If the Arab Gulf states are opposed to the Iran nuclear deal, why didn’t they publicly speak out against it? This was perhaps the most interesting and contentious point of discussion on the first day of the second annual Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate on November 1.

Make no mistake; the lack of public opposition is not because the Arab Gulf states support the deal. There is widespread skepticism of and even hostility toward the deal in the region. Zafer Alajmi, Director of the Gulf Monitoring Group in Kuwait, said Iran’s neighbors understand the Iranians in a way that the United States simply does not and that it is only a matter of time before the Iranians cheat on the deal’s terms and return to ramping up their nuclear program. Murhaf Jouejati from the Emirates Diplomatic Academy in Abu Dhabi drew applause when he claimed that this deal will pave Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb and that the Arab Gulf states must take all the necessary steps to protect themselves from this eventuality.

After many such broadsides against the deal and broader criticism of recent US foreign policy in the region, Frances Townsend, former Homeland Security Advisor to US President George W. Bush, forcefully interjected with the key question – if the Arab Gulf states oppose the nuclear deal, why haven’t they done so publicly?

One participant answered that the Arab Gulf states had simply been “misled.” However, Charlie Ries, Vice President of the RAND Corp., expressed skepticism that this was the true reason given that the Iran nuclear negotiations were among the most transparent in history. An outline of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was formally released this spring, months before the final deal was officially concluded.

Still, there may be something to the “misled” explanation, as no one foresaw some of the shocking last-minute concessions the P5+1 was willing to make to get the deal, including most notably, lifting the UN conventional arms and ballistic missile embargoes against Iran after only five and eight years, respectively. Moreover, in exchange for a commitment to bite their collective tongues, the Obama administration pledged greater support to the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) at a Camp David summit in May, but Washington has not yet followed through on a vast majority of these commitments.

Perhaps the most compelling answer, however, is that the Arab Gulf states were in a tough spot. Despite recent tensions in relations, these states still depend on Washington for their security, the P5+1 was determined to do a deal, and there was very little, if anything, smaller states in the region could do to stop it.

It is not prudent to force a public confrontation with a powerful ally for what is sure to be a losing cause. If the deal is going forward, it’s much better to accept reality and strike the best side bargain one can. In the end, therefore, the Arab Gulf states swallowed their discomfort with the deal and traded it for pledges of greater US support in other areas.

As Alajmi neatly summed up with a rhetorical question, “What choice did we have?”

Matthew Kroenig is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council.

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