The Camp David summit last week among the United States and the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states ended with a fluffy communiqué whose mutual courtesies revealed no significant changes in either side’s positions. The troubling and ironic aspect of this event is that both sides were fixated on new security and military measures to address insecurities in the region — many of which exacerbated and some created by their own military policies and distorted threat perceptions.
Threats to regional stability emanating from the Palestinian territories and Israel and from Iran, Syria, Libya, Yemen and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) can be linked to, among other factors, policies that the U.S. and GCC states have jointly pursued in the last quarter-century, starting from the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s. In that eight-year conflict, which Iraq unleashed against Iran in September 1980, the U.S. and the GCC actively assisted Iraq’s war effort. That and other incidents set the stage for the ensuing decades of mistrust and enmity. That Iran was virtually present at Camp David as the common villain to be confronted was a culmination of that history.
Militarism cannot resolve political disputes; it only exacerbates threats. The mighty United States, perhaps the greatest military power in world history, finally recognized the futility of military means as the main tool of its interaction with Iran. So two years ago President Barack Obama wisely stopped threatening to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, ended talk of regime change in Tehran, accepted Iran’s right to enrich uranium for verifiably peaceful purposes and entered into serious negotiations that seem likely to succeed.
With this background, the GCC states’ demand of massive U.S. military support appears tone deaf. They want advanced equipment, training, supplies, coordination and strategic planning as a means to fend off Iran’s alleged hegemonic ambitions, at a time when the U.S. has sheathed its sword in favor of diplomacy. Negotiations with Iran will likely reach a firm agreement in six weeks that will steadily remove sanctions. This result would enable Iran to resume its natural, 4,000-year-old role as a major regional power with extensive trade, investment, security and political relations with many neighbors and allies.
Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states are guided by genuine fear of Iran’s alleged regional hegemonic ambitions and its meddling in the internal affairs of several Arab neighbors. They see this most clearly in Iran’s relations with Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Hezbollah and the Houthi-based Ansar Allah movement in Yemen. The dilemma for the GCC is that many people in the region and abroad do not take their accusations or fears of Iran seriously, for two reasons.
First, Saudi Arabia and other GCC states have used the same political, religious, sectarian, economic and military tools to further their own interests across the Middle East, in Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. In most of those places where Saudi- and Iranian-backed parties clashed, the Iranian allies prevailed.
Second, there is no credible proof for these accusations of Iran’s regional predatory aims, despite the intensity of these fears in the minds of GCC leaders and their citizens. What the Saudis see as a threat from Tehran most other seasoned political analysts outside the GCC region see as normal behavior by a major regional power to cement close relations with allies and friends. The real problem the Saudis suffer, perhaps, is that the Iranians have proved much more competent than their Arab neighbors at conducting regional and global statecraft and diplomacy.
This is evident in the glaring contrast in the nature and results of two parallel diplomatic events taking place these days: Iran’s negotiations with the U.S.-led P5+1 powers and the Saudi-led GCC discussions with the United States. In the first, Iran seems likely to win critical policy changes on enrichment, regime-change threats and sanctions. In the second, the U.S. rejected Arab calls for a mutual defense pact with the GCC, entailing extension of the U.S. nuclear shield to cover GCC nations and delivery of America’s most advanced fighter jets. Instead, Washington offered the GCC heartfelt renewed pledges and slight enhancements in essentially the same commitment to strong security cooperation that has been in place since Jimmy Carter’s administration nearly 40 years ago. That American commitment to the security of the GCC states is best exemplified by the presence of major U.S. naval and air bases in Bahrain and Qatar and numerous smaller U.S. military facilities and presences around the region. Iran in its negotiations has achieved a significant change in its relations with the U.S. By contrast, the Arab GCC states achieved only reiterated U.S. positions, bolstered by several Arab Gulf media interviews with Obama.
The larger dilemma that the U.S. and GCC parties suffer, however, is that many of the genuine security threats in the region have been created or enhanced by their own policies. Those problems they fear include extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIL, popular mainstream Muslim Brotherhood movements, militant national resistance groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, autocratic police states such as Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and millions of disgruntled, unemployed, hopeless young men and women living in top-heavy security states such as Egypt and Algeria. These problems have been heavily stoked by U.S. or GCC state policies, which fostered hard-line Wahhabi Islamic religious doctrines, supported Arab autocrats, crushed Arab popular democratic movements, hastened the birth of anti-Israeli resistance movements such as Hamas and Hezbollah to counter U.S. support for Israel and created conditions of chaos and ungoverned areas in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, which allowed Al-Qaeda to enter the scene and then for ISIL to be born. The Saudi-led and American-assisted war in Yemen is likely to further exacerbate threats emanating from Al-Qaeda and ISIL, along with refugee flows and mass discontent among ordinary Yemenis — without forcing much change in the status of Ansar Allah inside Yemen. Diplomacy in Syria and Yemen is also likely to expand rather than diminish Iran’s participation in resolving these conflicts.
In retrospect, the main lesson to be learned from the Camp David meeting may be that military actions around the Middle East to address political issues have consistently failed, including those conducted by the U.S. or GCC states. They always made conditions much worse by inadvertently but nevertheless actually fostering takfiri terrorist movements such as ISIL, weakening central governments, destabilizing and fragmenting long-established states and promoting disruptive massive refugee flows.
The sole silver lining from Camp David is that Washington may have started to learn these lessons and in its relations with Iran and the GCC is leaning toward muscular but rational diplomacy rather than war. One hopes that the GCC will undergo the same process of maturation through failed militarism and engage with Iran and other regional powers with the aim of enhancing cooperation and mutual security by identifying interlocking interests.