Obama’s visit: Cementing Gulf alliances and détente with Iran

US President is carrying a push to re-fasten the strategic bonds between the US and the Gulf nations...

Raghida Dergham

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President Barack Obama will not bring a new US policy with him to the summit with the Gulf nations next week in Riyadh, a policy that would otherwise depart from his doctrine in the Middle East and Gulf region. He will not force his successor in the White House to adhere to any new surprising policies either.

The US president, who is set to leave the Oval Office in nine months, is instead carrying a push to re-fasten the strategic bonds between the US and the Gulf nations, but as part of the vision based on diversifying US strategic relations with the major players in the region in the context of the broader balance of power there.

President Obama’s fixed opinion is that he has done well by turning the page on the hostility with the Islamic Republic of Iran. In his view, this is advantageous to both US and Middle Eastern interests. Yet he does not want to end his term with the impression that he has spoiled US relations with traditional allies in the GCC led by Saudi Arabia in order to appease Iran.

For this reason, he wants to mend US-Gulf ties, but without apologizing or backtracking. He wants to revive strategic US-Egyptian relations, meanwhile, but without ignoring the actions of the Egyptian government against its civil society, the freedom of speech, political dissent, and Islamists at large.

And according to leaked information, Obama may be inclined to support a UN Security Council resolution endorsing the foundations of consensus reached by Palestinian-Israeli negotiations without having culminated with an agreement. These themes could well be the features of the final page of Barack Obama’s relationship with the Middle East, and intersect with the movements made by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz last week, most notably his visits to Egypt and Turkey.

In Cairo, King Salman’s visit cemented a Gulf-Egyptian alliance that reinforces Egypt’s weight along with the Gulf’s weight in the regional balance of power, which includes actors like Iran, Turkey, and Israel. This alliance has a huge weight, first of all in the decisions of the Arab League and their international dimensions, well beyond the Arab region. It also has a major economic and political impact on Egypt.

One of the dimensions of this alliance extends to US-Egyptian relations and European-Egyptian relations, bearing in mind that these ties have been strained by Egyptian policies, which the West sees as arbitrary and heavy-handed against dissent, free speech and Egyptian NGOs.

A veteran Gulf source said King Salman was like a judge who secured Egypt’s divorce from Nasserism, and that Egyptian diplomacy is no longer a socialist ideology seeking regional dominance, but rather is now closer to Gulf policies opposed to ideologies and radical governments.

However, this does not hide the fact that there are differences between Egypt and the Gulf over Turkey, bearing in mind that Saudi Arabia is developing strategic ties with Turkey, while Egypt continues to see it as hostile to the government in Cairo and that Turkey wants to revive Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt.

The Iran factor

The differences also include the issue of relations with Iran. For example, Egypt does not agree with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain over the designation of the Iranian threat as an existential one. Egypt also diverges with the Gulf over Syria: Cairo does not endorse the policy based on the centrality of Assad stepping down, and does not focus a lot of its energy on the Syrian issue. Rather, Cairo’s focus is on Libya, where in turn, the Gulf interest is less compared to Egypt’s. In the Yemeni issue, misunderstanding and miscalculation has weakened mutual trust.

The Gulf’s message to Egypt over relations with the US is that US-Gulf relations are enduring and are about to be strengthened, and that Egypt is no alternative to the strategic relationship between the Gulf and the US.

Gulf-US policies converge in considering Egypt a key partner against terrorism and extremism. Gulf states may be more understanding of Egyptian stringent security measures even if they differ on some issues, but the US and European nations are strongly critical of the iron fist being deployed by the army and police in running the country, without showing any tolerance or transparency.

The Western powers believe President el-Sisi of Egypt is unable to make the key decisions to induce radical change in Egypt towards economic and political openness, and therefore, they are not willing to invest in Egypt. To them, the Egyptian military leadership is autocratic and unsustainable in the long run, because its current path is self-destructive.

However, the Egyptian-Israeli relationship is softening the US stance, because, according to a well-informed US source, this relationship is currently at an unprecedented peak, and one reason is the cooperation against terror groups like IS, and the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.

Regarding relations between Egypt and Turkey, there is nothing yet to suggest they can be mended at this juncture. Neither the Turks want accord with the Egyptian government, nor do the Egyptians want reconciliation with the Turkish leadership.

Regarding the US condoning Iran’s tampering with regional stability, the GCC states are intent to clarify their rejection of this policy, and to reserve the right to diverge from Washington to preserve their vital interests

Raghida Dergham

The Saudi king’s visit to the capitals of the two countries came upon a prior conviction that there is no way yet to break the ice between Cairo and Ankara, and that it would be best to separate the relationship with Egypt from that with Turkey. In Riyadh’s opinion, Ankara is crucial for its influence on Syria and Iran, and in the Islamic alliance against terrorism, compared to which Egypt’s role is secondary.

The Gulf-Turkish clout in leading the Islamic alliance is different from the Gulf-Egyptian clout in the regional balance of power, as the thinking goes in the Gulf region. Furthermore, Turkey is able to play a deeper and broader role with Iran compared to Egypt.

The US administration seems comfortable with this thinking, and thus is backing cooperation with Egypt and Turkey as part of the Islamic military alliance against ISIS and also in the framework of influencing Gulf-Iranian relations.

Tension and distrust

But the consultative summit meeting between the US president and leaders of the GCC will probably not tackle these details, however, and will focus on repairing US-Gulf cooperation, at least on two levels: Tension and distrust vis-à-vis the US following the latter’s courtship of Tehran while utterly exempting it from its regional entanglements including direct and proxy intervention in Syria, through groups like Hezbollah. And the level of US-Gulf security relations.

Regarding bilateral security ties, strategic cooperation will be at the top of the agenda of mending relations, and will not be a difficult issue. Indeed, the US view is that there is no contradiction between courting Iran and turning the page on hostility with Tehran, and having strategic relations with the Gulf Arab states, despite the fact that the Obama doctrine upended the previous Carter Doctrine focused on solid strategic alliance with the Gulf states.

Since the Gulf states are prepared to accept reassurances in this regard, mending the relationship will not be difficult, especially since the security relationship entails arms purchases.

Regarding the US condoning Iran’s tampering with regional stability, the GCC states are intent to clarify their rejection of this policy, and to reserve the right to diverge from Washington to preserve their vital interests. These states will emphasize the principle of non-interference in the affairs of others, and will highlight Tehran’s admission of sending troops to Syria as a glaring example of the divergence with Washington, which has chosen to overlook these violations.

The Gulf states will tell the US president that his legacy, represented in the nuclear deal and détente with Iran, is not binding for them if the goal is to sanction Iranian dominance over the Arab region.

The differences are profound. The Obama administration believes Arab autocracies are the source of the scourge and that the US must resist the rule of strongmen in the Arab region, in the words of the US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power. Yet the US administration has refused to criticize Iran’s theocracy and strongmen. The Obama administration has sought to punish Arab autocrats and remove them from power, while at the same time exempting Iran’s autocratic theocrats from accountability.

The room for accord here is not broad. The Obama administration began its term championing grand values, and is leaving the White House with a record stained by the deliberate overlooking of values and atrocities in places like Syria. The US no longer has the right to claim the moral high ground because of the US policy on Syria pursued by President Obama, who embraced US popular priorities such as: We should not be involved in others’ wars and the massacres against civilians in faraway places are no business of ours.

Perhaps President Obama had wished to leave the White House with a different legacy, one that does not confine him to having to court Iran, despite its violations, obstructionism, subversion, and alliance with Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah.

Some want him to seek a major breakthrough in the Palestinian-Iranian dossier, which he had adopted upon entering the Oval Office, promising a historic achievement and deeming the resolution of this conflict to be at the heart of US national interests. Thus, there is some bid in US administration circles supporting a UN Security Council resolution on the two-state solution, affirming the principle.

The talk revolves around developing the famous resolution issued in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, number 242, which became the basis for subsequent negotiations, provided that no binding mechanism through sanctions is included nor a timeframe.

Resolution 242 was the basis of Egyptian-Israeli and Jordanian-Israeli negotiations and subsequent peace treaties. The idea is upgrading this resolution to include Palestine, and to be the basis of a Palestinian-Israeli treaty when the time comes, a year from now or many years later. Thus, in the opinion of the proponents of such a resolution, which would be a precedent, the next US president can act on the basis of a clear reference frame based on having a Palestinian state and a Jewish state, one that enjoys international support.

But most likely, both the Palestinian and Israeli sides will object to such a resolution, because it would force them both to make concessions. Perhaps President Obama does not want to end his tenure with a defeat, and would thus not press the matter. But perhaps he will find these ideas to be a way to end his term with a resolution that crowns the efforts of his Secretary of State John Kerry, one that would allow him to say he ultimately delivered on what he had promised.

Every American president at the end of his term scrambles to achieve something on Palestine/Israel. President Obama prefers to appear as a cold, cautious, and calculating leader. This is what he will do in his meetings with the Gulf leaders in Saudi Arabia, and with the subsequent decisions he makes as he prepares to leave the White House.

This article was first published in Al-Hayat on Apr. 15, 2016 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham.

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