It is one of the risks of longstanding friendships that one side can take the other for granted. Saudi Arabia has been a loyal and constant ally of the United States. However, the Kingdom prefers to work quietly in matters of foreign affairs. It is not interested in megaphone diplomacy. Thus, there have been times when Washington has assumed too much.
The Iranian nuclear talks have been a case in point. Revanchist Iran is desperate for an end to crippling economic and financial sanctions. President Barack Obama is hardly less desperate for a foreign policy win. The Americans led on the imposition of sanctions. Now they are leading on the talks to persuade Iran to comply with its inspection obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Washington believes that a deal is tantalizingly near. The Obama administration seems mesmerized. It wants to believe that an agreement with Iran will stop further development of its nuclear weapons program. It wants to believe that Iran will stick to what it signs, even though this whole imbroglio has come about precisely because Iran has not honored its past pledges.
The White House’s key error has been to become fixated on a single outcome. By so doing it has failed to embrace the wider implications of an unsanctioned Iran reasserting itself in the region. It has also taken for granted the approval and support of Saudi Arabia and its fellow members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. It has also clearly chosen to ignore a great deal of quiet advice passed on by the Kingdom.
Iran is bent on interfering in the Arab world. It has sustained Basher Assad’s regime in Syria. It has been instrumental in perpetuating the political chaos and sectarian divisions in Iraq. It has fostered the terrorist organization Hezbollah in Lebanon. It has fomented unrest in Bahrain and in Eastern Province. But still the Obama White House proceeded in search of the elusive nuclear deal and did not seek a wider agreement.
Then came Iran’s backing of the Houthi rebels in Yemen. This was Obama’s wake-up call. As he had been warned consistently by his Saudi ally, Tehran was dealing from the bottom of the pack. Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman acted immediately and decisively to stem the Houthi advance and frustrate Tehran’s latest piece of devilment.
Saudi support for the Yemeni government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in turn produced rapid support from Washington. It also appears to have brought the Americans to their senses. Obama had been taking his friends in the GCC for granted. Last week’s summit at Camp David was an overdue consultation. But however late, it was a welcome opportunity for the president to listen to the views of the Kingdom and its five fellow Gulf states.
Obama made a point of recognizing that the GCC represented regional security. He also clearly accepted that Washington should be “moving together” with the GCC. This was a belated recognition by the president that US policy toward Iran had gotten out of step with its Gulf allies.
There can be no doubt that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Naif, who led the Saudi delegation at Camp David, drove home the message that any settlement with Iran should have a wider compass than merely its nuclear program. He made it clear that the Kingdom and its Gulf friends are no longer in the mood to put up with further interference from Iran. Yemen was the last straw.
Obama said after the talks that a nuclear-armed Iran would be potentially reckless and dangerous. He might have added the word “more” to “reckless and dangerous”.
The president has confirmed that in the coming weeks there will be further meetings. These will look at security and defense systems and early warning technology. It would seem to be a measure of the seriousness with which he is finally taking the Saudi-led concerns about Iran’s good faith, that he himself will be chairing the joint committees agreed at Camp David.
A further outcome of this important meeting was that Washington is finally including the GCC in the nuclear treaty talks. Obama explained the heads of agreement with Tehran. He has undertaken to consult on the final details, as and when they are hammered out.
On the face of it, the Camp David meeting was a tacit admission that the Obama administration had got it wrong. It should have included the Kingdom and the rest of the GCC in the nuclear talks process from the outset. It made the error of taking its friends for granted.