Congress returns from summer recess next week, bringing with it enough votes in the Senate to ensure President Obama a win on the nuclear deal with Iran, his signature foreign-policy achievement. The outcome suggests the President’s principal argument — that a negotiated settlement on Iran’s nuclear weapons program is preferable to the alternative — has resonated with key members of Congress.
Yet the irony is that while Administration officials trumpet the nuclear deal as a triumph of soft power (diplomacy and reasoned negotiation) over hard power (military attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities), Washington’s efforts to assure anxious Arab allies in the wake of the deal seem remarkably focused on reinforcing their capacity to engage Iran militarily.
Listen to Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks following his Aug. 3 meetings with Gulf foreign ministers in Qatar. He sounded more like a senior Pentagon official than America’s chief diplomat: “We agreed to expedite certain arms sales . . . to engage in very specific training to upgrade military capacity in the region . . . to talk about how to integrate the region’s ballistic missile defense.”
All of which is understandable, given the deep-seated suspicion with which Arab Gulf states view the prospect of a resurgent, emboldened, and well-funded Iran. They fear the financial windfall Iran will realize as economic sanctions are lifted will fuel its support for the Assad regime in Syria, terrorist groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, and insurgent movements like the Houthis in Yemen. So yes, strengthening the existing network of regional military cooperation is important, but so is encouraging the creation of a mechanism that might avert military confrontations.
Additionally, Washington must take care that it doesn’t inadvertently stoke worries in Tehran that the point of the nuclear deal is to first disarm, and then topple the regime. According to Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, this is the principal concern among Iranian hard-liners. Speaking in Washington earlier this summer, Tabaar asserted that Iranian conservatives are as unhappy with the nuclear deal as their Arab neighbors, albeit for a different reason.
To his credit, President Obama has spoken of the need for Arab Gulf states and Iran to initiate a regional dialogue. In a New York Times interview, he took pains simultaneously to reassure Gulf allies of America’s unshakable commitment to their security, while gently chiding them for their reluctance to come to grips with a changing political landscape. “Our best chance, at least of reducing the scope of those (regional) conflicts, is for the Saudis and other Sunni states or Arab states to be at least in a practical conversation with Iran that says, ‘the conflict we are fanning right now could engulf us all in flames,’ ” Obama said.
What this “practical conversation” might sound like is a subject worthy of discussion. Iran’s foreign minister already has stated that his government “is ready to engage in good faith” with regional neighbors, a message he carried to Arab Gulf capitals recently. Tehran reportedly is also proposing a meeting with Gulf foreign ministers in New York later this month, although most Gulf states will find this whirlwind courtship a bit much. They’re convinced the Iranians will be only too happy to sit and talk, even as their destabilizing behavior in the region continues unabated.
Two German scholars have suggested a Gulf version of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which 40 years later still plays an important role in mediating conflicts, such as the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Writing in a recent publication of the German think tank Bertelsmann Stiftung, Christian-P. Hanelt and Christian Koch advanced the idea of a CSCE-style negotiating framework for the Gulf. While relations between Iran and its Gulf neighbors would be at the top of the agenda, they wrote, this overarching political dialogue would be complemented by negotiations on specific issues that can contribute to confidence building among the participants.
If such a plan is to succeed, it will require the international community to play an important role as convener and moderator. It might be that the P5+1 framework could be enlarged to include Gulf states and recast as a process that focuses on regional issues that were consciously excluded during the discussion of Iran’s nuclear program.
The value of such a negotiation seems obvious, particularly as Gulf states are forced to seek a modus vivendi with their traditional regional rival, Iran. Even absent a nuclear agreement, it’s hard to argue the value of having an established vehicle for face-to-face discussion, particularly given the deep skepticism with which Arab Gulf states view Tehran’s intentions, and Iranian regime concerns that its neighbors in the region are conspiring with the United States to hasten its end.
Iran claims it is ready for such a forum. The challenge for the Obama administration and the international community is to persuade our Gulf partners that it’s an idea worth embracing.
Stephen A. Seche is a former US ambassador to Yemen and executive vice president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, D.C.