'Decisive' Gulf Determined to Maintain Strategic Relationship With Washington

05/14/2015 11:00 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2016

The American and Gulf leadership have sought to save the Camp David summit, which has been skipped by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, though it will be attended by the head of state of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, and the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. President Barack Obama called this extraordinary summit to give the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) reassurances regarding the nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran, which he has made the top strategic goal of his foreign policy.

The Gulf nations accepted the invitation with a view to reaffirm their security priorities and explore the long-term strategic relationship between Washington and the GCC as the US president sees it, having upgraded the relationship with Tehran into the level of partnership. While there are shared priorities concerning the fight against terror, even in this issue the US and Gulf strategies differ over identifying who supports terrorism. President Obama, in an interview with Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, said Tehran continues to support terrorism and is an element of instability in the region, but suggested this will not stop him from seeking to sign a nuclear deal with Iran in the coming two months, and build a conciliatory and cooperative, bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Iran. Thus, the Camp David summit is kicking off with aborted consensus accompanied by leaks suggesting there is American resentment over the absence of the top Saudi leadership and the Gulf insistence for the United States to meet its regional priorities including in Yemen and Syria though serious measures and not loose promises.

The U.S.-Gulf summit will convene hours after writing this article. Traditionally, the main orientations and decisions of such summits are prepared beforehand, when negotiations at the level of ministers and experts take place over the smallest detail before the meeting takes place. The decision by King Salman bin Abdulaziz not to attend the summit two days before it convened was a political decision with serious implications, no matter how much U.S. and Saudi diplomacy try to downplay it and claim there is no message behind the king's absence. The reality is that King Salman wanted to let the U.S. president know he is unsatisfied by the U.S. reassurances and that he refuses to be a tool to beautify the Iranian nuclear agreement.

This position made it easier for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to head to the White House and then Camp David with a charge of decisiveness with regard to certain Saudi positions, while underscoring Riyadh's determination to maintain the strategic relationship between Washington and the GCC.

Striking a balance like this requires flexibility, which is an art that tests leadership and performance. Some in the Obama administration made their calculations on the basis of experience, and decided that Arab leaders are not able to be truly independent as long as their security depends on the relationship with the United States. For this reason, there can be no room for independent decision-making no matter how much they deny this, and there is no alternative to the U.S. sponsor of Gulf security no matter how ready France and other nations appear to sell their weapons. These people in the U.S. administration can be described as a mirror reflecting Obama's thinking and doctrine, which sees Iran as the priority element in the Iranian-Gulf equation.

This puts the Gulf leadership to the test, particularly the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE.These countries are active in the region on a myriad of issues being discussed at Camp David, including security and defense cooperation, the Iranian issue and its regional dimensions in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq and the nuclear dimension, the long-term strategic relationship between Washington and GCC capitals, and terrorism.

The Iranian leadership prepared for the U.S.-Gulf summit in Camp David by presenting itself as a partner ready and able to crush ISIS, and justifying its military intervention in Iraq and Syria through Shiite militias and Hezbollah. Tehran is peddling its services because it understands ISIS is the priority for U.S. officials, the public, and the media equally. Iran sees that it is in its interests to present itself as America's top partner to eliminate Sunni terrorism represented by ISIS and similar groups. Iran is using the war on terror to lend cover to its expansion in Iraq and to buy Washington's silence regarding its direct involvement alongside the Syrian regime and Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian conflict.

The Gulf delegations heading to Camp David brought with them arguments to persuade the U.S. administration that crushing ISIS requires popular and official Sunni participation, and that a U.S.-Iranian partnership as an alternative to the international coalition is a foolish policy.

For its part, Washington welcomes the Iranian-Arab competition over eliminating ISIS. However, it is making a risky gamble if it assumes that fueling Iranian-Gulf rivalry, or Shiite-Sunni rivalry, will serve its interests. Such a strategy leads to more strife, and to spawning Sunni and Shiite extremism equally. It could bring the Syrian model to other Arab and Muslim nations, and even bring terrorism to U.S. cities no matter how strongly American decision-makers are in denial about this.

At any rate, the issue of fighting terrorism is possibly the easiest topic in the U.S.-Gulf discussions. However, when this issue intersects with the Syrian issue, disputes arise pushing the Gulf to take an independent path away from the US policy of turning a blind eye and burying heads in the sand.

The ideas carried by Gulf leaders to Camp David concerning Syria resemble the Decisive Storm model launched in Yemen, where the Gulf nations led by Saudi Arabia moved without Washington's prior consent -- though with its prior knowledge -- to take the protection of Saudi national security into their own hands and let the rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran know that they have become too insolent and made a strategic blunder by crossing red lines in Yemen on the borders with Saudi Arabia.

With respect to Syria, and thanks to the Saudi-Qatari-Turkish rapprochement that has been initiated a few months ago, the momentum has returned to the battlefield accompanied by determination to take an independent line from Obama's policy of self-dissociation on the events in Syria. The most that Washington prepared itself for in the recent period is just to manage the crisis, while Syria continues to disintegrate. The least Washington seems prepared to do is push forward Obama's previous policy based on demanding Bashar al-Assad step down. In effect, the Obama administration's discourse even suggested it had no qualms about Assad remaining in power and about his alliance with Iran as long as they are both fighting ISIS as they have promised to do.

The convergence or divergence between the U.S. position and the Gulf position calling for a qualitative shift in U.S. stances has to do with seriousness and decisiveness. The Camp David summit may not conclude with a breakthrough in the U.S. position, but something new will take place in Syria whether Obama's policy likes it or not. Indeed, Gulf diplomacy has decided that the Obama administration's refusal to confront Iran over its expansionist ambitions in the region -- citing the priority nature of the nuclear issue -- is a deliberate relief for the leaders of Iran from accountability, if not endorsement and silent blessing for Iranian expansion in Syria and Lebanon.

Regarding Yemen, accord or differences are of a different kind. The Gulf leaders have headed to Camp David carrying the achievements of Decisive Storm, the Arab military operation in Yemen, and of Restoring Hope, if Washington decides to be firm with Tehran over Yemen.

Iran tested the United States on the eve of the Camp David summit, when Iranian Navy Admiral Hossein Azad said that warships have escorted an Iranian ship carrying aid bound for a port in Yemen, and refused to be boarded for inspection, challenging a recent UN Security Council resolution issued under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. The resolution authorizes searching ships bound for ports in Yemen.

Whether it backs down or escalate, Tehran has deliberately tested its opponents to cover its weakness in the Yemeni developments and to provoke Saudi Arabia, which Iran wants to implicate in a quagmire in Yemen. However, the priority for Tehran in the broader strategic relationship is first, the nuclear deal, and what it will produce in terms of upgrading the level of U.S.-Iranian relations. And second, convincing Washington of building a regional security regime replacing the existing regional one between the United States and the six GCC nations. Iran wants to dismantle the GCC, and wants to become the security partner of the United States in the Gulf, replacing the US's Arab partners.

The fate of Iran's regional ambitions will depend on the nuclear deal, which Obama is set to conclude in July. As for the fate of the Gulf's ambitions, this is the responsibility of Gulf leaders and the good performance to negotiate over the entire U.S.-Gulf relationship, from security and defence, to long-term strategic relation with Washington following the expected detente in U.S.-Iranian relations.

It is possible for Camp David to be fruitful and bring about a new U.S. decision to let Tehran know that there is no way the United States would bless Iran's regional expansionist ambitions. Rather, the United States must make fateful decisions before signing the nuclear deal is seeking after. In this scenario, the Iranian nuclear deal will mean there will be tight international oversight and even a path to re-imposing sanctions if Tehran seeks to build nuclear weapons. This will be key to a desired relationship between Iran and the Gulf which would take the entire Middle East region closer to coexistence and with a focus on the rights of the Arab and Persian peoples to have a decent life, work opportunities, growth, production, and creativity. Only then can the Camp David summit be described as "historic."

Translated from Arabic by Karim Traboulsi