Rob Malley visits the Gulf, with a bucket of old formaldehyde
A senior US delegation, led by Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley and other counterterrorism and defense officials, traveled to Saudi Arabia recently to participate in the US-Gulf Cooperation Council Working Group (GCCWG) meetings. There’s a weird feeling of déjà vu about this flurry of activity, as though we’re being asked to relive the events of 2015 and the run-up to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and to pretend that this time it’s a different play.
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The US-Gulf meetings, which began shortly after the US and Israeli militaries concluded their heavily publicized joint exercise, Juniper Oak ’23, focused on three areas of cooperation: Integrated Air and Missile Defense and Maritime Security, Iran, and Counterterrorism. These meetings, the US State Department said, demonstrate a shared commitment to advancing regional security and stability.
The US-GCC Defense Working Group began under former President Barack Obama after he convened a summit with GCC leaders at Camp David, on the eve of finalizing the JCPOA, or the Iran deal for short. The point of the working group was to give Obama’s deal with Iran the appearance of regional support, following the speech before Congress of Israel’s then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, expressing Israel’s opposition to the deal. The Gulf Arabs were deeply skeptical of Obama’s pitch. As one Arab diplomat put it then, “This summit can’t just be a big photo-op to pretend everybody’s on the same page on Iran.” King Salman skipped the summit.
Regional opposition to the deal was not hard to explain. Obama’s deal with Iran jeopardized the security of the Gulf Arab states and put in question the longstanding arrangements that had governed the alliance with the United States. Worried, they reportedly asked for formal US commitments to the region even as Obama was casually telling them that they should learn to adapt to change.
Looking to placate the Gulf states for his summit photo-op, Obama considered what he could throw their way. It wasn’t going to be a formal defense treaty, the administration explained, because that “would probably run into opposition from Israel and its supporters on Capitol Hill.” Another consideration was to increase weapons sales, but, again, the administration said, “there is a major roadblock: maintaining Israel’s military edge.”
Sorry, the messaging went. Take it up with Israel.
What Obama did offer, aside from expressing his admiration for Qassem Soleimani and his Qods Force, was to work toward creating an integrated defense system, an idea the administration had previously floated. This arrangement was to be a “two-way street,” an administration official said at the time. Gulf leaders would first need to overcome their internal rivalries and find ways to collaborate better in their own defense, in order to work toward an integrated anti-missile shield, with US help. And so the joint Working Group was born.
By putting the onus on the GCC states, Obama took a potentially useful tool—an integrated anti-missile shield—and used it as a device to lock the Gulf States into a protracted process packed with internal obstacles that would exacerbate the bureaucratic and other hurdles already plaguing their relationship with the US. While the Arabs grappled with Obama’s offer, he would then be free to go about his more important business with Iran.
Eight years later, integrated defense remains Team Obama-Biden’s pitch to the region. The fact that Malley led the recent Iran working group is a crystal-clear indication that the administration’s commitment to seal a deal with Iran remains as current as ever. And talk about US concern over Russian-Iranian cooperation aside (which hasn’t stopped the administration from renewing sanctions waivers for Russian-Iranian nuclear cooperation or from lobbying against blacklisting the IRGC), the offer on tap today is the same as it was in 2015, the difference being that Iran is now much closer to the bomb.
Whereas the 2015 summit came right before the announcement of Obama’s deal with Iran, today we’re at the next logical step of that deal: Recognition of Iran’s status as a nuclear threshold state. Since the Biden administration came into office, Iran has made important advancements in its nuclear program that have allowed it to reach threshold status. Most recently, it was detected that Iran had achieved enrichment to 84% purity, although in what quantity remains unknown. That’s a hair away from the 90% enrichment required for weapons-grade uranium.
Fearing that this is where things are headed a couple of months before the Working Group meetings, Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud pointedly noted that "If Iran gets an operational nuclear weapon, all bets are off… you can expect that regional states will certainly look towards how they can ensure their own security.”
A month later, Saudi energy minister Prince Abdul Aziz bin Salman further commented that "The kingdom intends to utilize its national uranium resources, including in joint ventures with willing partners in accordance with international commitments and transparency standards,” adding that this would involve “the entire nuclear fuel cycle.”
That Saudi Arabia might pursue a nuclear option if Iran is allowed to become a nuclear power is not a new development. In a 2018 interview with CBS, crown prince Mohammad bin Salman stated that “without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.” But Team Obama always has dismissed the likelihood of this outcome.
In an interview around the time of the 2015 Camp David summit, Obama predicted the Saudis “would not pursue their own nuclear program" because “the protection that we provide as their partner is a far greater deterrent than they could ever hope to achieve by developing their own nuclear stockpile or trying to achieve breakout capacity when it comes to nuclear weapons, and they understand that … that ultimately their own security and defense is much better served by working with us.”
Obama followed his assessment with a warning: “Their covert—presumably—pursuit of a nuclear program would greatly strain the relationship they’ve got with the United States.” Other Team Obama officials, currently in senior positions in the administration, have reiterated versions of this combination of dismissiveness and threats.
Obama’s offer, in other words, was for the Saudis to settle for whatever defensive systems the US was proffering in exchange for embracing the deal, or else they’ll be punished. Obama’s vision, which continues to guide US policy today, created an enduring crisis in the US alliance system in the Middle East. On the one hand, none of the traditional allies of the US want to abandon the alliance—quite the contrary. On the other hand, it is clear to everyone in the region that trashing the regional security system in order to hand Iran a nuclear bomb is an act of madness.
In the end, what US allies, the Saudis included, are looking for now is a time machine; a way to return to normalcy in their relationship with the American empire, where they know their role and can feel confident in the leadership role of their superpower ally. Sadly for them, there are no time machines in the region, and the Emperor is just as mad today as he was eight years ago. At what point does continuing to wait and hope become its own form of madness?
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