On Iran: Actions speak louder than words, President Obama

The White House portrayed the Camp David summit as a crucial platform to reconfirm American commitment to Middle Eastern security

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
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The White House portrayed the Camp David summit as a crucial platform to reconfirm American commitment to Middle Eastern security and to reassert its efforts to fight against the destabilizing Islamic Republic.

The major questions to address are: What are the underlying intentions and major objectives of President Obama to hold such a rare gathering? What does the timing of the Camp David summit tell us? And will the Obama administration follow up and fulfill its promises which have been laid out in the Camp David summit?

Iran’s state-official news outlets have predominantly dismissed the Camp David summit as ceremonial, symbolic and superficial

Majid Rafizadeh

The Obama administration attempted to emphasize the notion that the summit was aimed at strengthening ties between the United States and the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council - including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman - on security and geopolitical levels.

Iranian leaders’ reaction: Dismissal of the summit as unproductive, ceremonial and symbolic

Iran’s state-official news outlets have predominantly dismissed the Camp David summit as ceremonial, symbolic and superficial. In addition, some of the top Iranian leaders have been hesitant to comment on the summit between the U.S. and GCC states in order not to scuttle the final nuclear deal, risk the lifting of sanctions, and raise further concerns regarding their military activities in Arab nations. Moreover, Rowhani’s administration is concerned that any controversial and un-calculated statement might draw more attention to Iran’s interventionist policies, the IRGC and Quds Force operations, and potentially lead to more cooperation between the U.S. and GCC states.

According to the Financial Times, Ali Akbar Velayati, a close advisor to the supreme leader, dismissed the meetings between GCC states and the U.S.. He criticized and lashed out at Saudi Arabia and stated that the Islamic Republic, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria are “co-operating very closely.” He believes that the summit was unproductive and will not weaken Iran’s power or scuttle the nuclear talks.

On the other hand, from the perspective of Iranian leaders, the Camp David summit is a platform that is aimed at serving Tehran’s geopolitical, strategic, national and economic interests. This is due to their belief that President Obama is attempting to sell Iran’s nuclear deal to Arab states and defuse their fear on the surface. From their perspective, the Obama administration is currently in favor of the Islamic Republic, desperate for a final nuclear deal, and the summit is solely ceremonial with no formal and binding agreements.

If there was to be formal and bonding agreement between GCC states and the U.S., the reaction of the Iranian leaders would have been more vocal.

From the perspective of Iranian leaders, the summit will not scuttle the nuclear talks and will not weaken Iran’s regional status, ambitions, and preeminence.

Obama’s narrow Middle East policy: Iran’s nuclear deal

Obama’s verbal statements at the Camp David summit created some hype and attracted the international spotlight. Nevertheless, when the administration’s overall Middle Eastern and Iranian foreign policies are deeply examined, it appears that the President Obama’s objective at the Camp David summit was mainly pitching Iran’s nuclear deal and obtaining support from GCC states on that nuclear deal with Iran rather than concretely countering Iran’s increasing influence, its meddling in internal affairs of other countries and its destabilizing role in the region.

This phenomenon is comprehensible since President Obama has spent a considerable amount of political capital, domestically and internationally, on his dealings with the Iranian leaders, particularly with regards to the nuclear file.

Further, the timing of the Camp David summit is intriguing, as it is near the deadline of the final nuclear deal between the Islamic Republic and the six world powers (known as the P5+1: the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia, and China).

Not being able to reach a final nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic is the most undesirable scenario that President Obama can envision for his legacy and continued efforts.

Actions to be taken: Policy recommendations

If President Obama indeed seeks to counter Iran’s increasing influence in the region, thwart Tehran’s role as a destabilizing actor in the region, disrupt the IRGC’s support for Shiite militias including the Houthis, President Bashar al-Assad, its heightened influence in Iraq and Lebanon, and resolve Iran’s nuclear threat, he must recalculate his overall Middle Eastern foreign policy, priorities, and implement several other crucial platforms.

At the moment, President Obama’s Middle Eastern foreign policy priority is sealing a final nuclear deal with Iranian President Hassan Rowhani’s nuclear team. Other crucial issues, such as the Syrian and Yemeni conflict, Iran’s destabilizing role in the region, and Iran’s emboldened status in the Strait of Hormuz are at the bottom of the president’s Middle East agenda.

Interestingly though, his final nuclear deal, in which the president is investing a considerable amount of political capital, will not resolve Iran’s nuclear threat permanently. Even according to the Obama administration, the Islamic Republic will be allowed to keep much of its nuclear infrastructure, but it will be one year away from obtaining a nuclear bomb.

Any Middle Eastern foreign policy agenda that does not take into account the multilateral and multifaceted complexities of the region and Iran’s geopolitical military role, is doomed to fail.

As is already evident, the narrow focus on Iran’s nuclear file (rather than Tehran’s military activities in the region) and the easing of restrictions on the Islamic Republic have significantly ratcheted up Iran’s meddling in other nations and increased the conflict in the region. This can lead to a major regional conflagration if it is not addressed adequately.

One part of the resolution is to bring Iran’s ballistic missile program and its Revolutionary Guard Corps and Quds force activities to the negotiating table with the nuclear file.

Nevertheless, President Obama has already acquiesced to the demands of the Iranian leaders not to include any other regional issues with the nuclear talks.

As a result, the other possible action is to employ the policy of containment and pressure Iran’s military support for proxies while the nuclear talks are simultaneously continuing.

Third, instead of verbal and non-binding commitments, President Obama needs to push for a tangible agreement and security guarantee that can encounter Iran’s increasing influence. This security deal can be a NATO-like agreement with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman in order to create a joint defense system.

This development will send a powerful signal to the Islamic Republic and counter its regional hegemonic ambitions and Tehran’s bid for regional preeminence.

Although some experts, analysts, and politicians in Washington might argue that such a deal will face criticism from the Republican-controlled senate or Israel, if there is political will from the side of President Obama, the Senate will likely approve such an agreement because it is aimed at containing the military activities and ambitions of the Islamic Republic.

The question is whether President Obama would desire to take action, or whether he will continue issuing verbal statements, non-binding as they are.

In closing, President Obama should be more open about taking concrete steps, listening to the concerns of the regional powers, creating new ideas regarding external threats, and charting concrete ways to strengthen security and military cooperation with the GCC states.


Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar at Harvard University, is president of the International American Council. Rafizadeh serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. He is also a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. Rafizadeh served as a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at [email protected].

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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