Middle East: The Iran conversation
May 11, 2015
Syria’s misery shows no sign of ending; Libya is torn in half; the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is making gains in Iraq; and Yemen is sliding into a humanitarian crisis. When Barack Obama hosts leaders from the Gulf at Camp David on Thursday, he will be confronted by a Middle East that is coming apart at the seams.

His goal will be to win quiet acquiescence for his nuclear diplomacy with Iran from the Gulf Co-operation Council countries which are intensely suspicious of Tehran’s intentions and fear being abandoned by their US protector.

Mr Obama also faces a broader task that has echoes of the pivotal moments in Middle East history that have taken place at Camp David, such as the 1978 Israel-Egypt peace talks. In effect, the US president will be called on to set out his vision for a new balance of power in a region beset by sectarian strife.

With the nuclear talks approaching their end-June deadline, Mr Obama’s Sunni Muslim guests will probe his willingness to check Shia Iran’s influence in the region in the event of a nuclear deal and test his commitment to the Gulf at a time of declining oil imports from the region and a shale gas boom at home.

“The nuclear deal is the hinge for the region,” says John Jenkins, former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “Is a deal a framework for containing Iran or is it a framework for an eventual expansion of Iranian interests?”

Mr Obama called the summit immediately after US negotiators announced in March that they had reached a “framework” agreement with Tehran to substantially restrict Iran’s atomic programme in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Under fire from Congress and Israel over his nuclear diplomacy, Mr Obama was looking for a way to reassure America’s Gulf allies that they were not being sold out.

But at the time the White House had little idea of what it wanted to offer the members of the GCC, which is made up of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait. One US official described the summit as “the start of a conversation”.

Since then, the Obama administration has been scrambling to come up with a series of measures to convince Gulf leaders the US is not about to let Iran dominate the region.

“President Obama completely understands the stakes,” John Kerry, US secretary of state, said last week in Paris. “We are fleshing out a series of new commitments that will create between the United States and the GCC a new security understanding, a new set of security initiatives.”

Kind words and weapons

One part of the likely reassurance package will be a new American commitment to its allies in the region. The Gulf Arabs have long pushed for the sort of formal alliance that the US has with Japan. But a treaty with the Gulf countries — even if the administration wanted to offer such an agreement — would likely fall foul of a Congress that would oppose awarding privileges not also enjoyed by Israel.

Instead, the Gulf countries are pushing for a looser commitment that could still include some sort of written document spelling out when and how the US might intervene in the event that its allies were confronted by Tehran.

Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the US, says the region has in the past had a “gentleman’s agreement” with the US. “We need something in writing, something institutionalised.”

In parallel to diplomatic assurances, the GCC leaders will also be pushing for increased arms sales from the US. They will probably point out that other countries are willing to provide advanced weapons. France recently signed a $7bn deal with Qatar for 24 Rafale fighter jets.

Some of the GCC militaries would like to buy the F-35, the new generation of US fighter jet which Washington has so far only agreed to sell to Israel and Turkey. The UAE is also hoping to win approval in Washington to purchase Predator surveillance drones. However, any attempt to sell the most advanced systems will probably prompt opposition from members of Congress who want to make sure that Israel maintains a military edge over its neighbours.

Moreover, the GCC countries would have to make a case that they need more weapons to deal with a potential threat from Iran. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, military spending in Saudi Arabia reached $80bn last year, making it the fourth largest in the world, while the UAE spent $23bn, placing it 14th. Estimates for Iran’s military budget range from $10bn to $17bn.

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Ilan Goldenberg, a former Pentagon official for the Middle East, says the Obama administration should focus the debate instead on practical ways to challenge Iran’s use of proxies around the region, ranging from Hizbollah in Lebanon to the Houthi rebels who currently control large parts of Yemen. That would include co-operation on stopping arms shipments, greater intelligence sharing and training for GCC militaries.

“The discussion with the GCC should be about how we can actually deal with Iran’s destabilising behaviour rather than signing billions of dollars of arms deals that the Saudis do not really need,” says Mr Goldenberg, now at the Center for a New American Security.

The summit will also give the GCC leaders a chance to pressure the Obama administration to become more involved in Syria — something the president has gone out of his way to avoid. Yemen may be the immediate priority for the Saudis, but officials and diplomats in the region say Gulf leaders are determined to muscle Iran out of the Syria conflict.

“They want to get rid of [President Bashar al-] Assad and think now is the time to do it. The regime is brittle and should be pushed over,” says a diplomat. “The GCC is edging towards some intervention in Syria that sends the same message to Iran as in Yemen. And they want the US to back them up.”

While weapons sales, US assurances and Syria will dominate the summit, it will also be watched for the indications Mr Obama gives about how he hopes stability can be restored to the Middle East and about America’s long-term presence in the area. He has often talked about wanting to find a new “equilibrium” for the region, but has said little about what this might mean in practice.

The first element will involve how the president frames the US relationship with its allies. After the recriminations that followed the Arab uprisings and Washington’s 2011 decision to abandon Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, the Obama administration has tried to mend ties with many of the Sunni autocrats, resuming military aid to Egypt and supporting the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen despite reservations about the wisdom of air strikes against Houthi rebels backed by Iran.

Yet Mr Obama has also indicated he sees limits on American ties to some of the Sunni Arab regimes because of their own sectarian tendencies and potential for homegrown political instability. The biggest threat to the Gulf leaders, he said last month, was not Iran but “dissatisfaction within their own countries”.

GCC coherence

The US also harbours considerable doubts about the coherence of the GCC as a diplomatic grouping, let alone as a military alliance. Washington has for years been pushing the group to develop more co-ordinated military capabilities, only for internal rivalries to interfere.

The GCC has been split over how to approach the Muslim Brotherhood, which briefly governed Egypt, with Qatar offering support for the Islamist group while the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia were so opposed they withdrew ambassadors from Doha. The mutual fear of Iran has allowed the GCC to paper over these tensions but the suspicions linger. Qatar and the UAE, for instance, have been backing different sides in the Libyan civil war.

The most important — and politically toxic — theme will be Mr Obama’s view on relations with Iran. It has become an article of faith among some in the Gulf and the president’s domestic opponents that he is seeking a much broader rapprochement with Iran, which could even see Tehran returning to the position it enjoyed under the Shah as Washington’s preferred partner in the region.

America’s allies in the region fear that the influx of funds Iran will receive under a nuclear deal will embolden its push for greater regional influence.

“The agreement creates the impression that Iran is a regional hegemon, its role needed in Syria, to resolve Yemen, to elect a president in Lebanon,” says the Gulf official. “The impression created as a result of the agreement is that you have to engage Iran to resolve Arab issues.” US officials have been at pains to downplay this view, stressing that the nuclear talks are a discrete initiative aimed at limiting Iran’s ability to produce a bomb and that the US is focused on curtailing Iran in other spheres.

“Folks, this is not a grand bargain between America and Iran . . . It is not a bet on Iran changing its stripes,” vice-president Joe Biden said in a speech last week. “We are working continually to develop the means and capacity to counter Iran’s destabilising activities.”

However, the one member of the administration who has been openly tempted by the idea that a nuclear deal could unlock a different relationship with Iran is the president himself.

For Mr Obama, the hope is not that Iran would change overnight, but that the more pragmatic members of the elite in Tehran, such as President Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, might start to exert more influence, leading to a less confrontational foreign policy and better relations with its Sunni neighbours. At the very least, the administration wants to keep open a channel of communication with the Iranian leadership.

“What we’ve seen over the last several years, I think, is the opportunity for those [pragmatic] forces within Iran that want to break out of the rigid framework, ”Mr Obama told the New York Times last month. “It’s not a radical break, but it’s one that I think offers us the chance for a different type of relationship, and this nuclear deal, I think, is a potential expression of that.” For his part, Mr Zarif said last week that Iran too was interested in dialogue to resolve some of the region’s conflicts.

The Gulf states, however, are deeply sceptical about any diplomacy with Tehran, especially on issues they do not believe Iran should be involved in. For the Saudis and the UAE, it is up to Iran to show its good intentions before relations can be improved. “No one is against the idea of resolving issues peacefully,” says a Gulf official. “But the Iranians need to show that.”

Unlike Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, the Gulf leaders have kept their reservations about Mr Obama’s Iran diplomacy largely to themselves. But Camp David will be a moment for some hard truths — from both sides.