The Fractured Power
How to Overcome Tribalism
On August 3, the Gulf States publically threw their support behind the Iran nuclear agreement. With some reluctance, Qatari Foreign Minister, Khalid al Attiyah, remarked in a press conference with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that the nuclear deal “was the best option amongst other options in order to try and come up with a solution for the nuclear weapons of Iran.” Qatar is currently chairing the Gulf Cooperation Council, which also includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
But what the Gulf states say in public is one thing and what they actually believe is another. The Gulf States’ animosity toward the Iran deal has not gone away. Two days after the agreement was signed in Vienna on July 14, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a former Saudi ambassador to the United States, wrote in an opinion piece for the Arabic news site Elaph that the deal would “wreak havoc on the region.” He argued that the terms of the deal made it less secure than the 1994 nuclear agreement with North Korea, which fell through in 2003 and is generally seen as a lesson against negotiating with rogue nations. Al Sharq al Awsat, a newspaper owned by a member of the Saudi royal family, recently warned that “the agreement would open the gates of evil in the Middle East.”
The Gulf States remain deeply apprehensive about the agreement’s ramifications for their security and standing. For one thing, they are worried that Washington’s rapprochement with Iran will come at the expense of their own alliance with the United States. They are also concerned that the agreement will embolden Iran, especially in its support of rebel Shia groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, as well as Syrian President Bashar al Assad. The Saudis fear that in the future, the United States may refrain from pursuing policies that oppose Iran’s interests out of concern that Iran will break its commitments under the nuclear agreement.
In recent years, the Gulf States have also questioned Washington’s future commitment to the region. For example, if the United States achieves energy independence, it will no longer need its Arab allies and may significantly reduce its involvement in the Middle East. The Gulf monarchies are also concerned that a U.S. pivot toward Asia may make the Middle East a lower priority. However, it appears that the prevalent fear in the Gulf is a U.S. pivot toward Iran.
In spite of their private reservations, the Gulf States have calculated that it is not in their best interest to publicly defy U.S. President Barack Obama and damage their relations with the United States. They regard the Iran agreement as a done deal and, believe that a strategy of damage control and strategic bargaining is the best way forward.
As Iran becomes an increasingly powerful actor in the Middle East, the Gulf States will need U.S. military support to counter its rise. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have aggressively lobbied Washington for the sale of sophisticated arms systems such as the advanced F35 jet fighter in return for their support. So far, the United States has shown reluctance in supplying advanced weapons to the Gulf states, because U.S. policy requires it to help Israel maintain a competitive military advantage. U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden announced in April that the United States will begin delivering these fifth generation aircrafts to Israel next year and it will be the only country in the Middle East to own them. But the United States may very well be forced to consider offering them to the Gulf States, too, in order to keep them on board the Iran deal. In the meantime, to ease Gulf concerns, Washington has promised to supply less advanced weapons systems, as well as provide military trainings and intelligence sharing.
One consequence of Gulf support for the Iran nuclear agreement, however, is that Israel is finding itself alone in its fierce opposition to the agreement. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to mobilize opposition to the deal in the United States by claiming that it will threaten both Israel and other U.S. partners in the region. But now that these allies, including such heavyweights as Saudi Arabia, have publically endorsed the nuclear agreement, Netanyahu will have a tougher job of selling his argument to the American public, which is already evenly divided over the Iran agreement, according to recent polls.
The Obama administration is taking advantage of this split. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest has already pointed out how Gulf support undermines the argument made by pro-Israel organizations, and lawmakers opposed to the Iran deal, that it threatens U.S. allies in the region. In fact, this newfound support from the Gulf could very well tip the balance in Obama’s favor.