Summit to Nowhere

Summit to Nowhere

The Camp David summit concluded on Thursday with a stack of assurances from President Barack Obama to representatives of the Arab Gulf states that America has their back. To prove his intentions, he promised to sell them more and better weapons, and to increase the frequency of combined training and exercise opportunities for their forces with those of the United States. The Arabs, ever polite to their host, responded with thanks. But their fundamental distrust of the administration’s motives does not appear to have changed. None of their spokesmen voiced explicit support for the Framework Agreement that Secretary of State Kerry supported by his P-5+1 colleagues, has negotiated with the Iranians. Publicly, the Gulf leaders continue to take a wait-and-see approach. Privately, they are far less circumspect about their unhappiness with the deal.

In fact, the Camp David summit proved once more what many observers have recognized for some time: as a result of his determined courtship of Iran, President Obama has achieved something that has eluded all his predecessors. He has brought Arabs and Israelis together — out of distrust of the United States. The mealy-mouthed explanations that administration spokespersons gave for the absence of four of the six GCC leaders from the summit ring hollow in the face of ongoing Gulf Arab suspicions that Washington is determined to reach an agreement with Tehran at any cost. In this regard, their views mirror exactly those of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, except that, as they demonstrated at Camp David, the Arabs are far subtler. They will continue to rely on the Israeli leader to make their case, confident that his clout with the Congress is far greater than theirs.

Not even all of the Arab leaders who attended the Camp David affair did so out of support for what appears to be the president’s effort to restore Iran’s place in the international community. The emir of Qatar attended in no small part because the presence of American forces and facilities in his country, notably the sprawling airbase at al Udeid, ensures it some degree of protection from Iran. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi attended despite the UAE’s long-standing hostility to Iran because he knows that his country’s exceedingly strong relationship with the United States will outlast the Obama administration. A new president could well reverse what the Emirates consider to be a seriously misguided policy toward Iran.

There is a widespread misconception, fueled in no small part by the Israeli prime minister’s vociferous opposition to a deal with Iran, that a nuclear Iran is primarily Israel’s problem. The Arab response to the Camp David meeting demonstrated that this is not the case. Iran poses a far more serious threat to the Gulf Arab states than to Israel. The ruling mullahs are unlikely to launch a strike against Israel. Tehran knows that Israel’s multiple layers of missile defenses ensure that there is at best a minimal probability that an Iranian weapon would hit the Jewish state. On the other hand, there is a 100 percent probability that Israel would unleash a massive and successful retaliatory strike against Iran. Such a strike, and the disruption of Iranian daily life that would follow in its wake could spell the collapse of the regime, an outcome the Ayatollahs surely wish to avoid.

In contrast to Israel, the Gulf Arabs face a very different kind of Iranian threat, namely its determined effort to achieve regional hegemony. Even in its economically straitened circumstances, Tehran has managed to expand its influence in Iraq and Yemen, while also maintaining its position in Lebanon and coming to the aid of its beleaguered Syrian ally, President Bashar al Assad. The Gulf Arabs fear that a deal with Tehran that results in the early release of Iranian assets long frozen in western banks will provide it with more funds to wreak havoc in the region, notably in Shiite majority Iraq and Bahrain, and in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.

Moreover, the Sunni states share Israel’s conviction that a deal between the P5+1 and Iran will not restrain Tehran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions. A nuclear Iran would dominate the region — unless the Saudis, Emiratis, Egyptians, and others acquire their own nuclear weapons capability. King Salman of Saudi Arabia has virtually promised that he plans to do just that; the other leading Gulf states will not be far behind.

The administration has offered to increase the level and quality of weapons that it will sell to the Gulf Arabs, as if that might reassure them. The Israelis do not mind, since the administration will preserve their “qualitative edge,” meaning that Jerusalem now has a vested interest in the Arabs acquiring first class systems. But such bribery will reassure neither Israel nor the Gulf capitals, because the nature of the Iranian threat is not a conventional one.

There is still time for the Congress to reject the inevitable deal with Iran. The president will of course veto any such Congressional action, but an override remains very much a possibility. The Israelis and Gulf Arabs are not the only ones who would benefit from an override: so would the American people, who otherwise may have to confront a hegemonic, more powerful Iran whose objective will be not merely to destroy Israel and unseat the Sunni regimes, but to drive the “Great Satan” out of the Middle East once and for all.