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Obama’s open-ended Iran-GCC doctrine

By Shahir ShahidSaless, Special to Gulf News

Published: 21:15 May 27, 2015

A nuclear deal between the P5+1 (US, Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany) and Iran would make the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries nervous for two reasons. The first cause for their concern is that a nuclear agreement would provide Iran the opportunity to build an atomic bomb, though that is unlikely, given the international oversight and spotlight Iran would be under should a deal be reached. The second factor prompting GCC anxiety is that a nuclear agreement would end Iran’s political and economic isolation and, most importantly, demonstrate that the US acknowledges Iran as a prominent regional player. This acknowledgement would give Tehran the ability to make decisions that are referred to by GCC members as destabilising actions in the Arab countries.
As a result, prior to the US-GCC summit on May 14 in Camp David, Gulf leaders were pushing the idea of a strong military alliance with the US.
US President Barack Obama has made public his view on this GCC position.
In his May 13 interview with the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq Al Awsat US President Barack Obama, in perhaps his strongest language in recent years, assailed Tehran: “Iran clearly engages in dangerous and destabilising behaviour in different countries across the region. Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism ... So countries in the region are right to be deeply concerned about Iran’s activities.”
In April, the New York Times’ Thomas L. Friedman interviewed Obama and, as a result of their conversation, published an op-ed titled ‘Iran and the Obama Doctrine’. In the interview, Obama spoke about the Iranian threat to America’s Arab allies in the region and added, “I think the biggest threats that [the GCC countries] face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries.” Among other factors, he highlighted the lack of “legitimate political outlets for grievances” as a reason for the formation of internal threats in those countries.
As evidenced by these examples, Obama has sought to present a balanced approach towards the two regional rivals, Iran and the Saudi-led GCC. This mindset — a shaping force for US policy in the Middle East — views a defence pact with the GCC states as risky, which could worsen the regional security environment.
Obama and his administration fear that a defence alliance, similar to what the US maintains with Japan, may result in an awkward and perhaps dangerous partnership with GCC members. Especially notable is Saudi Arabia, which has adopted more assertive policies towards Iran since King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz came to power in January. These policies may provoke a war with Iran and could, under a formal defence treaty, drag an unassuming US into war.
Following the meetings in Paris — which were held the week before the Camp David Summit and hosted by the US Secretary of State for each of the GCC countries’ foreign ministers — Rob Malley, coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Security Council, said in a press conference: “There’s one issue [the GCC countries] have. Some of them wanted a formal treaty, and that’s something we told them weeks ago was not possible.”
A closer look at the US-GCC Camp David Joint Statement and the outcome of the Paris talks provides a glimpse into Obama’s strategic thinking on the Middle East. The words of the Joint Statement were carefully crafted and was layered. In the event of an aggression, the statement reads, “The United States stands ready to work with our GCC partners to determine urgently what action may be appropriate, using the means at our collective disposal, including the potential use of military force, for the defence of our GCC partners”. In other words, when GCC states are attacked — Iran the key focus here — America will not automatically come to their defence militarily. In addition, a military response is not the sole option that the US would consider. Rather, different options would be weighed-in order to determine which is the most appropriate.
In the press conference after the US-GCC Summit, Obama put forth the paradigm under which, the US approaches the region’s rivals. “I want to be very clear,” he said. “The purpose of security cooperation [with the GCC countries] is not to perpetuate any long-term confrontation with Iran or even to marginalise Iran. None of our nations have an interest in an open-ended conflict with Iran.”
According to Obama, “ending the tensions in the region and resolving its devastating conflicts will require a broader dialogue — one that includes Iran and its GCC neighbours”. And to achieve that, Obama thinks the US should “bolster” the capacity of GCC countries not to confront Iran but to ensure that they “can deal with Iran politically, diplomatically, from a position of confidence and strength”.
In his interview with Friedman, Obama further sketched his strategic thinking regarding Iran. “We will engage,” he said, “but we preserve all our capabilities”. He hopes that the nuclear deal can be concluded “and that it ushers a new era in US-Iranian relations — and, just as importantly, over time, a new era in Iranian relations with its neighbours”.
Another Obama goal relevant to reaching a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran can be read between the lines in his interview with Asharq Al Awsat. He views a nuclear deal as a likely means to reshape Iran’s politics. He argues that, “If we can successfully address the nuclear question and Iran begins to receive relief from some nuclear sanctions, it could lead to more investments in the Iranian economy and more opportunity for the Iranian people, which could strengthen the hands of more moderate leaders in Iran (emphasis added)”.
A complementary argument to Obama’s is that because moderates in Iran, led by President Hassan Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, are all-in regarding the nuclear talks, a failure of negotiations would result in a fatal blow to the moderates’ camp. This type of defeat could spell the return of radical politics in Iran, with risks of a bloody conflict that would dwarf that of the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad era. Under Ahmadinejad, the conflict over Iran’s nuclear programme, which by itself could be a recipe for a disastrous war, was at the core of Tehran’s confrontational policies. Today, in addition to the nuclear issue, Iran and Saudi Arabia are now in an unprecedented, open and spiralling conflict on several fronts from Syria to Iraq and the most recent in Yemen. Under the circumstances, the revival of radical politics in Iran can potentially escalate tensions to a point of no return.
It could be that the GCC countries, in this context and understanding the dangers of the failure of the nuclear talks, took a realistic stance at Camp David as reflected in the Joint Statement despite their continued objection to Iran’s nuclear programme. The Joint Statement explained that the parties “reviewed the status of negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran, and emphasised that a comprehensive, verifiable deal that fully addresses the regional and international concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme is in the security interests of GCC member states as well as the United States and the international community”. Shahir ShahidSaless is a political analyst and freelance journalist writing primarily about Iranian domestic and foreign affairs. He is also the co-author of Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace, published in May 2014. He lives in Canada.