12/16/2013 03:37 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2014

The U.S. Cannot Provide Absolute Security for Its Middle East Allies

The signing of the interim agreement between Iran and the 5+1 countries over Iran's nuclear program produced a very slight and, lately, dimming glimmer of hope that a process of reconciliation between Iran and the U.S. can begin sometime in the future. But the ink on the agreement had barely begun to dry when American diplomacy had to devote all of its energy to reassuring its Middle East allies that their security will not be endangered by a potential U.S.-Iran agreement and eventually rapprochement, as well as to try convincing them that America will continue to love and protect them.

Up to a point, this is the right thing to do. The United States should reassure its allies that it will protect them against external aggression as it did when Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait in 1990. After all, what would be the benefit in having better or at least normal relations with Iran if, in the process, the U.S. were to antagonize its other allies? However, America should not go so far as to lose sight of its own interests, which include pursuing an end to hostility with Iran. In particular, the United States must remember that it cannot provide absolute security for its allies nor assuage all their anxieties. On the contrary, if it were to overindulge its allies' excessive fears, it might undo some of the recent gains of its diplomacy with Iran. This has already happened to some degree, as evidenced by the problems at the expert-level meetings between Iran and the 5+1 held on December 9th in Vienna, because of congressional consideration of new U.S. sanctions aimed at placating America's regional allies.

The reason that America cannot provide absolute security for its allies is because their major security challenges have domestic rather than external sources. For example, with the exception of Oman, principal problems of the Persian Gulf Arab states derive from the fact that at their core are one or a few tribes which dominate political life. The rest of their populations are various immigrants of either long duration, such as Iranian communities, or a motley of new arrivals. For instance, out of roughly 2 million inhabitants of Qatar, only 15 percent are of Qatari origin, and out the U.A.E.'s eight million population, only 13 percent are Emirati. This situation makes it difficult to create viable nations. The statehood of these countries is also of very recent date, from the 1960s and 1970s and an outcome of Great Power intervention.

In Bahrain, a state also of recent origin, a ruling Sunni tribe from Najd, put in power by the British, rules over a majority Shia population, many with Iranian ancestry. (Meanwhile, after Iran gave up its historic claim to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia turned it into an appendix of the Kingdom.)

The characteristics of these small Persian Gulf Arab states creates an existential vulnerability for them, which often can and in the past has been manipulated by outsiders, including Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s, various revolutionary Iraqi regimes in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1990s, radical Arab groups such as the P.L.O, and Iran's Islamic regime, especially in the 1980s.

To make matters worse, these countries have done poorly in developing proper political and social structures, including expanding citizenship and thus creating civic nations, while engaging in extensive and grandiose building projects. Ultimately, it is the clash between the modernity of their physical conditions and the antiquity of their social and political structures which is their main security challenge.

Saudi Arabia does not suffer from a lack of indigenous population, but it does have problems of nationhood and statehood. This is reflected in the very name of the country, Saudi Arabia, which denotes the ownership of a single family rather than a people over the land and its resources. This also means that the end of the ruling family would mean the end of the country as currently structured. Saudi Arabia also suffers from an antiquated political system out of step with its efforts at modernization, wherein increasingly large numbers of educated people chafe under the religious and political straight jacket imposed by the state. Its intolerant brand of Islam, with its visceral hatred of the Shia who constitute a significant minority in the Kingdom, is another point of vulnerability.

To the West, the real security threat to Israel, America's most important regional ally, has long been how to deal with its Palestinian problem. Today, no country in the Middle East can threaten Israel militarily, because of Israel's own military power and international support, and because potential threats such as once emanated from revolutionary Egypt and Iraq do not exist, while Syria is facing the risk of total disintegration. Meanwhile, it has become clear that no country can force the Palestinians either to accept an imposed settlement or -- by the same token -- to prevent them from reaching a settlement with Israel should they so wish. But others have manipulated Israel's problems with the Palestinians to undermine its security. This means that as long as the Palestinian problem is not resolved Israel cannot feel fully secure, even if all of its other security concerns were resolved.

The upshot of this situation is that no amount of U.S. beefing up the military arsenals of the Gulf States, encouraging Saudi hegemony over other Gulf States, or even militarily taking care of Iran for them will resolve their existential problems. At best, these steps can delay the day of reckoning and at worst they can create new sources of conflict, as already evident in increased friction within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), especially between Oman and Saudi Arabia, whose non-Saudi members have always resented Saudi claims to overlordship. They have also feared its Wahhabi brand of Islam, which has been a growing source of sectarian tensions, even in countries such as Kuwait with its relatively good record of managing sectarian issues.

So what is to be done? First, the U.S. must realize that foregoing the fledgling process of dialogue with Iran will not confer total sense of security on its allies and that they will come back with new fears and anxieties. Second, the U.S. should first encourage a process of security dialogue in the Persian Gulf, which would have to include Iran. The U.S. made a big mistake when, in the aftermath of 1991 Persian Gulf War, it did not pursue such a dialogue and excluded Iran from schemes for a potential Persian Gulf security system, while including countries such as Syria, Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey.

Meanwhile, in the Western part of the Middle East, America should continue with its efforts to promote Palestinian-Israeli peace. This is a tall order but one that is not beyond America's capacity if it has the needed political will and will pursue the required diplomatic effort.