Camp David seems to have gone as well as it could. Expectations were managed beforehand so well that the readout could only be positive. Gulf leaders got the maximum they could achieve, a missile defence system, an annual summit and Carter doctrine 1.5; in return, Obama got tacit support for the nuclear deal.
The overused comparison made between the Iranian nuclear agreement and the historic formal normalisation of relations between the US and China has always seemed odd and not in tune with current administration’s global outlook of ‘don’t do stupid ****’ read (long shots). President Barack Obama’s foreign policy legacy seems to be hinged more on reimagining old and tired medium to small-sized foes as young and reinvigorated allies — Myanmar, Iran and Cuba i.e. new Japans — than on addressing complex challenges e.g. the Israeli-Palestinian issue, US-Russia relations, the stabilisation of Iraq and the Syrian crisis. It is through this lens that we must see the Iran deal — Iran is not China, it is Egypt and Obama is not Richard Nixon. He is Jimmy Carter. He is merely reacting to inter-Iranian calculi just as Carter had little to do with Egypt’s pivot to the US; a strategic security boon for Israel. One can only imagine just how more challenging US policy in the region would have been had Anwar Sadat not joined the western bloc e.g. Libya, Gaza and Sudan just to name a few. So strong was the pivot to the US that it was revolutionary Egypt in 1979 that hosted and eventually buried the Shah, a fellow US ally, who was not only a right-wing monarch, but also the former brother-in-law of the very king that the Egyptian republic had toppled.
This of course does not suggest that Iran is pivoting to the US, but merely that Obama believes it is certainly possible and that he can edge forward. After all, it is the president who professed some recognition of Iran as “strategic,” “not impulsive” and with a “worldview [that sees] their interests, and [responds] to costs and benefits”. The argument here is that Iran is a rational player and that Obama is demonstrating the costs and benefits of a gradual realignment process.
The reality, however, is that Iran does not feel defeated but resilient. Its people will not revolt no matter how much more the sanctions pressed them. They see Syria and understand that it is a trailer to what the regime would be willing to do to preserve itself if its populace would rise up in sustained protest. Moreover, the Gulf recognises that US ally or not, Iran’s gulf policies will not change. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states have had deep and long running disagreements and territorial disputes with Iran prior to its revolution when it was, along with Israel and Turkey, a bulwark against Communism in the region.
Iran’s disputes with the Gulf states have less to do with sectarian ideology and much more to do with power. Historically, Iran has always been an empire that has paid little attention to what it considered a non-strategic backwater. All this changed with the discovery of significant oil reserves in its south at the beginning of the last century. And so it is difficult to imagine how the deal will reform Iranian attitude in the region.
Finally, what is the key lesson here for Saudi Arabia?
Should its civilian nuclear programme pursue the US-UAE 123 agreement, which eschews domestic enrichment coined as the “Gold Standard” by former US president George W. Bush at the time of its signing? Or alternatively, pursue a clandestine programme that has routinely blocked inspections only to be awarded with an agreement that allows it to enrich domestically?
Should Saudi Arabia start financing Iran’s Ahwaz and other Sunni minorities and majorities, in some sort of a break with the US and develop a “strategic ... world view ... [of its] interests” so that global powers can view it more strategically? Has it been too agreeable an ally?
That largely depends on whether Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states attribute this to the current administration or geopolitical tectonics. One thing is for sure, they are definitely shopping for partners and are likely to build a portfolio of issue-specific allies; and if the next US administration’s Middle East policy does not average out the last two presidents’ then we may well see some Gulf states de-peg from American security long before they do from the American dollar.
By Mishaal Al Gergawi
Mishaal Al Gergawi is founder and managing director of the Delma Institute, an interdisciplinary research house.
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