Embracing a New Status Quo

Obama greeting members of the Saudi delegation in 2009 (Photo: Zamanalsamt/Flickr)

At the ongoing Manama dialogue, the US has continued its charm offensive to reassure the regimes of the Arab Gulf. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel reiterated on Saturday that the US would maintain its current force posture in the region despite an Iran nuclear deal. Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks have reflected a similar concern: That in concluding a preliminary agreement with Iran, America’s Gulf alliances may be in danger.

US-Gulf relations are critical for stability, energy resources, investment, and other key US interests in the Middle East. The flurry of analysis in the Western press has been unanimous in emphasizing the need to reassure America’s Gulf allies.  However, while these analyses are well reasoned, they overlook three important political conditions in the region. While strengthening alliances is always helpful, the US should not be so worried that balancing Iran will limit severely its efficacy among Arab states in the Gulf. There are three reasons this is the case.

First, Gulf states want to balance Iran out of self-interest, and would do so even if the US did not. Iran represents a substantial threat to the Gulf states. Iranian influence has stirred deep disunity and mistrust in the societies of the Arab Gulf. Its involvement in Syria destabilizes the entire region and sews policy disagreements between states actively funding the Syrian rebels and those who advocate a more passive approach. Finally, the majority Sunni Arab Gulf states deeply mistrust Iran’s Shi’a leadership. US support for these regimes is important materially, but it merely augments existing attitudes in the Gulf towards Iran.

Second, the Iran deal makes Gulf states safer. To some extent, America’s challenge is not one of policy but rather of framing. Because of the security dilemma, a deal with Iran de facto reduces the strength of the US alliance with the Gulf. However, the long-term impact of the deal is the best outcome for Gulf states given the alternative.  Perhaps this is why some of them aided the US and Iran in reaching a deal. A lack of a deal would have meant continued and increasing uncertainty at a time when investment in the region has reached a critical mass. At worst, it would have meant entanglement in a regional military conflict - a much more expensive and dangerous outcome than a preliminary deal. The US can and should emphasize that supporting Gulf regimes while opening a preliminary channel with Iran for the first time in over 30 years are not mutually exclusive policies.

Third, in gaining credibility with Gulf regimes, America is losing credibility with Gulf people. The wave of uprisings in the Arab world in 2011 was a sharp wake-up call for the United States. Even in states which saw little to no protest (including most Gulf states), the balance between citizens and governments has tipped towards the former. The US has begun to take important steps to increase its credibility with this wary and skeptical Arab public. However, the way that the US is reassuring Gulf regimes only augments the United States lack of moral credibility in the Arab world. Citizens and non-citizens alike are deeply concerned by America’s granting of military aid to regimes which only a few years prior turned that aid against their own people. This frustration is compounded when this copious aid goes to Gulf regimes but not the Syrian opposition, fighting a regime which has killed over 120,000 people. Internal unrest should not be a reason for the US to abandon its critical Gulf alliances. However, America would do well to communicate that the grievances of the Arab public in these states are taken seriously.

Recent US policy in the Middle East has been uncertain, and not for reasons entirely within America’s control. However, there is a difference between decisiveness and merely perpetuating a bygone status quo. With a set of regimes deeply mistrusting of Iran, US leadership to reduce the Iranian threat, and an Arab public expecting more of the United States, America should embrace the new status quo a preliminary nuclear deal has created in the region. It is a positive development that ultimately strengthens America’s allies in the Gulf and lays the groundwork for a more stable, safe, and prosperous region.


The anonymous author is conducting academic research in the Arab Gulf.