A grand bargain, with the Gulf not Iran

Expectations for next week’s Wednesday/Thursday summit at the White House and Camp David with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) heads of state (or their proxies) vary greatly. Simon Henderson, who follows the Gulf from the Washington Institute, says

the definition of success for this summit will more likely be a limited agreement than an historic pact.

Joyce Karam suggests something more substantial: the summit may allow a bargain in which the Gulf states  drop their opposition to a nuclear deal with Iran in exchange for the US allowing the Gulf a freer hand in countering Iranian surrogates in Syria and possibly Yemen.

The Americans have not seemed inclined in this more grandiose direction. They remain worried about who might take over in Syria should Asad fall. They have also leaned in favor of a ceasefire or humanitarian pause in Yemen, where the Saudi-led intervention has not done much to roll back the Iranian-supported Houthis while rousing nationalist sentiment among Yemeni civilians, who are suffering mightily because of the fighting.

Those concerns are serious ones, but events on the ground in Syria may not permit the Americans to remain aloof much longer. Rebel forces there have gained ground both in the north, near Idlib, and in the south, between Damascus and the Jordanian border. Regime forces seem unable to respond effectively, though Lebanese Hizbollah and Iranian fighters continue to prevent outright disaster for Asad. The divisions among Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar (the three main financiers of the Syrian revolution) that in the past have hampered rebel effectiveness are diminishing. The Americans might prefer to await training of their vetted rebels to bring down Asad, but he is unlikely to last the years it will take to put a significant number of them back on the battlefield.

In Yemen, the Gulf protagonists have less reason for optimism. Intervention there against the Houthis has not done more than slow their advance south. In the meanwhile, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is gaining ground. The Houthis don’t like Al Qaeda any better than the Saudis do, but it is hard to picture a political solution at this point that allows them to combine to fight their common enemy. They are inclined to forget Ben Franklin’s admonition:  either we all hang together, or we all hang separately.

A Gulf/American pact in favor of more concerted efforts to counter Iran’s regional trouble-making could be helpful to the Obama Administration at home, where it faces continued bipartisan opposition to the nuclear deal. Yesterday’s 98-1 Senate approval of legislation giving the Congress a 30-day opportunity to debate and vote on the nuclear deal sets up an important debate for early August, provided the nuclear deal is reached by the end of June. The strongest argument against the nuclear deal is likely to be the prospect of an emboldened Iran free of sanctions using its considerable wealth to subvert the Arab states of the Gulf and Levant. Freeing the Gulf to counter Iranian efforts in Syria and Yemen would be one way of responding to the Administration’s critics at home.

The problem is that it may not work. The Gulf states, which have armed themselves far beyond the Iranians’ wildest dreams, continue to bumble when it comes to military action and diplomatic weight. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has succeeded in building up effective surrogates in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In Yemen and Bahrain, the Iranians have taken advantage of local grievances to make a lot of trouble. The Gulf states fear the lifting of sanctions for good reasons. Even under sanctions, Iran has done well diplomatically and militarily. What might Tehran be able to do once sanctions are lifted and hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenue return to its coffers?

The summit next week is an unusual one. Whether your expectations are great or not so great, there are real issues to discuss between Washington and its Gulf interlocutors. An agreement that combines a nuclear deal with more effective action to stem Iranian regional trouble-making would be a serious outcome. Rather than the grand bargain with Iran the Republicans and Israelis fear, we may be seeing the emergence of a grand bargain with the Gulf.


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