For Gulf Allies, Obama’s Turn Away From the Region Looks Like a Gift to Tehran
Disengagement from a region whose power structures are predicated on American management is a recipe for disaster
The White House’s policy of engaging Iran has—intentionally or not—backed the rest of the GCC into the same corner as the Israelis, who spent last week frantically showing off a cache of Iranian-made weapons seized from a ship bound for Gaza in an effort to remind Washington that Tehran remains ruthlessly committed to maintaining the regional arms race. Now there’s talk in the region of secret meetings and other cooperation between Riyadh and Jerusalem. In his speech at AIPAC’s policy conference earlier this month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even hinted at the possibility of an open partnership at some point in the future. “The combination of Israeli innovation and Gulf entrepreneurship,” said Netanyahu, “could catapult the entire region forward.”
Obama is sending messages to both Israel and the GCC that change is coming to the region, and whether they like it or not, they’d better get with the program. As Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg recently, “I think change is always scary.” Even the Israelis, among the savviest Washington power players, are having a hard time getting the White House’s attention. Netanyahu, at least, has the comfort of knowing that if Israel decides to take matters into its own hands and launch a unilateral attack Iranian nuclear facilities, it will likely have the Saudis’ quiet support—if not an outright agreement to turn off their military radar as Israeli jets fly over.
But from Riyadh’s perspective, the future looks a lot like the past. Specifically, it looks like a re-run of a very unhappy moment in their recent history—the early 1970s, when the Nixon Administration adopted the “twin pillars” policy to manage the Persian Gulf and push back against radical Middle East regimes like Nasser’s Egypt. The idea was conceived not in Washington, but in London, on the eve of Great Britain’s withdrawal. In 1967, explains historian Roham Alvandi in his 2012 article “Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah: The Origins of Iranian Primacy in the Persian Gulf,” the British Foreign Office prepared a report on Britain’s longterm policy in the Gulf, which was to “encourage an indigenous balance of power which does not require our military presence.” This balance of power, the report explained, would depend above all on Saudi Arabia and Iran—which is exactly what Obama wants, too.
As Obama has explained now to several journalists, his goal is to establish a “geopolitical equilibrium” in the Middle East by balancing traditional American Gulf allies like Saudi Arabia against Iran. But when the White House says it wants to strengthen the GCC, what the GCC hears is that it’s getting a downgrade while Iran is getting an upgrade. Whatever Obama winds up saying to the Saudis is immaterial because his actions are telling them something else—the Americans are on their way out, and happy to let Tehran rush in.
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