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The US President visits the Gulf during heightened tension between the United States and Iran. But the latest episode in the Straits of Hormuz only underlines the wariness towards both countries by Gulf Arab States.
President Bush’s January 2008 Middle East tour comes at a time of considerable worry among the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC: Saudi, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman) about the state of US-Iran relations.
At the beginning of December 2007, just as the GCC was opening its doors in Doha to the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, the US’s National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) downgraded the Iranian nuclear weapons threat. In contrast, only a month later, US and Iranian naval forces appeared to come dangerously close to exchanging fire in the Gulf.
Ahmedinejad’s unprecedented address to the GCC summit meeting in Doha proved to be a diplomatic blunder by both Iran and the GCC. The Gulf Arab participants judged the Iranian president arrogant for not mentioning Iran’s nuclear programme or the long-standing dispute with the UAE over three Iranian-held islands in his address to the GCC. Ahmedinejad chose instead to announce mainly rehashed ideas for ‘Persian Gulf’ co-operation, which were received with only the minimum of diplomatic appreciation. Qatar had issued the invite, seemingly with Saudi connivance, and Ahmedinejad chose to use it for political theatre rather than to address GCC concerns.
For Iran, the summit could have provided an opportunity to try to exploit the distance that the Gulf Arabs have sought to put between themselves and US policy by mollifying, not accentuating, their fears. Before Ahmedinejad went to Doha, some conservative Iranian commentators were concerned that the trip could backfire in the hands of the President, but upon his return the media mostly talked it up as a diplomatic victory.
The Gulf Arabs’ reaction to the publication of the NIE at the same time as the Iranian president was addressing the GCC was fear that a downgrading of the US case for 'war war' would mean the upgrading of the case for 'jaw jaw'. While Saudi Arabia has led the way in Gulf Arab engagement with Mr Ahmedinejad and Iran has maintained the ten year plus détente with the Gulf Arabs, the GCC feared that the US was now considering its own détente with Iran that could sidestep the GCC states’ interests. Furthermore, the common ground between the US and the GCC states, that Iran was the cause of many of Iraq’s ills, appeared to be collapsing. The US State Department argued a few days later that Iranian policy was actually reducing attacks on US forces. This made the Gulf Arab states think that the US was preparing for a more significant engagement with Iran than their limited dialogue over Iraq.
The alleged influence of former State Department intelligence officials in the NIE’s ‘re-assessment’ of Iran may have not only been part of a Washington intelligence turf battle to stave off the prospect of war. It may also have been a very political move to push at fissures in the Iranian political class. Ahmedinejad’s political and economic policies are derided by all sides in Iran, but effective opposition to him has hitherto been undermined by his nationalist exploitation of US threats.
However, the US has emphasised that the NIE judgement that Iran abandoned its weapons programme in 2003 does not mean that the Iranian threat has disappeared. US Ambassador to the IAEA Greg Schulte visited a number of GCC countries in December and argued that Iran still had capability ‘to produce enough material for a nuclear weapon between 2010 and 2015 if the leadership chose to build one’. Schulte’s talk to the Gulf Research Center, a Saudi-headed Dubai-based think tank, highlighted US concerns about Iran’s uranium enrichment capabilities, its uranium conversion facilities, and its highly developed missile programme.
On the eve of the US President’s trip to the region, US officials declared that five Iranian Revolutionary Guard Navy boats had sailed close to three US ships in the narrow international waters of the Straits of Hormuz with the transmitted message ‘I am coming at you, you will explode in minutes’. The Iranians dismissed the interaction of the Iranian and US naval craft as little more than normal activity and publicly wondered what all the fuss was about. Western officials who have served in the Gulf note that similar incidents have occurred with less fanfare in the past, but, like the GCC states, stress how the latest incident warns of dangers still at hand.
The outcome of these events is palpable confusion among the Gulf Arab countries about what all of this means for American strategy toward Iran. They also wonder whether Iran will react to the downgrading of the US war option by conducting what the GCC states would regard as a more pragmatic policy in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine or by aggressively exploiting perceived US weakness by perhaps increasingly challenging the US navy in the Gulf.
In relation to the former, Saudi officials concede that Iran has for some time been more willing than Syria to come to a deal with it on the Lebanese presidency and make up of the Lebanese government. Iran apparently encouraged Syria to support the January 2008 Egypt and Saudi authored Arab League plan to select General Suleiman as president and form a government over whose decisions only he would hold a veto.
Saudi Arabia’s assumption of largely malign Syrian intent since the killing of Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri in 2005 means they are not predicting a dramatic breakthrough. However, Syria’s desire for a successful Arab League summit in Damascus in March 2008, possibly with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah attending, could encourage them to adhere to the nascent Lebanese deal. Saudi Arabia had helped secure a US invitation to Syria to attend the Annapolis conference last November, and Hamas, backed by Syria and Iran, has sought to persuade Saudi Arabia to restore its mediation between the Palestinians.
Developments in Lebanon might therefore be a tentative sign that Iran is more inclined to build a bridge with both the Arabs and the US, and avoid the 'Ahmedinejad school' of diplomacy seen in Doha.
The comments in January by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamanei, regarding the right circumstances for restoring relations with the US are a further sign, according to Gulf Arabs, that Iran is not looking for conflict. There may also be the beginnings of a thaw in Egyptian-Iran relations, recently assisted by Khamanei’s representative and Ahmedinejad’s nemesis, Ali Larijani, who travelled to Cairo for talks in early January.
However, Saudi Arabian and other Gulf Arab officials and analysts continue to emphasise the difficulty of knowing which part of the Iranian power structure is driving policy. For them, apparent Iranian provocation in the Straits of Hormuz could be US over-reaction, or an indication that Khamanei does not control an Iranian Revolutionary Guard that reportedly took overall charge of Iranian naval operations in November.
Into this confusion comes an American president conducting his first visit to most of the Gulf Arab states in what is his last year in office. The GCC states are relieved to see that the US Administration’s Iraq strategy has reduced violence, partly thanks to Sunni Arab tribal councils fighting Al-Qa’ida, a policy enjoying the political and financial support of Saudi Arabia and some other GCC states. However, US regional policy is not well regarded by the Gulf Arab states.
Saudi Arabia (and Egypt’s) reluctant attendance at the December 2007 Annapolis summit was based on a desire to encourage US re-engagement in a Middle East peace process. It was not based on any expectation of concrete progress. The Bush visit to the Gulf will see more US pressure on the GCC countries to ‘go the extra mile’ to aid progress between Israel and the Palestinians and to support the Maliki government in Iraq.
Gulf financial support for Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority was underlined at the Paris donors’ summit in December, but the GCC states are highly unlikely to do anything more substantive before they can judge the determination of the next US administration to deliver progress on the ground. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia will not resume mediation in the Fatah-Hamas conflict without US assurances that a role for the latter in the PA would not derail Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. On Iraq, covert Gulf Arab efforts to back Sunni ‘moderates’, which worry the Shia Islamist-dominated government in Baghdad, are unlikely to be balanced by direct Gulf Arab support for Mr Maliki or any likely successor. Talk of re-opening embassies and writing off debt will remain talk until the Saudis and others see substantive Iraqi government moves to address the demands of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. These include the re-entry of senior Sunni Arab officials into the ministries, military, and intelligence services; and a scrapping of a federalist structure seen as risking the collapse of Iraq. The Gulf Arabs do not buy the Bush Administration’s ‘coalition of the moderates’ agenda. They find the idea of Mr Maliki as a potential bulwark against Iran laughable, and anything that suggests normalisation with Israel before its own normalisation with a viable Palestinian state is unconscionable.
The GCC states are more sympathetic to the US President’s message that Iran remains a threat, even though they are increasingly unsure just how much the outgoing US Administration still sees it that way. One well-placed analyst commented privately that an incoming US Administration could take the NIE, together with Khamanei’s message of ‘moderation’ toward Washington, and fashion a ‘package deal’ with Iran. GCC states would welcome a deal that incorporates their needs and reduces what they perceive to be the serious danger of a nuclear weapons-capable Iran. However, in the meantime they will remain wary of both US and Iranian intentions. Ultimately the Gulf Arab states will continue to side with the US, their strategic ally. At the same time they are unwilling to do anything to bolster current US Administration policies regarding Israel-Palestine and support for the Iraqi government that look suspect at best.
Dr Neil Partrick
RUSI Associate Fellow and is based in Dubai.