Responses to Ambassador LeBaron’s Assessment of US-Gulf Relations

Recent tensions between the United States and the Arab Gulf states emerged in recent months over the US role in the region. Saudi Arabia in particular has made its displeasure known in its refusal of a seat on the UN Security Council over US policy in Syria. This widespread sentiment in the Gulf points to a growing distrust of the United States as a guarantor of regional security. Richard LeBaron, a former US ambassador to Kuwait and senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, released an issue brief shortly after his visit to the region. In the brief titled Building a Better US-Gulf Partnership, Ambassador LeBaron examines source of the tensions in relationship and examines strategies to rebuild and deepen these ties. Two experts in Gulf politics, Kristin Diwan, an assistant professor and visiting fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center, and Mohamed Baharoon, vice president of a UAE-based think tank, were asked to comment on the brief. Please see their critiques below.

Kristin Smith Diwan, Assistant Professor of Middle East Politics in the School of International Service at American University writes:

The need for better US-Gulf cooperation is not idle talk without consequence. Sadly there is ample evidence of the bitter fruit that competing US-Gulf agendas have yielded in the Middle East. Exhibit one is Syria, where US ambivalence and Gulf commitments—uncoordinated and at times competing—have directly contributed to a divided and increasingly radicalized Syrian opposition, incapable of bringing a disastrous war to a close.

The problem goes beyond the lack of coordination. Today there is no strategic consensus between the United States and Gulf leader Saudi Arabia on the major issues affecting the Middle East. Ambassador Richard Lebaron’s cogent policy brief suggests finding common ground in Egypt, the “least bad” arena of US-Gulf disagreement. But there is no avoiding the most pivotal issue: Iran, and its future role in the region.

The Obama administration has signaled its determination to achieve a narrow deal curbing Iran’s nuclear program. This has heightened fears in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that an internationally rehabilitated Iran will be given free rein to extend its influence. The Saudi plan to meet this challenge—a union of Gulf states—was torpedoed in surprisingly frank comments by the Omani Foreign Minister who not only rejected Oman’s participation in a union, but called into question Saudi Arabia’s wisdom in seeking to set the Gulf on a confrontational path with Iran.

Oman’s independence is likely to embolden other Gulf states to pursue their own course in seeking accommodations with the new US-Iran détente. But as the Syrian case demonstrates, the lack of Gulf unity in approaching Iran will not guarantee a better outcome. Iranian gamesmanship on multiple fronts and Saudi reaction (and overreaction) can wreak havoc in a Middle East already primed for sectarian conflict. The November bombing of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, claimed by the al-Qaeda linked Abdullah Azzam brigades but attributed to Saudi Arabia by Hezbollah, and the subsequent mortar attack across the Saudi border by an Iraqi militia, Jaysh al-Mukhtar, demonstrate how rogue actions can be drawn into Saudi-Iranian hostilities.

Saudi-Iranian tensions also take a toll on domestic Gulf politics, as Gulf rulers internalize the Iranian threat to their sovereignty. While unity on foreign policy seems out of reach, Gulf states have enhanced coordination of internal security, including proposals to unify immigration and visa systems and to create a new Gulf police force. While directed at external threats, these expansive security measures have at times ensnared domestic opposition groups seeking political and economic reform. The securitization of politics, especially noteworthy in response to Shia political activism, diminishes the ability of Gulf governments to resolve long-standing internal political disputes.

There are no guarantees that an improvement in US-Iranian relations will ameliorate Iranian-Gulf competition and associated sectarian tensions. It could, in fact, aggravate them. While Iran has made diplomatic overtures to the smaller Gulf states, most notably on the disputed Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunb islands, the United States should not leave matters to chance. The Qatari-Saudi proposal to include the GCC states in nuclear talks would add more veto players and burden an already arduous negotiation. But advocating for a separate track to address Iran-Gulf flashpoints such as the Hormuz islands, Bahrain, Yemen, and even broader conflicts in Iraq and Syria could help to empower those predisposed to diplomatic engagement against the hardliners. Absent a thoughtful and pro-active policy, the United States may surrender the opportunity to address the Iranian-Saudi proxy war with its sad toll in conflict and radicalization on numerous fronts.

Mohammed Baharoon is the Vice President of B’huth, a UAE based think tank. He writes:

My main reaction to the brief is that it does not address the elephant in the room: Iran. I doubt that addressing the strategic relationship between the Gulf Cooperation countries (GCC) and US without addressing the Iranian dimension of the relationship would be realistic. While I understand there is an implicit reference to Iran in talking about the GCC security apparatus, missile defense alone does not address it.

Two main points make Iran an integral part of the strategic relationship between the GCC and the US:

  1. Iranian hegemony: At this point in the US-Gulf relationship, Iran represents the split in the road. It would be an oversimplification to say that GCC and Iran are dueling over regional influence or US support. The GCC position is grounded in the uncertainty about the post-deal role of Iran in the region. The Gulf’s distrust with Iran is not emotional, it is theological. Iran has been using the Shia issue as a tool for destabilizing the region since the revolution—such as in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Lebanon, Yemen, and even Saudi Arabia. The United States has not yet addressed Iran’s role in this context.
  2. Rewarding terrorism: The US rapprochement with Iran is tactically sensible for all the reasons mentioned in the issue brief (not to mention the cheapest option available). However, the tactic rewards Iran for its adversarial stance towards the United States and the West. It sends the message that Iran’s use of proxies and religious extremism can successfully be used as leverage. By embracing Iran, the United States ignores its use of Hezbollah, a terrorist group, against US interests. The message this sends to Gulf countries is that extremism is the only leverage that works with the United States.

The use of sectarian strife by Iran causes geopolitical tension and strengthens extremism across the region. This tactic will no doubt create a spillover effect that will hardly be restricted to the region—and unfortunately, the international community has already experienced firsthand how far the spillover can spread. The perception that the US enables Iran’s use of sectarian strife will have deep reverberations for both Sunnis and Shia inside the Middle East and abroad. Syria is a point in case.

The US-Gulf relationship is not merely a matter of fidelity; it based on a longstanding commitment that involved sacrifices from both parties. The United States bled for Kuwait, and Gulf states dedicated resources (no matter how unpopular the policy might have been) to protect both it and the United States from security and economic threats. The US-Gulf alliance may not change dramatically, but is now certainly more susceptible to erosion.

US policymakers should consider your idea of starting a strategic dialogue that not only includes strategic issues, but also a future in the context of US-Iran relations. They should strive for an understanding of Gulf perception regarding respect of sovereignty and noninterference and support the International Religious Defamation Law that would stop scores of media channels from perpetuating the Shia-Sunni slander that fans hatred. There is a greater need than ever to stop sectarian tension. The United States has a moral responsibility, as well as strategic opportunity, to address this through promoting a Sunni-Shia dialogue. US diplomats should also work to help resolve the claims over islands in the Gulf. A resolution would provide proof that Iran understands the Gulf’s anxiety over its position in the region.

Related Experts: Richard LeBaron

Image: Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel walks with Saudi Deputy Minister of Defense Prince Fahd bin Abdullah before departing Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 24, 2013. (Photo: US Dept. of Defense)