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The interim nuclear agreement with Iran has been widely lauded in the West as a diplomatic coup. But it has also spooked many of Washington’s most important allies in the Persian Gulf. Whether or not the deal eventually leads to a permanent accord, it has stoked the Gulf states' anxieties about the wisdom of an agreement with Iran and Washington’s commitment to their long-term survival. The United States needs to make a serious effort to allay these fears; any long-term resolution to the Iranian nuclear standoff will otherwise be difficult to sustain.
If Iran is ever to abandon its nuclear ambitions, it will need to accept a distribution of power in the Gulf that encompasses a leading role for U.S. allies. And the region’s monarchies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in particular, will need to reciprocate with respect to Tehran. For this to occur, Gulf rulers must be convinced that a lasting accord with the Islamic Republic will ultimately enhance their security. More specifically, they will need assurances that Iran will not pose an existential threat to their regimes, by fomenting domestic unrest or launching terrorist attacks at home, or by undermining their legitimacy in proxy fights abroad.
Washington can lay the groundwork for such a state of affairs by reassuring Gulf allies that it can blunt Iran’s ability to project power beyond its borders. At base, the United States must acknowledge that the Gulf’s perceptions of the Iranian threat differ from its own, and embrace a broader set of concerns than Iran’s nuclear program. Conveying this message convincingly will require innovative policies that go beyond the traditional alliance tools on which Washington has relied thus far.
The Gulf monarchies, of course, would surely prefer that Iran not acquire nuclear weapons. But Tehran’s willingness to destroy its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium has done little to assuage their core fears that its proxies will undermine their domestic and regional stability, or encourage intensified strife among the substantial Shia populations of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain. Perhaps most important, many monarchs fear that the Geneva agreement will spell the beginning of the end of Iran’s international isolation, providing it with some sanctions relief but not foreclosing the possibility that it acquires a nuclear weapon down the road.
From the Gulf’s perspective, recent U.S. actions suggest that its geopolitical priorities lie elsewhere. Washington’s decision to remain on the sidelines of the Syrian civil war signaled its unwillingness to become deeply involved in the region’s most pressing crisis. The military victories of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a product of Tehran’s backing and Hezbollah’s fighters, fed regional perceptions of Iran’s ascendancy. Saudi Arabia also worries that the failures of its proxies in Syria have undermined its claim to leadership of the Sunni community, a central pillar of the regime’s legitimacy. Similarly, many Gulf rulers believe that Washington abandoned its onetime ally, the Egyptian military, in its struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood by freezing some of its aid and criticizing the military’s tactics -- and that it too easily deserted its decades-long partner Hosni Mubarak before that.
The United States can manage its allies’ fears, but it will need to get creative. Washington is accustomed to working with allies through formal security treaties, of the kind it currently has with nearly 30 countries, including allies in Europe and East Asia. In addition, it has typically used visible shows of force, in the form of military bases, troop deployments, joint military exercises, and even forward-deployed nuclear weapons, to convince longtime allies -- NATO, South Korea, and Japan among them -- of its lasting commitment to their security.
Although the United States retains a significant military presence in the Gulf, including important basing arrangements in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE, it does not have formal mutual defense treaties with any of them, instead relying on informal security guarantees. Whatever the outcome of the interim nuclear agreement, the United States is unlikely to extend new treaty commitments in the region because of the high political and material costs of doing so. Moreover, the Gulf states have invested heavily in their own militaries, and may fear stoking domestic opposition by inviting additional U.S. troops onto their soil (recall that Washington transferred control of Prince Sultan Air Base to Riyadh in 2003, in large part due to domestic opposition). But even if the monarchies wanted to sign formal treaties or host additional U.S. forces, these measures would not address their underlying anxieties. The Gulf’s primary security concerns, particularly those regarding Iran, are largely internal. Traditional assurance tools are unlikely to fit the bill.
Washington must therefore convince the Gulf States that it is committed not only to halting Iran’s nuclear program but also to containing Iran’s principal means of projecting regional influence through asymmetric operations. This would likely take the form of intelligence collaboration and prosecutions that target the Gulf operations of Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah and military units such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps -- both of which engage in violence, subversion, and terrorism outside Iran. Intelligence sharing would focus on the activities of the Guard and entities such as Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security, which funneled money and weapons to al Qaeda in Iraq. Both organizations have provided critical support for the Syrian regime, and for a wide range of other proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
In terms of prosecutions, the United States could ramp up its work revealing and disrupting the illicit networks that benefit Iranian proxies. In 2011, for example, the U.S. government designated the Lebanese Canadian Bank an organization of "primary money laundering concern,” which in turn helped to disrupt an international drug trafficking ring that benefited Hezbollah. Such actions not only undermine the financial foundations of proxy groups but also affect their ability to win the support of the populations on which they rely for operational strength, and impugn their reputations. Most important, they close gaps in the international financial and legal systems that permit Hezbollah to function and Iran to project power beyond its borders. The United States could undertake similar efforts focused on the operations of Iranian agents operating elsewhere in the world, but with particular emphasis on the Gulf.
Cracking down on Iran’s proxies need not derail the nuclear negotiations. The recent agreement in Geneva distinguishes between nuclear-related sanctions, to which the P5 plus 1 countries will make adjustments, and sanctions targeting other Iranian behavior, which will remain in place. The United States could still adopt new measures to undermine Iran’s support for terrorism, political violence, and other forms of illicit activity. This would enable Washington to negotiate in good faith with respect to the nuclear issue, maintaining pressure on Iran and reassuring Gulf allies. The Iranian agents and proxies that most often engage in illicit activity are the same groups that Tehran uses to undermine the internal stability and security of several GCC countries.
Washington should also establish regular bilateral consultations with its Gulf partners; it currently engages with allies through the Gulf Cooperation Council, but the monarchies’ individual security concerns are too sensitive to meaningfully address in a multilateral setting. Standing bilateral consultations have a history of success, most recently those that the United States established to strengthen its extended deterrence relationships with South Korea and Japan. During and since the Cold War, Washington relied on defense information sharing through NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group and its so-called High Level Group to reduce its allies’ fears of abandonment. In place of a formal treaty commitment, the United States can use formal consultation mechanisms to demonstrate that it is receptive to regional partners’ security fears, and communicate the actions that it may be taking to help to mitigate those worries.
Ultimately, the Gulf monarchies have good reasons to back a potential nuclear deal. They would be happy to see Iran get out of the nuclear business. They have few, if any, reliable allies they can turn to for large-scale defense assistance, and so their current worries about Iran are unlikely to rend U.S.-Gulf relations entirely. Washington need not endeavor to eliminate all of Iran’s asymmetric influence in the region, but it must diffuse a long-standing regional security dilemma: If the Gulf monarchies remain fearful of Iranian subversion, they are unlikely to back a deal that addresses only the nuclear question. And if they feel insecure, they will have reason to continue a substantial military buildup that will make Iran more likely to retrace its steps toward nuclear status. The monarchs must therefore be satisfied that Tehran, even without a bomb, does not pose an immediate threat to their survival.
To manage these regional dynamics and pave the way for a lasting deal, Washington needs to pursue parallel diplomatic tracks with Iran and the Gulf monarchies over the next six months. This would send the message that the United States is deeply invested in regional stability, making its nuclear diplomacy all the more powerful, and laying the groundwork for a deal that states on both sides of the Gulf can live with.