‘Decisive’ Gulf stays strategic with Washington

The Iranian leadership had prepared for the U.S.-Gulf summit in Camp David by presenting itself as a partner ready and able to crush ISIS

Raghida Dergham
Raghida Dergham
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The American and Gulf leadership sought to save the Camp David summit, which was not attended by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, but by the head of state of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, and the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

President Barack Obama called for this extraordinary summit to give the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) reassurances regarding the nuclear deal with Iran, which he has made the top strategic goal of his foreign policy.

The Gulf nations accepted the invitation with a view to reaffirm their security priorities and explore the long-term strategic relationship between Washington and the GCC as the U.S. president sees it, having upgraded the relationship with Tehran into the level of partnership. While there are shared priorities concerning the fight against terror, even in this issue the U.S. and Gulf strategies differ over identifying who supports terrorism. President Obama, in an interview with Asharq al-Awsat, said Tehran continues to support terrorism and is an element of instability in the region, but suggested this will not stop him from seeking to sign a nuclear deal with Iran in the coming two months, and build a conciliatory and cooperative, bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Iran.

Traditionally, the main orientations and decisions of such summits are prepared beforehand, when negotiations at the level of ministers and experts take place over the smallest detail before the meeting takes place. The decision by King Salman bin Abdulaziz not to attend the summit two days before it convened was a political decision with serious implications, no matter how much U.S. and Saudi diplomacy try to downplay it and claim there is no message behind the king’s absence. The reality is that King Salman wanted to let the U.S. president know he is unsatisfied by the U.S. reassurances and that he refuses to be a tool to beautify the Iranian nuclear agreement.

This position made it easier for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to head to the White House and then Camp David with a charge of decisiveness with regard to certain Saudi positions, while underscoring Riyadh’s determination to maintain the strategic relationship between Washington and the GCC.

Striking a balance like this requires flexibility, which is an art that tests leadership and performance. Some in the Obama administration made their calculations on the basis of experience, and decided that Arab leaders are not able to be truly independent as long as their security depends on the relationship with the United States. For this reason, there can be no room for independent decision-making no matter how much they deny this, and there is no alternative to the U.S. sponsor of Gulf security no matter how ready France and other nations appear to sell their weapons. These people in the U.S. administration can be described as a mirror reflecting Obama’s thinking and doctrine, which sees Iran as the priority element in the Iranian-Gulf equation.

This puts the Gulf leadership to the test, particularly the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE. These countries are active in the region on a myriad of issues discussed at Camp David, including security and defense cooperation, the Iranian issue and its regional dimensions in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq and the nuclear dimension, the long-term strategic relationship between Washington and GCC capitals, and terrorism.

The Iranian leadership had prepared for the U.S.-Gulf summit in Camp David by presenting itself as a partner ready and able to crush ISIS, and justifying its military intervention in Iraq and Syria through Shiite militias and Hezbollah. Tehran is peddling its services because it understands ISIS is the priority for U.S. officials, the public, and the media equally. Iran sees that it is in its interests to present itself as America’s top partner to eliminate Sunni terrorism represented by ISIS and similar groups. Iran is using the war on terror to lend cover to its expansion in Iraq and to buy Washington’s silence regarding its direct involvement alongside the Syrian regime and Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian conflict.

The Gulf delegations that headed to Camp David brought with them arguments to persuade the U.S. administration that crushing ISIS requires popular and official Sunni participation, and that a U.S.-Iranian partnership as an alternative to the international coalition is a foolish policy.

For its part, I believe Washington welcomes the Iranian-Arab competition over eliminating ISIS. However, it is making a risky gamble if it assumes that fueling Iranian-Gulf rivalry, or Shiite-Sunni rivalry, will serve its interests. Such a strategy leads to more strife, and to spawning Sunni and Shiite extremism equally. It could bring the Syrian model to other Arab and Muslim nations, and even bring terrorism to U.S. cities no matter how strongly American decision-makers are in denial about this.

The Iranian leadership had prepared for the U.S.-Gulf summit in Camp David by presenting itself as a partner ready and able to crush ISIS

Raghida Dergham

At any rate, the issue of fighting terrorism is possibly the easiest topic in the U.S.-Gulf discussions. However, when this issue intersects with the Syrian issue, disputes arise pushing the Gulf to take an independent path away from the U.S. policy of turning a blind eye and burying heads in the sand.

The ideas carried by Gulf leaders to Camp David concerning Syria resemble the Decisive Storm model launched in Yemen, where the Gulf nations led by Saudi Arabia moved without Washington’s prior consent -- though with its prior knowledge -- to take the protection of Saudi national security into their own hands and let the rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran know that they have become too insolent and made a strategic blunder by crossing red lines in Yemen on the borders with Saudi Arabia.

With respect to Syria, and thanks to the Saudi-Qatari-Turkish rapprochement that has been initiated a few months ago, the momentum has returned to the battlefield accompanied by determination to take an independent line from Obama’s policy of self-dissociation on the events in Syria. The most that Washington prepared itself for in the recent period is just to manage the crisis, while Syria continues to disintegrate. The least Washington seems prepared to do is push forward Obama’s previous policy based on demanding Bashar al-Assad step down. In effect, the Obama administration’s discourse even suggested it had no qualms about Assad remaining in power and about his alliance with Iran as long as they are both fighting ISIS as they have promised to do.

The convergence or divergence between the U.S. position and the Gulf position calling for a qualitative shift in U.S. stances has to do with seriousness and decisiveness. The Camp David summit may not have concluded with a breakthrough in the U.S. position, but something new will take place in Syria whether Obama’s policy likes it or not. Indeed, Gulf diplomacy has decided that the Obama administration’s refusal to confront Iran over its expansionist ambitions in the region -- citing the priority nature of the nuclear issue -- is a deliberate relief for the leaders of Iran from accountability, if not endorsement and silent blessing for Iranian expansion in Syria and Lebanon.

Regarding Yemen, accord or differences are of a different kind. The Gulf leaders headed to Camp David carrying the achievements the Arab military operation in Yemen, if Washington decides to be firm with Tehran over Yemen.

Iran tested the United States on the eve of the Camp David summit, when Iranian Navy Admiral Hossein Azad said that warships have escorted an Iranian ship carrying aid bound for a port in Yemen, and refused to be boarded for inspection, challenging a recent U.N. Security Council resolution issued under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter. The resolution authorizes searching ships bound for ports in Yemen.

Whether it backs down or escalate, Tehran has deliberately tested its opponents to cover its weakness in the Yemeni developments and to provoke Saudi Arabia, which Iran wants to implicate in a quagmire in Yemen. However, the priority for Tehran in the broader strategic relationship is first, the nuclear deal, and what it will produce in terms of upgrading the level of U.S.-Iranian relations. And second, convincing Washington of building a regional security regime replacing the existing regional one between the United States and the six GCC nations. Iran wants to dismantle the GCC, and wants to become the security partner of the United States in the Gulf, replacing the U.S.’s Arab partners.

The fate of Iran’s regional ambitions will depend on the nuclear deal, which Obama is set to conclude in July. As for the fate of the Gulf’s ambitions, this is the responsibility of Gulf leaders and the good performance to negotiate over the entire U.S.-Gulf relationship, from security and defense, to long-term strategic relation with Washington following the expected detente in U.S.-Iranian relations. The United States must make fateful decisions before signing the nuclear deal.

This article was first published in al-Hayat in May 2015 and was translated by Karim Traboulsi.


Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.

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