Arab Gulf states need to present a united front on Iran
As expected, new US President Joe Biden appears set on going back to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with Iran. All the talk of including US allies such as Israel and the Arab Gulf states in any negotiations, requiring Iran to roll back on its enrichment, or the prompt and shy “no” that was Biden’s reply when asked if he would lift sanctions, does not seem to have amounted to anything.
The US wants to return to the deal as soon as possible. Last Thursday, Biden rescinded the Trump administration’s attempt to restore UN sanctions on Iran. Meanwhile, there has been an invitation by European partners to discuss re-entry into the JCPOA, which can be seen as a face-saving mechanism to avoid a “you go first” scenario between Iran and the US. However, what is the Arab Gulf position on this?
Barack Obama did not include Gulf countries in the initial JCPOA negotiations with Iran, as he did not want to add another layer of complications to an already complex matter. Biden will probably follow suit. He would not want to give any US allies veto power over the deal. The Gulf is still waiting for the courtesy call Biden has yet to make. His reluctance to engage is supposed to send a clear message: US policy will be crafted mainly to suit America’s strategic objectives and interests, not those of the Gulf.
This was expressed in an article written by Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, who is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in Foreign Affairs magazine last week. He wrote that the Carter Doctrine, which states that the US should use force to protect the Gulf and its oil wells, no longer applies and America should change its policies toward the Gulf nations, putting its own interests above theirs. In the case of Iran, the main US objective is to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
There is still no cohesive and coherent Gulf policy toward Iran that can be sustained.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
And, as the Biden administration is likely to repeat Obama’s mistakes, so the Gulf states are likely to repeat theirs. I once asked a contact of mine who worked for the Obama administration why the US did not consult with the Gulf when it entered the JCPOA. His reply was: “Do they know what they want?” He explained that these states never came up with a clear, unified position. Before the deal, they did not want the US to engage with Iran, but at the same time they did not advocate a military strike that might have repercussions for them. Nevertheless, the US wanted to close the nuclear file. My contact might have been exaggerating and trying to throw the blame on to the Gulf, but there is still no cohesive and coherent Gulf policy toward Iran that can be sustained. The region’s policies have been more a set of uncoordinated, knee-jerk reactions to Iran’s strategic deployment of its own policies.
At the time of the Obama administration, Iran had been emboldened by what it perceived as a US endorsement, especially when the president famously called on Saudi Arabia to “share” the region with Iran. On top of that, the release of funds as a result of the JCPOA gave Iran the means to finance its operations across the region. The US attitude of ignoring and even snubbing the Gulf while appeasing and even courting Iran made the Gulf states nervous, putting them on the defensive. They responded to Iran’s adventurism by supporting groups on the opposing side. This was done in a chaotic manner and as a result emboldened Iran. The deal that was supposed to bring stability to the region had exactly the opposite effect.
Not taking Iran’s proxies into account rendered the JCPOA vulnerable and unsustainable. US allies rejected it, many inside America criticized it, and Donald Trump reneged on it. This scenario is at risk of repeating itself unless a more in-depth approach is adopted by both the US and Gulf countries. However, the Gulf states need to help themselves if they want the US to help them. The first step is to put their own house in order.
The Gulf has not been on the same page when it comes to conflicts in the region. The Yemen conflict has been exacerbated by the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s diverging policies. In Libya, since the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, the UAE and Qatar have been supporting different sides. Syria is not so different, with the various Gulf countries supporting different groups and even creating competing platforms for the opposition. To add to that, despite the ending of the Qatar blockade, the UAE and Bahrain still have reservations regarding Doha. All these issues should be streamlined and solved immediately. Everyone should be on the same page regarding the region in order to present a comprehensive initiative to Iran and to engage with the US as a proper partner that has a concrete and executable offering.
It is now time for the Arab Gulf to come together. It is also time to change the previous attitude, whereby each country sought to have preferential relations with the US over other Gulf countries. This mentality will lead nowhere. They need to start thinking, planning and acting with a united front, otherwise they will miss the boat and get nothing out of the Biden administration.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II. She is also an affiliate scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.