While politicians debate a nuclear deal with Iran, one key benefit of the agreement is clear: more wiggle room for President Barack Obama in dealing with embarrassing Gulf allies.
Crackdowns on recent calls for democracy in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have largely been tolerated by the United States because its allies among Gulf Cooperation Council countries have been loyal deterrents against Iran. But the actions of these regimes to promote violent extremism and sectarianism threatens Washington’s long-term interests, increasing polarization in the region and fueling instability in their countries.
Since the framework deal with Iran was announced, President Obama has already become more open in his criticism of the repressive GCC regimes, promising to have a “tough conversation” on their treatment of peaceful dissent. His recent pronouncements that promoting civil society “is in our national interests” directly confronts his GCC allies’ jailing and torturing of civil society leaders.
“Countries that respect human rights — including freedom of association — happen to be our closest partners,” he said. “When these rights are suppressed, it fuels grievances and a sense of injustice that over time can fuel instability or extremism. So I believe America’s support for civil society is a matter of national security.”
A deal with Iran enables Washington to take a stronger line with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other regional allies. As Human Rights First suggested in December 2013, “The Iran threat might not disappear but it might just matter less, taking away a trump card for Bahrain. This in turn could encourage the State Department to take a more vigorous diplomatic approach in pushing for reform in Bahrain.”
With an Iran deal sealed, Bahrain might not feel so confident as to repeat its vilification of the U.S. ambassador in Manama, its kicking out State Department diplomats who meet with the opposition, or its denying U.S. Members of Congress entry to the country.
In the 1970s and 80s apartheid South Africa was able to successfully use its anti-Soviet credentials to shield itself from criticism from Washington, London and other military allies. But time eventually ran out for the racist regime and it collapsed once the Soviet threat was removed. As the U.S. State Department archive records said, “the end of the Cold War brought down white minority rule in Pretoria.”
Although a détente with Tehran might not have such an instantly dramatic effect in the Gulf, the president is rightly seizing the prospect of a thaw with Iran to focus on problems caused by peaceful opposition’s suffocation in the Gulf.
“The biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading,” he said of the GCC states, warning of “populations that, in some cases, are alienated, youth that are underemployed, an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic, and in some cases, just a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances.”
Obama’s promised “tough conversation” is set to happen at Camp David in the coming weeks, and invites to Gulf leaders have gone out. The sands could be shifting in how the United States supports the Gulf states moving forward.
“The status quo is not sustainable,” the president said about the Middle East in May 2011. “Societies held together by fear and repression may offer the illusion of stability for a time, but they are built upon fault lines that will eventually tear asunder. … We cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just.”
Obama seemed to have lost this voice three or four years ago. A deal with Iran could be what helps him find it.