Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

What a New Iran Nuclear Deal Really Requires

To get Washington’s Gulf partners on board, Biden needs an actual strategy for protecting them and ways to make them contribute to it.

By , a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
An Iranian woman wearing a protective mask walks past a mural painted on the outer walls of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran, on Dec. 30, 2020.
An Iranian woman wearing a protective mask walks past a mural painted on the outer walls of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran, on Dec. 30, 2020. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

The Obama administration’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran has its many American supporters and detractors. But if there’s one thing on which everybody agrees, it is that Washington’s regional partners—namely, most Gulf Arab states and Israel—absolutely hate it, and for a good reason: It failed to address their regional security concerns, which went beyond Iran’s nuclear enrichment abilities.

Former President Barack Obama’s advisers didn’t think it was possible to reach a comprehensive agreement because they were concerned that, if they rammed Tehran’s missile arsenal and its regional proxy network into the nuclear talks, the Iranians would bail. Their intuition seems to have been correct.

The Obama administration’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran has its many American supporters and detractors. But if there’s one thing on which everybody agrees, it is that Washington’s regional partners—namely, most Gulf Arab states and Israel—absolutely hate it, and for a good reason: It failed to address their regional security concerns, which went beyond Iran’s nuclear enrichment abilities.

Former President Barack Obama’s advisers didn’t think it was possible to reach a comprehensive agreement because they were concerned that, if they rammed Tehran’s missile arsenal and its regional proxy network into the nuclear talks, the Iranians would bail. Their intuition seems to have been correct.

Once the more limited Iran deal was struck, Obama tried to lessen the damage with the Gulf Arab partners by holding two summits with them to discuss ways to strengthen their defense and security ties with the United States—one in Camp David in 2015 and one in Riyadh the following year. Five working groups were created, and some progress was made in the fields of counterterrorism, ballistic missile defense, cyber security, and maritime security.

The Biden administration, many members of which worked for Obama on the Middle East and specifically on the Iranian nuclear issue, may soon propose its own ideas on how to renew those discussions and processes, perhaps with some tweaks to the previous format.

It also could try a broader approach and push for a regional security dialogue, likely in parallel with prospective nuclear talks. Such a dialogue ideally would determine new standards of conduct, initiate confidence-building measures, and lower the political temperature. Most powers in the Middle East would generally be sympathetic to such a proposal. After all, the region is the only one in the world not to have an inclusive multilateral process to support stability, and given its endemic and borderless problems, it very badly needs one.

The main reason why the summits in Camp David and Riyadh didn’t amount to much was because the Gulf Arabs had lost confidence in Washington’s willingness to stand by them during times of danger.

However, neither idea is likely to work without deeper trust between the United States and its regional partners. The main reason why the summits in Camp David and Riyadh didn’t amount to much was because the Gulf Arabs along with Israel had lost confidence, rightly or wrongly, in Washington’s willingness to stand by them during times of danger.

It is unclear how trust can be restored today when the gulf seems considerable. It’ll certainly take time. Maybe more personal, high-level diplomacy, which Arab leaders especially appreciate, can help. Maybe new initiatives in security cooperation can be devised to address the range of conventional and unconventional threats posed by Iran. Maybe institutionalized forums for more regular political consultation to avoid surprises and limit misunderstandings.

Yet even all that is still unlikely to be enough, mostly because the Iranian strikes on the Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq in 2019 changed the tenor. Fixing on the margins may not cut it. What that unprecedented assault destroyed was more than a few of the kingdom’s oil facilities. It shattered all Arab belief in Washington as a reliable security partner and caused immense damage to the Carter Doctrine, which is meant precisely to stop or, if deterrence fails, immediately respond to such attacks.

The Gulf Arab states chose not to go public with their deep concerns over the failure of U.S. deterrence primarily to avoid a political crisis with former President Donald Trump and thus hand the Iranians another win. But in private, questions about the U.S. security commitment abounded in places like Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

Despite the shock of that incident, the Trump administration and its Arab partners never really did much about it afterwards. Washington did go on to kill Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top military commander, in January 2020 with a drone strike near Baghdad International Airport. But that response came several months after Abqaiq, casting much doubt on the theory it was punishment for Abqaiq. Deterrence is only credible and useful when it’s unequivocal, immediate, and decisive. The Soleimani strike was certainly not the first two.

The Biden foreign-policy team and Gulf Arab leaders will have plenty of opportunities to consult on how to address the Iran challenge in its totality. In those conversations, Abqaiq—and how to prevent another such strike—will definitely come up. Brutal honesty on both sides about the limits of their commitment toward each other is a must. If the consensus is to truly work together, find common ground, and boost the partnership, those working groups and deliverables of 2015-16 won’t be sufficient.

What’s needed is a tangible American military operational plan, or plans, for Iranian conventional aggression. This is what U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) would call OPLANs, designed to effectively protect critical assets in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain or elsewhere on the Arabian Peninsula from Tehran’s missiles and other lethal projectiles. It’s true that those plans are needed regardless of what happens on the nuclear front, but their very formulation provides much needed security reassurance to the regional partners which could offer Washington more leeway in its nuclear negotiations.

Such OPLANs might already exist for each country but have no clear U.S. strategic guidance from executive leadership on when or where to activate them, or they might not. Both scenarios are troubling for the Gulf Arab partners. And if they don’t exist, high-level U.S.-Arab talks on regional security had better zero in on the parameters of what the United States will commit to doing to protect its partners and importantly, how the Arabs could contribute military assets to those plans. For this to work, this has to be done in partnership. And unlike Operation Desert Storm in 1990, this time the Arabs can definitely chip in.

Bilal Y. Saab is a senior fellow and the director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute. He specializes in the Levant and the Gulf, and he is the author of the forthcoming book Rebuilding Arab Defense: America's Quest for Military Partnership in the Middle East.

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