The Camp David Summit between the US and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries on 13 and 14 May set into motion a search between these two sides for new security arrangements in the Gulf in light of the potential regional impact of a forthcoming agreement between Iran and the P5+1 over the Iranian nuclear programme.
The agreement had raised suspicions among Gulf countries of an American shift in favour of Iran and Iranian regional policies at the expense of the Arab states, as a form of political payback to Tehran for signing the agreement. This, naturally, would have precipitated heightened regional tensions after the agreement was signed, especially in light of the lifting of sanctions that would further bolster Iranian policies.
The security and military dimension of the Camp David Summit dominated the talks between Gulf leaders and the US administration that eventually concluded with a compromise on the GCC demand that the US translate its pledge to defend the Gulf into a formal convention on the defence of the Gulf in the manner of NATO. As a result, the US is now committed to “studying” how to put a formal stamp to its oral commitment, which could reproduce the Eisenhower Doctrine that the US applied in the 1960s, establishing that any state in the Middle East had the right to demand economic and military aid from the US if they felt under any threat.
Dimensions of the new US policy towards the Gulf
- To transform GCC-Iranian relations from a state of conflict to a state of peaceful coexistence, in application of Obama’s principle that ending Iran’s isolation and assimilating it into the regional and international communities will diminish its aggressiveness. The coexistence that Obama envisions draws on the notions of the “extraordinary courage” of the Egyptians and Israelis and the “tough decisions” they took in order to achieve the Arab-Israeli peace accord in 1978.
- Neither the US administration nor Congress want to produce a special defence arrangement with the Gulf that would lead to another intensification of US military presence in the region. The Obama administration from the outset had sought to gradually withdraw militarily from the Middle East. In all events, the heavy US presence in the Gulf since the 1990s did not prevent Iran from expanding regionally and enhancing its military capacities.
- Iran, from Washington’s perspective, is not the chief source of threat to Gulf countries. Rather, that resides within those countries themselves. At the same time, Iran without a nuclear weapon will pose much less of a threat to the region than a nuclear Iran whose destabilising actions the international community would find difficult to deter.
- The US administration believes that its Gulf allies should gradually begin to assume responsibility for their security burdens in the framework of US assistance for the development of advanced defence systems that would offset any potential Iranian advances in its capacities.
For example, while the US reduced its presence in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years, it strengthened other crucial facets in defence systems in the Middle East, and these can be gradually reinforced in manners that will reassure Washington’s Gulf allies and deter Iran from breaching the agreement. For example, since 2006, the US has gradually increased its defence systems in the region, deploying more than two battalions of Patriot PAC 2/3 missiles in four countries, two to three Aegis ships at a time in the Gulf, and a number of AN/TYP2 X-band technology radars in Israel, Turkey and Qatar.
At the same time, the US maintains at least one aircraft carrier in the region while deploying F-22 Phantoms is now a routine operation. In addition, US naval forces have worked to enhance their capacities against any Iranian capacities beyond Middle East boundaries.
In the framework of the foregoing principles, the US believes it’s possible to build a strategic defence plan along the following lines:
- Improving security coordination with Gulf countries, helping them strengthen their autonomous defence capacities and promoting optimum integration between such fields as missile defence, maritime security, electronic networks security, border security and anti-ballistic missile defences.
- Intensifying joint antiterrorist efforts with a particular focus on stopping the flow of foreign fighters into the region and the channels for funding terrorism in conflict areas.
- Combatting the evil ideology of Daesh (the Islamic State) and driving its forces back in Iraq and Syria with support from Gulf and other regional partners.
- Collaboration in efforts to resolve the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya.
- Working to reduce the prevailing sectarian tensions that obstruct progress in the region.
- Working together to counter Iranian actions intended to cause instability, including Tehran’s support for terrorist groups.
Gulf concerns regarding the new US strategy
Instead of allaying Gulf fears with regard to Iran, the new US strategy has strengthened them. The GCC countries are therefore determined to enhance their deterrent capacities against Iran, which they believe will exploit the nuclear agreement in order to continue its regional expansion and to enhance its defence and nuclear capacities.
Accordingly, Gulf countries want to build an integrated Gulf defence umbrella, as they believe that Iran will take advantage of the opening provided by the agreement and the lifting of sanctions to forge ahead with its nuclear programme and its ballistic missiles programme. Iran is currently in the process of developing at least two types of advanced missiles: the Sajil and the Saraj. The Gulf countries believe that the 15-year period of the agreement will give it ample time to make progress in these systems.
The US and Gulf outlooks combined
- The US holds the time has come to end the “US-Gulf strategic embrace” and to adopt a more pragmatic approach. It sees itself as a prime exporter of arms to the Gulf now that oil no longer has the greatest priority as a defining factor in the US-Gulf relationship. The GCC countries, for their part, believe there is a credibility gap in the current US administration’s approach to Iran as a whole and not just the Iranian nuclear programme.
- Washington has been trying to market the notion that a non-nuclear Iran is more tractable than a nuclear one and, therefore, that the P5+1 agreement with Iran will promote regional security. The GCC countries do not believe that Iran will abide by the agreement and that it is the chief winner from the Obama policy.
They argue that Iran has already crossed more than one US red line and is now at the threshold of possessing a nuclear weapon. In addition, they say it has extended itself regionally through proxies in four Arab countries without any actions having been taken to penalise it.
The net result of the opposing positions is a more intensive arms race in the region, not only in conventional but also in non-conventional weapons. At least two Gulf countries the UAE and Saudi Arabia are likely to seek a nuclear weapon. Nor will these countries necessarily pursue their military projects within their own borders. In fact, they will adopt the Iranian mode of regional expansion, which is a policy that enjoys the support of other regional powers such as Egypt and Turkey.
What now after Camp David?
- GCC countries will continue to negotiate with the Obama administration or its successor in order to obtain non-conventional joint security arrangements in the Gulf that will offer stronger guarantees against Iran. Their ultimate aim will be to obtain a formal defence pact.
- It is likely that the Gulf countries will simultaneously seek to forge regional alliances against Iran. Accordingly, the project of a joint Arab defence force would gain momentum and benefit from US qualitative weapons assistance.
- Gulf countries, independently or collectively, will also seek to forge new alliances with other Western nations, such as France and Britain. France’s participation in the recent Gulf Security Summit was a sign of moves in this direction.
* This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly.