Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1246, (14 - 20 May 2015)
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1246, (14 - 20 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Where is the Arab strategy on Iran?

GCC leaders meeting Barack Obama are there to make demands. Such is the result of the absence of an Arab strategy on Iran or regional developments, writes Ibrahim Nawar

Al-Ahram Weekly

The US-GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) Summit in Camp David that started yesterday is a very strong sign that our part of the world is far from secure. GCC leaders are seeking help from the United States against a nuclear Iran.

US President Barack Obama stated very recently that threats to GCC security are coming from within, not without. That was a message, not just a political statement. Go tidy up own house up first, Obama was seemingly telling his guests whom he is meeting now in Camp David.

Internal threats to national security are more dangerous and more difficult to avert than threats from outside. In the case of facing a double threat, from within and from without at the same time, the country or the region in question should pull up all loose strings, address points of weakness and push its way through internal changes or reforms before turning to friends seeking help.

But President Obama and his administration seem to have failed to understand the political logic behind recent political changes in Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, in the case of Yemen, neither he nor any Saudi or GCC friends in the West were consulted prior to Operation Decisive Storm.

Arab Gulf States are worried that Iran may attack them. They (with the exception of Oman) have seen Iran as a primary threat since the fall of the Shah. Now, with the proposed nuclear deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1), Iran will practically have the international legitimacy it needs in order to carry on developing its own (peaceful) nuclear programme.

Having agreed on the framework, the final deal may be signed at the end of June. Practically speaking, this will give Iran the means and the time to continue its nuclear programme to reach a point that is 12 months short of becoming able to produce a nuclear weapon. In all cases, the decision to do so is purely political, not technical.

Although the deal is now closer than any time before, one has to state that P5+1 members are not in consensus on its details. France is taking a harder line compared to the US, while in the US itself the US Congress is clearly in disagreement with the White House.

In that context, GCC leaders have no way to influence the outcome of the deal between Iran and the international community. All they need is a clear commitment to be protected against Iranian threats, which are visible to them from Iraq to Yemen.

Not only has the GCC region lacked an adequate defence system, so has the whole area stretching from North Africa to the East Mediterranean. Since the British withdrawal from East Suez in 1971, the area failed to create a common defence system.

During the 1950s, the rise of Arab nationalism helped liberation movements from Algeria to South Yemen against old colonial powers. In the 1960s, the Arab world was sharply divided between the “progressive” camp led by Egypt and the “regressive” camp led by Saudi Arabia, the five-year war in Yemen (1962-1967) representing the peak of the Arab Cold War.

Following its withdrawal from Yemen, the Egyptian army was soon in its third war against Israel (1948, 1956 and 1967). After the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, the Arab world was divided again. Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia were strongly jockeying for position and leadership. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was the turning point that put an end to “Arabism”.

The war to liberate Kuwait marked the beginning of reliance on direct US military engagement in the region. Operation Desert Storm inaugurated a new era of Arab history, handing over leadership of the area to Washington. Since then and until now the US is the true leader of the Middle East.

And here we are again! As the US is the leading power in the Middle East, with two naval fleets, a huge air force base and weapons depot in Qatar (Odaid) and about a dozen military, naval and air force bases in Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia, the Pentagon and the White House can coordinate strategies and policies to keep conflicts in the area under control.

Three red lines are not to be crossed by any party to any conflict in the area. These are the security of Israel, the undisrupted flow of oil to the world market and the non-proliferation of terrorism. The White House and the Pentagon may be drawn to compromise on issues other than these three.

Now, in Camp David, the offer on the table for GCC leaders includes security assurances, more and deeper joint military exercise programmes and extensive sales of weapons. More importantly, the Pentagon may be able to — and I think will — develop an anti-missile defence system (similar to the Israeli Iron Dome) for the GCC countries alongside US security assurances.

Such a defence system should include early-warning radar systems covering air, sea and land, training of elite forces able to move swiftly and capable of protecting borders, intelligence gathering and sharing, and joint military coordination at the highest level.

Sales of weapons to GCC states will increase, especially high-tech military machines, including advanced fighters. Last year, Saudi Arabia alone spent about $80 billion in fresh contracts to buy weapons, according to SIPRI.

The offer on the table may be drafted in a security document, common or bilateral. However, this is not what GCC leaders are hoping for. They need guarantees, perhaps a common security pact with the US, in order to feel safe and secure. The facts now in Washington are playing against that.

There is a consensus in Washington that America should not commit itself to any security pact with GCC countries, despite the strategic importance of the region. Furthermore, the US administration would not give any security assurances without agreeing with its partners on their “obligations”.

One very important condition, I think, would be to remove any doubt of any of them owning a nuclear weapon. An arms race in the region following the nuclear deal with Iran is a major concern that worries the US administration.

Responding to GCC fears, theoretically there may be many options or alternatives. The most effective one, and perhaps the best from the GCC point of view, is for the two parties to set up a bilateral security pact, or perhaps through NATO, the only credible security pact on earth so far. The NATO option is almost impossible to be established on the basis of Article 5 (any attack on one member is an attack on all), but it may be possible for all parties to hammer out an agreement loosely based on Article 5.

The other alternative could be a treaty similar to the one between the US and Taiwan, which also will need to be passed and ratified by the US Congress. The Americans have asked GCC leaders to come up with creative ideas in that respect. I doubt very much that they have done so.

That will leave us with the conclusion that the most practical alternative is the one on the table right now AT Camp David. In order to further the offer, Washington should forward some security guarantees, in a document, and stipulate its commitment to the security of Arab Gulf States.

The US offer to GCC leaders will not come without strings attached. There is no free lunch in international relations. As Obama made clear, GCC countries are responsible for dealing with internal threats to their national security. Comprehensive reform is needed in these countries to create democratic open political systems, to achieve good governance, fight discrimination and allow oil to flow in a free market in order to satisfy the needs of global economic growth.

In my view, the aim of US foreign policy towards the Middle East in general, and the GCC in particular, is to fully integrate this part of the world in a global system led by the US and its allies. Since the US is engaged in almost all viable and strong regional, multilateral and bilateral agreements around the world, it is also eager to include the Middle East in what can become part of a “global political value chain” stretching from the Americas through the Atlantic to Europe, the Mediterranean, the Arab Gulf, Horn of Africa, South and East Asia, Australia and Japan.

Such a global political chain would be strongly connected if it includes the Middle East with its strategic location and its vast and abundant resources of energy. Meanwhile, US strategy towards the Gulf will have to adjust according to new realities in the region following the nuclear deal with Iran.

Washington think tanks, foreign affairs officials and security advisors are working hard to ensure that the “new chapter” of US-Iran relations will not jeopardise America’s traditional alliances in the region, especially with Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. One approach they are using in regard to the Gulf area is to revisit the US “Twin Pillars Strategy” that was in effect prior to the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Until then, US foreign policy relied heavily on cooperation and friendship with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. One huge barrier against such a strategy now is the bitter rivalry and conflict between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Persia.

The fact that the US has effectively helped Iran to bring its troops into Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein and then withdrew, leaving unprecedented Iranian influence behind, does not help powers in the region trust American regional policy.

Moreover, any agreement between GCC leaders and Obama short of nuclear guarantees will not help improve trust and confidence. In the streets of Arabia, people are waiting to see if and how Washington will offer a helping hand in times of crisis.

Yemen, though, is the hottest issue on the agenda. The war has claimed thousands of lives, wreaked huge destruction and created an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. A lack of food, fuel and medicine is bringing life in Yemen to a halt. Not only in Aden, but also in many other cities and governorates, including the capital Sanaa, people are suffering.

Yemenis are sharply divided between Houthi loyalists and anti-Houthi resistance; hundreds of thousands of Yemenis have nowhere to go from war and death. The conflict in Yemen is not a stand-alone issue as it is well connected with conflicts elsewhere in the East Mediterranean, mainly in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, where Iran is aggressively pushing its way through what the Iranian foreign minister called “the wider Persian Gulf region.”

Iran has offered to cooperate with the US regarding regional policies in the Middle East, but the offer that went directly to Washington did not reach Riyadh or any other GCC capital. That makes it unacceptable, unless it is re-presented in an appropriate manner to Arab Gulf powers.

It seems that US policymakers are deeply convinced that Iran is capable of playing a positive role in the Middle East, accelerating the pace of regime change in the region. One more very important reason playing in favour of Iran is the desire of the US to end Russian influence from South and Central Asia. Just as Washington succeeded in driving the Soviets out of Egypt about 35 years ago, US policymakers strongly believe they can do the same thing again in Iran.

Washington will have to create much better relations with Iran and develop closer cooperation and friendship with its people and leadership. That is why Obama will not dare to anger Tehran, even if that upsets his GCC guests, who are discussing with him security guarantees against Tehran.

In the end, Arabs generally don’t have a strategy to deal with Iran. They are vulnerable and exposed.

The writer is chairman of the Arab Organisation for Freedom of the Press.

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