This week on May 13-14, President Obama will be meeting with the heads of state or their deputies from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries at the White House and Camp David, in meetings that could have important lasting impacts on US relations throughout the region, the prospects for regional security and for nuclear non-proliferation.
The GCC consists of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, countries that do not always see eye-to-eye on their strategic analysis. Some are deeply concerned about Iran’s influence in the region and the potential for that influence to grow as a result of the forthcoming nuclear deal with the E3+3. The role of Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon, of the IRGC in Iraq, and of rumors around the supply of arms and inspiration to the Houthis in Yemen (whatever the reality), is seen as a sign of Iran’s influence across the Arab world. The goal of the United States in the upcoming meeting will be to find a way to assuage those fears and in turn neutralize any unintended regional consequences in the deal. GCC members will be looking for assurance from the United States that they intend to stand by their allies and contain Iran, and equally importantly to assist them in building their own security capabilities.
The Middle East has been a battleground for strategic influence for many years, and this too will be high up in the minds of those US officials involved. They will not just be worrying about the spreading influence of Chinese commercial interests or Russian military relationships, but also their European allies. Francois Hollande followed his trip last week to Qatar to sign a billion deal for 24 Dassault Rafale fighter jets by dropping in on Riyadh to became the first foreign head of state to attend a GCC summit. He was invited by Saudi Arabia because France is perceived to have the strongest position among the P5+1 in negotiations with Iran. Before the GCC meeting, Hollande met with Saudi King Salman to discuss Yemen, Syria and Iran. Following it, Hollande spoke of French efforts to work on continuing a strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia, and that France has an important security role in the region and fully supports the Arab coalition’s operations in Yemen. This follows a number of major arms deals across the region and the opening of a French military base in Abu Dhabi in 2009.
The perception in the region that President Obama failed to follow through with military action against President Bashar Al-Assad after calling the use of chemical weapons in Syria a red-line has harmed his reputation with many people in the region and set back US influence. And the Obama Administration will not be in a position to offer hard and fast Article 5 commitments or any form of formal defense alliance, and will want to avoid over committing themselves, not least because this would be opposed within Congress by those worried about Israel’s strategic edge and others because of close association with states whose human rights and democracy credentials are among the worst in the world. They will also be cautious about being closely associated with regimes that could quickly lose legitimacy, much as President Mubarak’s regime did in 2011. It is more likely that they will want to discuss strengthening security partnerships without obligation to assist in the event of any attack, perhaps in a manner similar to that given to Taiwan that committed the United States to “maintain the capacity…to resist any resort to force or other forms coercion”. They will also be interested in strategic approaches that assist in better balancing power with Iran through selective arms deals, training and logistical support. They have already backed Saudi and UAE military action against targets in Yemen and have been assisting in the naval blockade preventing the resupply of the Houthis, but they may be prepared to consider further support. They might, for example, consider helping to create safe-zones in Syria.
There is also an awareness within the GCC strategic community of the threats to the legitimacy of Gulf states from unduly relying upon the United States, France and the UK for security. Whilst it is unlikely that this is at the root of the failure of some Heads of States to attend this week (more down to ill health), there will be some consternation amongst US Administration officials.
At a recent workshop in Abu Dhabi last month, participants explicitly opposed the idea of GCC states requesting a formal security guarantee from the United States, even if there were a chance of it being forthcoming, on the basis that this would be unreliable, humiliating and would undermine the credibility of their own capabilities. It was pointed out at this meeting that GCC states spend many times more than Iran on military equipment, yet this is not reflected in capabilities and the balance of power, and that it would be more effective to address this contradiction head-on by developing domestic competencies.
Whilst true, this observation does not get to the heart of the challenge. Iran’s principal threat is not one of invasion, but rather the inspirational and logistic support they can offer insurgent forces that are not always motivated by the ideological connection with Iran but rather in reaction to the form of government closer to home. Whilst they may privately acknowledge the truth of it, the leadership within the GCC will not have taken kindly to President Obama’s observation that the biggest threat comes from ‘dissatisfaction inside their own countries’. Before the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the United States and its allies invested heavily in arming the Shah which became a source for anti-American sentiment in the country. One of us in 1993 interviewed Sir Anthony Parsons, former British Ambassador to Iran in the 1970s, on his experiences as, in his words, the principal British arms dealer to the country at the time. He described his horror in the final years of the regime as British military equipment was used to gun down protesters right outside the British Embassy. By the time President Carter was in office, America had become reliant on its relationship with the Shah after thirty years of arms supply. Investing in Iran and the eventual fall of the Shah has had lasting implications in the region. Parsons warned at the time that we should be cautious of repeating such errors with the Gulf state monarchies, and particularly Saudi Arabia.
Of course traditional defense capabilities, particularly high status cutting edge aircraft, ships and missiles have little relevance to this security dimension, and the development of a nuclear weapon capability by any GCC member even less. GCC strategists may complain that were Iran to acquire nuclear weapons it would upset the regional strategic balance, but the truth is that Iran does not need a nuclear arsenal to deploy its potent challenge to the regional status quo. Indeed, a serious nuclear weapons program may even undermine it. But even were Iran to develop nuclear weapons, a Saudi response in kind would be no defense against Iran seeking regional strategic influence, if that is indeed its motivation today.
The United States is not in any position to assure the Gulf states around the most critical element of their security, internal stability, because its hands are tied. The legitimacy of these states remains under question in the United States, and the Israeli lobby further weakens it. Even if there was the possibility for the Obama Administration to offer stronger security guarantees to Gulf states in response to strategic invasion of nuclear blackmail, this would not be relevant to the deeper challenges. Neither would a choice to develop their own nuclear deterrence. Unfortunately, such decisions ride on symbol and emotion and there is every danger that offered a limited menu of goodies this week, the Gulf states will opt for long term capabilities that weaken or blow away the nuclear non-proliferation dam and deepen instability in the region. If US officials are looking for ways to prevent this they would do far better to focus on collaborating more closely with the Arab League and Israel in getting the WMD Free Zone Conference off the ground without further delay.