How will US-Iran negotiations affect Gulf states?

Although the negotiations between Washington and Tehran regarding the latter’s nuclear program have strained US relations with the Gulf, the two sides have many mutual interests that will keep these ties strong.

al-monitor US soldiers listen to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel at Al Udeid Air Base, west of Doha, Dec. 10, 2013. Hagel made a visit to the region to reassure Gulf Arab allies of continuing US support despite disagreements over Washington's policy toward Syria and its diplomatic overtures to Iran.  Photo by REUTERS/Mark Wilson.

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united states, us-iranian rapprochement, saudi arabia, saudi-iranian rivalry, iran, foreign policy, egypt, arab spring

May 29, 2014

In general, Arab-Iranian ties have not been harmonious or amicable. Rather, they have always been ruled by the logic of history, ideological struggle and the desire for expansion. What we are witnessing at present is nothing but an aspect of this vehement historic conflict. Although it has a different form now, it is in essence still a struggle for control and influence.

Following the Iran-Iraq War, the conflict between Iran and Arab countries has become a cold war that conceals ideological, ethnic and historical struggles. Each party sees the victory of its rival — be it diplomatically or militarily — as a loss requiring him to exhibit a similar or greater reaction, to restore the balance or imbalance, yet at the detriment of the other party, and so on.

During this cold war, Iran managed to break through in the diplomatic arena in late 2013 — after they have previously (militarily) settled down in the Arab arena — and earned their first diplomatic victory by announcing a preliminary settlement with the “Great Satan” (the United States) over their nuclear program. The Arab (Saudi) response to this development was a severe admonishment for the US ally, and it insinuated that it would step away from the United States if the latter actually intended to make a deal with Iran at the expense of the Arabs and their interests.

It seems that the Saudi statements are designed to display a clear position that the US-Saudi ties may be affected, if the United States thinks it could ignore the interests of the Arab world, particularly Saudi interests. The issue was aggravated by the Iranian diplomatic breakthrough's coinciding with the Arab Spring and the subsequent fissures in the Arab communities, particularly weakening and distancing Egypt from following up and influencing the events, and the disintegration of the official Arab system in general. Following the Arab Spring, the Arab world had lost its global issue, and stopped being governed by its ideology. Rather, it has become a fragile world that is politically and economically disordered, socially disarticulated, and where the Arab collective ardency is replaced by patriotism that takes precedence over any national or ideological cause.

In light of this reality, for the administration of US President Barack Obama, the Arab world is no longer a priority, in the sense that it no longer poses a real threat to its interests. The region is no longer an influence zone for the United States and the only remaining threat is Iran's nuclear program, which must be addressed in a way that is different from that of former President George W. Bush. Obama considers the solution to this issue will inevitably lead to concluding new understandings on the Iranian expansion in the region, and will in particular pave the way for important settlements between Israel and Iran, which will ultimately lead to a reduced Iranian influence — which threatens the security of Israel, not the security of Arabs — in exchange for a direct recognition of the Iranian role and its legitimate demands in the region.

Tehran’s demands

Iran does not hide that it has demands, most notably to legitimize its occupation of the Arab Islands, negotiate the future of Bahrain and extend its religious and cultural influence in the Arab region.

It should also be admitted that Iran is aware of this US desire; that is why it does not oppose any negotiations with the United States to discover how it views the region, and to what extent it is willing to approve the Iranian demands that do not affect its interests or threaten the security of Israel. It seems that the United States, following its experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, is aware of Iran’s importance and strategic dimension in any of the region’s future formulas.

Thus, as John Lambert, the former deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran in the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and a former ambassador, said during a lecture at the London School of Economics, the negotiations on the Iranian file will inevitably include bilateral talks, on the sidelines of the P5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany) meetings to discuss the region’s affairs, and Iran’s interests, ties and influence in the region.

In this scenario, the Saudi resentment of the US-Iranian confidential negotiations can be understood, on the grounds that the talks' consequences are harmful to the security of Saudi Arabia and the Arab world.

On the other hand, we can see to what extent Iran is pleased with this breakthrough, and how fast it revealed itself as a rational state that believes in the negotiations and the resolution of differences, by calling on Saudi Arabia to negotiate and discuss the issues of the region, namely terrorism. This Iranian shift toward Saudi Arabia will offer the Iranian leadership the missing legitimacy that it needs at this critical stage. Despite all of the declarations, Iran is suffering from an international diplomatic isolation, economic difficulties, financial exhaustion in Syria and internal popular nervousness.

Iran has enough leads to put a veto on any future vision for a map for the region. It holds the reins of Iraq and is trying to draft this vision according to its national security interests. It is present in Yemen, refuses to let go of [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad, because if it does, it will lose its way to the Arab world and therefore deprive itself from using Hezbollah as an important card in any future negotiations on the arrangements for the region with the United States and Israel.

Those following up on the news know that the openness of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani toward the West has created a positivity, particularly among Jews, as he acknowledged the Holocaust, and congratulated the Jewish and Christian communities on their holidays. Rouhani’s policies oppose those of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was skeptical of Western intentions. He considers that for Iran to assume a key role, it is required to achieve a historical reconciliation with the United States. Obama is aware of the importance of these cards, which prompt him to think seriously of the possibility of a deal that resolves the problems of the region, even at the expense of the Arab interests. What matters are one’s interests, not the friendships!

The Arabs, namely Saudi Arabia and its allies, should not lose hope, because Iran’s openness toward the United States stems from an Iranian strategic vision that its interference in the Arab world has been diminishing and awakened the Sunni instinct. Iran is unable to control an extremely hostile region, based on the disparities between Sunnis and Shiites. Therefore, it considers the time is right to seal a reconciliation with the United States as soon as possible.

This requires Arabs to endorse their strategic depth, namely Egypt, in re-assuming a leading role. In addition, Egypt needs to strengthen its social fabric, which requires a Saudi effort to urge the new Egyptian leadership that will take power to bring about a social and political reconciliation that puts an end to the internal division — which will prevent Egypt from assuming its expected role, if it drags. It is no surprise that the solution to the Egyptian crisis will help solve other Arab differences, and will give Arabs a momentum in a number of files, most notably the Syrian file, which is for Iran what Vietnam was for the United States. Iran had a setback in Syria, with further escalation, just as the United States did in Vietnam. Based on that, the Syrian territory will consist of a gaping wound for Iran, and a start to cut the Iranian cord wrapped around the region’s neck.

This confrontation with Iran can no longer drag on by relying on the current policies. These policies ought to be changed as they have proven to be futile, both diplomatically and on the ground, over the past years. Should these policies continue to be implemented, they could pose a great threat, which would lead to the collapse of the Syrian state, turning it into another Somalia, draining Arabs before anyone else.

Arabs ought to maintain the alliance with the United States because it is the most effective party in the region, emphasize the convergence of interests and distance themselves from any threat to develop relations with other states, because this is to no avail as the international system is still governed by the United States, so far. Second, any other state will not sacrifice its relations with the United States for the sake of Arabs.

It is important for Arabs to reduce Iranian expansion in this strategy, and to not allow Iran to confiscate the Palestinian cause and use it to serve its own goals. This can only happen through uniting the Palestinian ranks, and therefore the recent reconciliation that has been sponsored by Egypt seems encouraging. This reconciliation should not remain just for show, but should reach the essence of the strategy, which ought to include agreements on tactics.

Arabs need to be aware of the one reason for Iran’s power, which is their weakness. Any strategy that does not take into account this weakness, especially in light of the American-Iranian breakthrough, will have great repercussions on them. In today’s world, there is no room for the weak. Any deal between Iran and the United States that does not include Arabs, will be done at their expense and they will pay dearly for it.

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