President Barack Obama was recently snubbed by Persian Gulf Arab leaders at a summit he threw at Camp David to pay them off for the impending U.S.-led nuclear agreement with Iran! By staying away and playing hard to get, the heads of four of the six Gulf States, including King Salman of Saudi Arabia, were outrageously trying to up the price to bribe them to accept a nuclear agreement that benefits them the most of anybody. They wanted a formal alliance, such as NATO in Europe, which would have obligated the United States to come to their assistance if attacked. Instead, the United States offered enhanced cooperation in maritime security, greater numbers of joint training exercises with the U.S. military, greater support in countering cyberattacks from Iran, and help in creating an early-warning capacity for a Persian Gulf regional missile defense. Even more galling, at the time of the snub, the United States was providing valuable military assistance to Saudi Arabia, the leader of the Gulf States, for its bombing campaign against Iran-friendly Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia has been so miffed at Obama for negotiating with its regional archrival Iran that it has threatened to obtain whatever nuclear enrichment capability Iran will be allowed to retain under the yet-to-be-finalized nuclear agreement. Yet these are Gulf State crocodile tears. Those states have long worried about Iran’s nuclear program, have so far not matched it, and would be the principal beneficiaries of any agreement to prevent their hostile neighbor from getting a nuclear weapon for 10 to 15 years. Like Israel, which has 200 to 400 nuclear weapons in a defense posture that is even more heavily subsidized by the United States, the Gulf States have demanded that Iran be stripped of any nuclear program – unattainable without a full-blown U.S. ground invasion of that country, which would likely make the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq look like a picnic. Further, as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, Iran does have a right to a nuclear program for peaceful purposes, which is what the U.S.-led P5+1 (five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany) negotiations with Iran are attempting to ensure by restricting Iran’s ability to enrich uranium.
For Israel and the Gulf Arab states, which also don’t like each other much, the real issue is less about an agreement limiting Iran’s ability to get a nuclear weapon than about a realignment of power in the Middle East region. Now the United States unequivocally provides a security backstop for Israel and the Gulf States against Iran. These nations are afraid that the U.S. defense commitment may waiver or attenuate if the United States has a broader thawing of relations with Iran. Prior to the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s, the three main pillars of U.S. policy in the Middle East were Israel, the conservative Arab monarchies of the Gulf, and Iran. The last of those pillars fell as Iran became a fundamentalist Islamic theocracy. Now Israel and the Gulf states fear such a U.S. rebalancing. They also fear the ending of economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for limits on that nation’s nuclear program, thus creating a wealthier Iran that could be a more formidable regional foe. (In fact, for a long time, Iran will probably use any increase in investment or commerce to renew its weak economy.)
The bottom line is that instead of negotiating with Iran, Israel and the Gulf States would have preferred the United States to have conducted air strikes on that country, even if those strikes would have only temporarily set back Iran’s nuclear program (because much of it is buried underground, making it resistant to attack from the air). The real interest in these regional rivals is to weaken Iran in any way possible.
However, the United States caters too much to Israel and the Gulf States. In Israel’s case, America does so less for security reasons in a post-Cold War world and more as a response to pressure groups inside the U.S. political system. As for the Gulf States, U.S. government officials seem to believe the illusion that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States moderate the price of oil, which is strategic to the U.S. economy. Yet in my book, No War for Oil: U.S. Dependency and the Middle East, I debunk that oil is a strategic commodity – that is, one that governments need to manage because the oil markets cannot effectively and efficiently provide the cheapest oil possible. In the book, I note that an efficient worldwide market exists for oil, the Saudi-led OPEC cartel is much weaker than is normally assumed by the governments of petroleum consuming nations, industrialized economies are much more resilient to any price rises in oil than the conventional wisdom allows, and even in the wake of such price rises, it is still cheaper to pay for oil rather than station U.S. military forces in the Persian Gulf to “defend” it by wars such as Gulf Wars I and II. The drop in the world oil price from new U.S. fracking technologies merely reinforces the effects of these little appreciated facts.
Therefore, no reason exists to coddle the despotic Saudi Arabia and other authoritarian Gulf monarchies to get their oil (and there really hasn’t been since Franklin D. Roosevelt set the precedent for the security-for-oil trade with King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud during World War II). And if that’s the case, then no national security reason exists why the United States should not reach an agreement with Iran to limit its nuclear program and perhaps even cooperate in other areas. The United States shouldn’t love the autocratic Iranian regime either, but the U.S. government needs to look out for American interests, not bribe arrogant, wealthy allies – which just want “more, more, more” – to accept something that is clearly in their best interest: an agreement that will prevent hostile neighboring Iran from getting a nuclear weapon for at least 10 to 15 years and maybe forever.