Easing Gulf Arab Concerns about Biden’s Iran Diplomacy
The fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is unknown. Yet there are good reasons to believe that the P5+1 and Iran will fail to reconstitute the landmark accord which was designed to freeze Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for an unfreezing of Iran’s ties to the global economy. A major factor is Iran’s inability to have any confidence whatsoever in Washington’s commitment to remaining in compliance with a revived JCPOA. Nonetheless, nuclear negotiations are set to resume later month in Austria and the Biden administration wants to assuage some concerns in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) about the US “abandoning” its Arab partners.
On November 17, the US and all six GCC member-states convened in the Saudi capital for their first Working Group on Iran. While in Riyadh, the Working Group addressed shared perceptions of threats to stability in the Middle East. Washington and its partners on the Arabian Peninsula condemned “aggressive and dangerous Iranian policies”. The media note released by the US State Department stated that “Iran or its proxies” have used ballistic missiles and drones in “hundreds of attacks against civilians and critical infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and civilian merchant seamen in international waters of the Sea of Oman, and endangered American troops combatting ISIS.”
Washington and its Gulf partners agreed that “Iran’s nuclear program is of grave concern, as Iran has taken steps for which it has no civilian need but that would be important to a nuclear weapons program”. The seven countries participating in this formalized dialogue also demanded that Tehran fully comply with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
It was indeed significant how all six Gulf Arab states came together in this framework, especially when one considers the extent to which the GCC members have always lacked any consensus towards Iran with each of these Arab monarchies having unique perspectives on the threat posed by the regime in Tehran.
“I think that [states on the Arabian Peninsula] support diplomacy with Iran because any potential conflict in the region will be detrimental to the security of all [in the GCC],” said Sina Azodi, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, in an interview with Newslooks. “At the same time, [some GCC members] fear that a rapprochement between Iran and the US will come at their cost.”
Washington is concerned about how its Gulf partners perceive major shifts in US foreign policy at a time in which there is a relative decline in American hegemony. This is particularly so against the backdrop of the botched US withdrawal from Afghanistan earlier this year. The White House does not want to see GCC states move closer to rival powers such as China or Russia due to perceptions that the US ceases to stand by them in the face of regional threats.
Assuaging Concerns in the Gulf
When President Joe Biden was Vice President, the US dealt with Tehran in ways which unsettled some of Washington’s GCC partners. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain were especially worried about Washington leaving them behind in pursuit of an American-Iranian rapprochement. As Commander-in-Chief, Biden would like to avoid some of those approaches which significantly damaged the health of US-GCC relations.
“This is largely a US attempt to reassure GCC allies that even as they consider offering Iran an interim deal, they remain committed to GCC security,” Ryan Bohl, a Middle East analyst at risk consultancy Stratfor/Rane, told Newslooks. “Given that the US is in a restrained regional posture favoring withdrawal, Washington does not want GCC allies believing this is the same as abandoning them.”
The US and its partners in the Gulf are engaged in this formalized dialogue “to discuss and align position on Iranian policies,” explained Mohammed Soliman, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “It is also a message of confidence to the Gulf that the United States considers the security of the Gulf partners while making strategic decisions about the region.”
There is no denying that officials in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi share concerns about the implications of Biden possibly easing the pressure on Iran which the US built up under Trump. Yet these two Arab capitals understand that if not even Israel can prevent the US administration from entering a seventh round of JCPOA negotiations with Tehran in Vienna, there is no reason to expect either Saudi Arabia or the UAE to be able to do so. Within this context, these Arab power centers in the Gulf are bracing for various scenarios that could come out talks in the Austrian capital, including some sanctions relief on the Islamic Republic even if that is extremely far from guaranteed.
Rather than picking a huge fight with the White House over the JCPOA, the Saudis and Emiratis are willing to, at least publicly, endorse and sign on to calls by the Working Group for an “urgent mutual return to full compliance with the JCPOA” in order to “help pave the way for inclusive diplomatic efforts to address all issues that are necessary to ensure sustainable safety, security, and prosperity in the region.”
Although this show of GCC support to the US administration as it continues engaging the Iranians in talks in Vienna is important, below the surface the White House and some countries in the GCC will probably remain on very different pages vis-à-vis Iran. The Biden administration will likely continue receiving strong support from Kuwait City, Muscat, and Doha when it comes to diplomatic efforts aimed at reconstituting the JCPOA. Nonetheless, officialdom in Abu Dhabi, Manama, and Riyadh have concerns about how an easing of sanctions on their Persian neighbor could encourage Tehran to step up its actions in the region that GCC states generally find highly destabilizing and responsible for raising sectarian temperatures in the Middle East. Convincing these Arab states, which sit with Israel in the region’s anti-Iran camp, that a possible revival of the JCPOA won’t undermine their countries’ national interests will be difficult. Yet such dialogue between the US and its regional partners that are on the frontlines of Washington and Tehran’s nuclear brinkmanship is a wise move. The total lack of it during Obama’s era created serious issues in US-GCC relations that Biden wants to avoid exacerbating in these coming weeks. More By The Author
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