental reality, which must, eventually, once again inform American stra­tegic calculations.

The practical US commitment to the Gulf states is undiminished. Military deployments, diplomatic traffic, investment and even civil society exchanges are either on a par with historical highs (specific war situations excluded, of course) or are exceeding them.

The reality on the ground demonstrates that the relationship between the United States and its GCC allies is exceptionally strong, even though trust, especially among the Gulf states, has been deeply eroded.

Obama’s task will be to begin to restore trust. This must be done in both word and deed. History and the core realities suggest this can and will be done but there should be no underestimating how much serious heavy lifting it will require on both sides.