One key sentence in President Barack Obama’s press conference at Camp David last week clearly illustrates the gulf between Washington and its allies on the Arabian Peninsula when it comes to Iran.
“We gave [our allies] our best analysis of the enormous needs that Iran has internally and the commitment that Iran has made to its people in terms of shoring up its economy and improving economic growth,” said President Obama, when asked about concerns that Iran would use the money from sanctions relief for nefarious aims in the region.
He added that “most of the destabilising activity that Iran engages in is low-tech, low-cost activity”.
It was just as well that Mr Obama gave the press conference on his own. The Gulf leaders had just departed after a full day of talks at the Maryland retreat or they would have had a hard time resisting a collective eye roll at what they perceive to be American naivety about Tehran.
As it pursues a nuclear deal with Iran, Washington has been trying hard not to adhere to the positions, fears and sometimes paranoia of Arab countries vis-a-vis Iran.
At Camp David, the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council received assurances that Washington had their backs, with pledges about more military cooperation and hardware. But nothing can bridge what are essentially opposing world views.
Gulf Cooperation Council
- Six members: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain
- Formed in May 1981 against the backdrop of the Islamic revolution in Iran and the Iraq-Iran war
- Security is a major issue for the GCC, but finding a collective formula that satisfies all member states is a challenge
Riyadh has accepted that there is little it can do about stopping a nuclear deal, but it’s gearing up to push back more forcefully against its arch-nemesis, as Tehran boasts of a new Persian empire with influence over four capitals: Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus and Sanaa.
Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Saad Hariri was scathing on a recent visit to Washington about the administration’s assertion that the money from the sanctions relief would go to “building bridges and roads”.
It’s estimated that after a deal is reached and Iran is verifiably in compliance, Tehran would get access to at least $100bn (£64bn).
“I want to know how much of this money is going to Hezbollah,” said Mr Hariri, whose political camp is staunchly opposed to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militant group backed by Iran, which has been fighting in Syria to help prop up President Bashar al-Assad.
A UN official also recently estimated that Iran had been channelling as much as $35bn a year into Syria since the conflict started.
Earlier this month, Syria and Iran were discussing a $1bn credit line to help Mr Assad’s government, the second credit line since 2013.
Arab countries don’t see Iran’s efforts to expand its regional influence as a low-cost operation, though it could perhaps be characterised as low-tech.
When it comes to a military edge, Saudi Arabia is billions of dollars ahead of Iran.
Riyadh is now trying to deploy its hardware in the face of Iran’s asymmetric warfare and is looking beyond Yemen.
A senior Saudi Arabian official told me they were deeply concerned about the cash injection Iran would get after a nuclear deal.
When I asked him whether they were planning to make a move on Syria before a deal is reached, his response was a surprisingly forceful “Yes”.
Channelling his Saudi Arabian allies, Mr Hariri indicated that while replicating the Saudi military operation in Yemen was not an option in Syria, the kingdom had come to accept that the only way to get Washington more involved in the effort to push President Assad out was to take the initiative and hope the US followed.
After years of disconnected policies, Saudi Arabia is now working with Qatar, Turkey and Jordan to better coordinate their support for the rebels opposing President Assad, and this has quickly translated into significant gains on the ground in recent weeks.
The strategy is likely to tip the balance of power on the battlefield enough that Iran will agree to a political negotiation and push Mr Assad out.
Exerting real leverage on Damascus would require further action, and Washington has made clear it is opposed to an outright win by the Syrian rebels.
But it’s unlikely anyone can micromanage advances on the ground – or that the Saudi Arabia has much patience left for Mr Obama’s approach.
Just as the American president’s pursuit of a deal with Iran upset the status quo that has prevailed in the region for the past three decades, Saudi Arabia’s decision to go to war caused a further tectonic shift.
Saudi Arabia has never really gone to war in this way, and the jury is still out on how it is managing.
Former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel described it as bordering on drink-driving.
But it’s clear that Riyadh is test driving its ability to lead military coalitions and wants to be the new military power of the region.
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