An increasing body of evidence has begun pointing to a major shift in American foreign policy in the Middle East. Over the course of the Obama Administration's tenure, amid the turmoil of the Arab spring, the United States has shown itself unwilling to defend some of its traditional allies (such as the military in Egypt), or to stand by its own threats and red lines (such as punishing the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons); in many cases willing to cede significant influence to other outside powers (such as Russia); and to attempt to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran that is far more conciliatory to Iranian demands than had been the previous policy (such as allowing for uranium enrichment).
Much analysis and attention has been focused on the implications for Israel of these changes in American policy. But Israel is not the biggest loser in the region. On the contrary, Israel is far from isolated in the new Middle East. In fact, its more stable and western-oriented Arab neighbors seem to have more in common with the foreign policy perspective of the Jewish state than at any time in recent history.
Instead, those who have the most to lose are the oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia. Control of the Gulf, which is vital to global energy supplies and thus the global economy as a whole, has been the linchpin of American policy in the Middle East for the last half-century. A strong alliance with the Arab monarchies that dominate the Gulf, fueled by credibility of American power, has been at the core of this policy, and this—American military credibility and steadfastness to longstanding foreign policy partnerships—is what appears to be eroding, and causing nothing short of alarm among Gulf leaders.
This, of course, is because of Iran. A central element of Iranian regional policy is expanding Tehran's sphere of influence into the Persian Gulf, throughout the Middle East, and across the Islamic world. At the moment, the U.S. appears to be softening its approach to Iran, offering the easing of sanctions in exchange for a phantom slowing of the Iranian nuclear program, but without any Iranian concessions in terms of their support for terror or efforts to undermine neighboring regimes. As a result, the Arab states of the Gulf are now terrified at the prospect of abandonment, compounded by what they see as the Obama administration's questionable competence with regard to the Middle East.
There are currently strong indications that some Gulf countries, and Saudi Arabia in particular, have concluded that the Americans are indeed abandoning the region, or are fully unreliable at a minimum. As a result, these Gulf states are doing their best to assemble alternative alliances in order to meet the challenge. Other countries, such as Oman, appear ready to accommodate the new reality, placing themselves between the U.S. and the Iranians in hopes of playing the role of power broker, while Qatar already appears to be moving away from the US and toward Iran. Clearly, major change is underway.
From the point of view of strategic analysis, prior to 2011 the Mideast looked like a dangerous but clearly demarcated place, with Arab states relying predominantly if not exclusively on U.S. hegemony. The key challenge to the regional order was the attempt by a lose bloc of rouge states and movements led by Iran to challenge the U.S.-led dispensation in the region, which had held sway since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
The Iranians want to replace the Americans as the dominant force in the Gulf by cajoling or intimidating the energy-rich Arab monarchies of the area into moving away from reliance on the U.S. and toward Iranian tutelage. In addition, they have ambitions of expanding their influence as far as the Mediterranean and the Levant. The latter goal only became conceivable when the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein, conveniently removing its primary obstacle.
Iran's long-standing alliance with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, its creation and sponsorship of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, and its growing closeness to Iraq's post-Saddam Shia-dominated government has produced a contiguous line of pro-Tehran states stretching from Iran's western border to the Mediterranean Sea and, importantly, Israel's northern border. Essential to this strategy is the Iranian nuclear project, which is intended to be a kind of insurance policy against any determined action by Iran's regional or global rivals.
This dangerous but clear "cold war" situation has now given way to a far more complex and unstable map of conflicting interests. There is a single element, however, which has determined these changes: The decision by the United States to abandon its leadership position in a coalition of regional allies dedicated to challenging the pro-Iran bloc and the lesser (but still substantial) challenge of radical Sunni Islam.
This decision cannot be found in any public declaration by the Obama administration. But it is apparent in the practical policy moves made by Washington in a number of key areas over the last two years. These new policies have produced deep concern and, in some cases, a search for realignment among key members of the bloc formerly led by the U.S. These key members are Israel, the military regime in Egypt, the Gulf monarchies, and Saudi Arabia. No single pattern of response has emerged among these countries. All are carefully weighing their options and drawing their own conclusions.
The U.S. preference for seeking alternatives to its pre-2011 stance in the region has manifested itself in two areas: Its response to the "Arab spring" uprisings of 2011 and the subsequent rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and what appears to be a willingness to leave Iran with everything it needs to make nuclear weapons, despite American's and President Obama's longtime promises.
The American decision to abandon Hosni Mubarak, who had been a loyal ally for thirty years, was the pivotal moment in the Arab Spring. The result of this decision was a chaotic year of Muslim Brotherhood rule, which was then ended by the return of military government in July 2013 after some thirty-million Egyptian citizens took the streets demanding change. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's removal of the Islamist radicals of the Muslim Brotherhood was not welcomed by the U.S. administration. Other key members of what had been the U.S.-led alliance, however, the popular as having averted the very bloodshed the U.S. demanded Mubarak step aside to avert, and ended the disastrous rule of an Islamist regime in the Arab world's most populous country. While America had a hard time choosing between those states aligned with U.S. policy and in step with the fight against al-Qaeda and Hezbollah terrorists, many in the region and closest to the calamity — the Saudis, the Jordanians, the Emirates and the Israelis — have good and close relations with the new military regime in Cairo.
The Gulf Arabs, and above all the Saudis, were deeply worried by what the American response on Egypt seemed to indicate. Washington's perception of its own interests appeared to have undergone a kind of paradigm shift, one that made future discussions regarding specific threats and opportunities deeply problematic: Allies like Mubarak would no longer benefit from their association with the U.S. Enemies like the Muslim Brotherhood would no longer be punished.
The first indication of America's former regional allies' reaction to this shift was in 2011, when the Saudis hastily assembled a Gulf military coalition to crush an incipient Shia uprising in Bahrain. This indicated that, believing themselves rebuffed by the U.S., the Gulf states would now seek new alliances and show a greater willingness to take action on the basis of these new ad hoc alignments. Saudi efforts to support the Syrian rebels against Assad's pro-Iranian regime and to undermine Muslim Brotherhood-linked elements among the rebels in 2012 and 2013 were a further reflection of this new proactive stance.
Qatar Armed Forces 1st Lt. Abdul Majid Al-Shammari communicates with other members of his unit during a joint counterterrorism exercise with U.S. Service members and other partnering nations as part of Eagle Resolve 13 in Zikrit, Qatar, April 28, 2013. (Photo: Kenny Holston / Wikimedia)
Here, too, U.S. absence was clearly a major factor. America's failure to swiftly declare itself in favor of the Syrian rebellion and assist the rebels left Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia as the rebellion's primary supporters, which led in turn to the takeover of the rebellion by Islamist and jihadi elements, as well as its subsequent divisions and dysfunctions. This sense of a lack of shared perceptions regarding Syria was compounded by America's failure to take military action against Assad in the summer of 2013, after it became clear that the regime had used chemical weapons against its own citizens. The Gulf states' primary concern was U.S. credibility. In August 2012, President Obama had defined the use of chemical weapons by the regime as a "red line," but now appeared to be blithely disregarding this commitment.
The move confirmed U.S.-aligned countries' suspicion that the current administration simply had little understanding of, or interest in, the means by which alliances are maintained in the Middle East. That is, the need for credibility, sticking by friends, and facing down enemies appeared to be lost on the Obama administration. This impression was, of course, compounded by recent U.S. behavior on the all-important issue of Iran's nuclear program.
The recent Geneva deal concluded by the P5+1 powers and Tehran is widely regarded in the Gulf as a significant victory for Iran. It awards substantial sanctions relief to the Iranians while enabling them to continue enrichment of uranium, keep existing equipment and nuclear stockpiles, and avoid inspection of possible military aspects of the program. Another factor is different perceptions of the precise point at which Iran may be considered as having "gone nuclear." The U.S. defines it as the point at which the Iranians can place a nuclear warhead on a missile. The Gulf states see it as the point at which Iran becomes able to use enriched uranium to build a nuclear device of any kind. The latter is imminent and, in fact, may already have been reached.
But the Geneva agreement is not the only factor. It appears to be accompanied by a broader process of outreach to the Iranians. Evidence has emerged, for example, of a new, indirect channel of communication between the U.S. and Hezbollah. A recent report in the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Rai said that a backchannel between UK officials and Hezbollah's "political wing" has been revived in accordance with the improving relations between London and Tehran. It is now serving as a means of conveying messages between Washington and Tehran. An unnamed diplomatic source quoted by al-Rai explained that this dialogue is "designed to keep pace with the changes in the region and the world, and the potential return of Iran to the international community."
So the evidence seems to point to an effort to transform relations between the West and the Iranians, perhaps as a way of facilitating a new regional order which will enable a much lighter American hand in the Middle East.
Saudi and Gulf dismay at what they see as U.S. disengagement from the region has been expressed publicly to a certain extent, despite their usual preference for behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Most significantly, the Saudi Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz, addressed the issue head-on in an op-ed for The New York Times. "We believe that many of the West's policies on both Iran and Syria risk the stability and security of the Middle East," the ambassador wrote. "This is a dangerous gamble, about which we cannot remain silent, and will not stand idly by."
Rather than challenging the Syrian and Iranian governments, some of our Western partners have refused to take much-needed action against them. The West has allowed one regime to survive and the other to continue its program for uranium enrichment, with all the consequent dangers of weaponization.… For all their talk of "red lines," when it counted, our partners have seemed all too ready to concede our safety and risk our region's stability.
As a result of this, said the ambassador, Saudi Arabia may have "no choice but to become more assertive in international affairs: more determined than ever to stand up for the genuine stability our region so desperately needs."
The ambassador's article is the bluntest public expression yet of just how worried the Saudis and the other Gulf states actually are, but it is not the only indication of their concerns. Bahraini Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, for example, said in a recent interview with the Daily Telegraph that America's "transient and reactive" foreign policy could force it to lose influence in the region. "America seems to suffer from schizophrenia when it deals with the Arab world," said the prince. He referred specifically to the American stance in relation to Egypt, Syria, and Iran. He also contended that U.S. behavior was leading to the exploration of alternative alliances by former regional allies. "The Russians have proved they are reliable friends," he said. "As a result, some states in the region have already started to look at developing more multilateral relations rather than just relying on Washington." This process was seen in practice in the recent visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Egypt—the first such visit in 40 years.
In a similar, rare public expression of Gulf sentiment, Nawaf Obeid, a senior adviser to the Saudi royal family, accused Washington of deceiving Riyadh over the Iran nuclear deal. "We were lied to, things were hidden from us," Obeid told an audience in London that was also quoted in the Daily Telegraph. He went on to vow continued Saudi resistance to Iranian machinations across the region. In particular, he expressed Saudi determination to turn back the Iranians in Syria. "We cannot accept Revolutionary Guards running around Homs," he said.
King Abdullah and his younger brother, Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud of Saudi Arabia. (Photo: Zamanalsamt / flickr)
Washington is aware of these concerns and has sought to assuage them. In a recent address to the Manama Dialogue security forum in Bahrain, for example, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that the U.S. has "a ground, air and naval presence of more than 35,000 personnel in and immediately around the Gulf…. We know diplomacy cannot operate in a vacuum. Our success will continue to hinge on America's military power, and the credibility of our assurances to our allies and partners in the Middle East."
These references to the U.S. military presence and the current administration's determination to uphold its commitments in this regard are important. The presence of the Fifth Fleet in the Gulf, headquartered in Bahrain, is what physically enables the continued flow of Gulf oil. It is the most important physical evidence of the U.S. commitment to its allies' security.
Yet Hagel's words failed to substantially address the concerns of the Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia, and other U.S. allies. They are not primarily worried about the possibility of U.S. troop withdrawals from the Gulf. These represent the physical manifestations of American strength in the region. The main concern is the strategic direction of U.S. policy. The Fifth Fleet may remain in the Gulf, but if Iran is given carte blanche to push forward with its nuclear program while receiving sanctions relief, as Geneva seems to allow, and if this goes hand in hand with the advancement of its cause in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and beyond, then this physical presence will have only limited meaning. The danger is not one of an Iranian force crossing the Persian Gulf to attack the Saudis directly. Rather, it is one of regional subversion, support of proxies, and the consequent building of alliances and the establishment of client states. This strategy has brought Iran into alliances with Iraq and regime-controlled Syria, as well as rule by proxy in Lebanon. The Defense Secretary's words address none of this.
Thousands of protesters gathering in the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, Bahrain, March 14, 2011, the day GCC troops entered the country. (Photo: Bahraini Activist / Wikimedia)
That the administration's talk of its continued commitment to its Gulf allies has not been convincing was conclusively demonstrated by Saudi Arabia's astounding decision to refuse a seat on the United Nations Security Council, despite America's prodigious efforts to secure a place on the council for its ally. The New York Times reported the widespread—and almost certainly accurate—perception that the move "underscored the depth of Saudi anger over what the monarchy sees as weak and conciliatory Western stances toward Syria and Iran, Saudi Arabia's regional rival." The fact that the Saudis must have anticipated the stunned reaction from the international community indicates that the rebuff may constitute the kingdom's informal declaration of independence from its formerly solid alliance with the U.S.
The Iranians are well aware of the Gulf countries' concerns, and appear to be crafting their own policy in order to benefit from them. They have a distinct advantage in that the Gulf countries are not united in their anti-Iranian stance. To a certain extent, Saudi Arabia is unique, even if Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are currently aligned with its policies. The difference between the Saudis and the small emirates and monarchies of the Gulf is that the latter are likely to accommodate themselves to a rising Iran, whereas Riyadh sees itself as locked in an ongoing regional conflict with the Iranians.
Iranian policy in this regard is quite logical: It aims to bring the small Gulf countries under its control through a combination of threats and inducements. Diaku Hoseyni, an Iranian analyst, explained the rationale behind this in a recent article in the journal Esfahan-e Emruz. "Having lost hope that the United States will carry out a military strike on Iran," he wrote, "smaller countries would prefer to control the danger posed by a powerful and dissatisfied country in their neighborhood, by expanding their friendly relations with Iran."
There is evidence to support Hoseyni's contention. For example, Oman played a key role in facilitating the secret U.S.-Iran backchannel that made the Geneva agreement possible. Oman's links to Iran also led to the sultanate's rejection of a Saudi-proposed union of the six Gulf states in December. The union would have brought Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates into an upgraded version of the current Gulf Cooperation Council. Riyadh's intention was to unify the Gulf states in order to resist the Iranian challenge. Oman, by rejecting the proposal, signaled that it does not wish to be part of a Saudi-led coalition against Iran. Instead, it will seek to maintain relations with all sides and adapt itself to any new balance of power.
Tents burning in the Pearl Roundabout after GCC and Bahraini forces cracked down on protesters, March 16, 2011. (Photo: Mohamed CJ / Wikimedia)
But Oman, together with Qatar, has always been an "outlier" among Gulf countries on the question of Iran. The core "anti-Iranian" alliance among Gulf countries consists of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, and Bahrain. There are now indications that the Iranians are engaged in a subtle attempt to draw some of these countries into its orbit. Media reports in recent days have revealed progress in talks between Iranian and UAE representatives over three Iranian-occupied islands in the Hormuz area—Abu Musa and the two Tunb islands. These islands are claimed by the UAE and, according to the latest reports, the deal would return them to UAE sovereignty, with Iran retaining "seabed" rights.
While the deal may not materialize, the very fact that the talks are taking place and Iran appears ready for compromise is telling. Iran is signaling to the small Gulf emirates that they can benefit from associating with Tehran. To achieve this, Iran is willing to be flexible on non-essential issues. The carrot is going hand-in-hand with the stick.
The Middle East's bloc of Shia Muslim powers, led by Iran, is far more formidable than its Sunni opponents. Wherever the rivalry between them has reached a flashpoint, the Shia have gained the upper hand. The Iranians have won in Lebanon and Iraq, and are winning in Syria. The Sunni Arab states are either mired in internal turmoil or are too weak to effectively resist Iranian ambitions without outside (American and, perhaps, Israeli) assistance. From the point of view of the current U.S. administration, logic appears to support the idea of distancing oneself from former allies and reaching an accommodation with the new strong force in the region—Iran and its proxies.
The Gulf states are aware of this and deeply worried by it. But for supporters of the accommodationist point of view, this is not such a terrible thing. Working on the assumption that Iran, while a formidable foe, has goals that can be satisfied without completely overturning the regional status quo, the accommodationists presumably believe that the Gulf states will eventually calm down and get used to the new situation.
But all of this depends on a very large assumption: Namely, that Iranian ambitions can be satisfied within the current framework. If it turns out that Iran's anti-Western stance and activities are not merely posturing, and that Tehran does indeed intend to replace U.S. hegemony in the Gulf with a new hegemony of its own, then what is currently going on is inelegant capitulation in the face of an aggressor. In Riyadh (and Jerusalem), that's what it looks like.
Given the record of Iranian obfuscation on the nuclear issue and largely successful subversion across the region, the Saudi (and Israeli) view has a lot going for it. The U.S. does indeed appear to have adopted a strategy rooted in illusion. The question now is what the formerly US-led bloc will do in order to organize itself effectively against the Iranian challenge and eventually turn it back.
Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.