Posted on April 20, 2015 in Washington Watch

Arab leaders cautiously welcomed the P5+1 framework with Iran. The Arab press, on the other hand, was not so circumspect with criticisms ranging from the fanciful ("the U.S. is ushering in a new U.S.-Iranian order" to dominate regional affairs) to the anxious (with the end of sanctions, Iran will have greater freedom and resources at its disposal to pursue its troubling regional agenda in Iraq, in Syria, and now in Yemen). 

While I have concerns with how the process evolved, I strongly support the deal and believe that it can be a very good thing if for no other reason than the fact that it demonstrates the power and the possibilities of engagement. Moving forward, if we play it right and if we listen carefully to what our Arab partners are saying to us, the deal can open the door to constructive discussions with allied Arab leaders that will enhance the prospects of peace and stability across the region. 

In a statement my Institute issued with the National Iranian American Council and J Street we noted:

This deal may provide an important first step towards de-escalating regional tensions and pave the way for resolving the many conflicts that still persist. The lesson that we all must learn from these successful negotiations is that diplomacy works. This deal demonstrates that no disagreement should be so deeply entrenched that it cannot be resolved through the give and take of serious diplomacy.

My concerns are not with the deal itself, but with how it was done, and the lessons I hope we will learn as we move to the next stage.

To be sure, the next few months will still involve rounds of tough private negotiations, coupled with public posturing. All this time, critics will be having a field day trying to upend the process. We have already heard from the Israelis who, in their continuing efforts to scuttle the deal, have combined warnings of imminent Armageddon with the insistence that the final arrangement include a number of "poison pills" -- like Netanyahu's demand that it include Iran's recognition of Israel as a "Jewish State". The U.S. Congress initially balked threatening to be tough with the President. They then agreed to soften their stance in a compromise bill that should allow the Administration sufficient leeway to avoid a Congressional block.

As I noted, Arab leaders, even those who have deep distrust with Iran's intentions, have been tempered in their reactions to the deal. One Arab official with whom I spoke suggested that it was pointless to dwell on the past, unless it was to learn lessons from the process that would enable the U.S. to move forward with greater trust and partnership.

The U.S. allies in the Gulf have long been concerned not only with Iran's nuclear ambitions, but more importantly with the Islamic Republic's regional ambitions and its meddlesome intrusion into affairs in the Arab region. Statements from Tehran boasting that they now have sit in capitals in Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sanaa, weigh heavy on the collective Arab consciousness.

Some Western commentators cavalierly dismiss this concern as nothing more than an age-old Sunni/Shia rivalry. In fact, the problem is neither "theological", nor is it age-old. It is a political struggle, pure and simple. As Arabs see it, since 1979 Iran has operated as a revolutionary regime that has sought to export its theocratic model of governance and its ideology of resistance against the West. As such, Iran has fomented unrest -- even during the Hajj in Saudi Arabia -- and has sought regional hegemony through partners who would embrace their militant world-view. 

In response, the Arab Gulf states joined forces in a Gulf Cooperation Council and have made arrangements with the U.S. to enhance their individual and collective security. At the same time, each of these states, at their own pace and in their own way, have attempted to grow their economies, address local development concerns, and provide for their growing populations. 

As their publics' frustrations and even anger at U.S. policies grew—in reaction to U.S. support for Israel's treatment of Palestinians and the devastation the U.S. brought to Iraq—Arab leaders were forced to confront public dissatisfaction with their close ties with the U.S. And so one can imagine the bind in which Arab leaders have found themselves when they see the U.S., after destabilizing Iraq and leaving it open to Iranian influence and then abandoning Syria, now negotiating in secret with Iran over its nuclear program.

If all that were at stake were Iran's nuclear program, there would be far less concern than there is given Iran's increasing disruptive regional role.

When the GCC leaders come to Washington next month, the most important task facing the Administration is not to rehash or make their case for the deal. It is to rebuild trust. If the U.S. wants to see the Arab states as allies, it must treat them as such.

A good place to begin would be for the U.S. to make clear that it understands the dangers that Iran poses in fomenting and/or prolonging conflict in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. A new plan of action must be laid out for Iraq that doesn't allow for U.S. airpower to pave the way for Iranian-backed militia to take over from ISIL. This will only exacerbate the deep divide and political alienation that helped spawn ISIL, in the first place. Discussions should then move on to Syria and Yemen to discuss the steps that need to be taken to achieve negotiated solutions in both countries.

Finally, the President will have to do better to demonstrate that he understands the relationship between the external and internal challenges facing each of the Arab Gulf countries than he did in his recent interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. In that interview, after noting that the U.S. would work with its "Sunni allies" to help secure their defense needs, he went on to note that "the biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It's going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries ... That's a tough conversation to have, but it's one that we have to have."

Of course, these Arab states, each in differing degrees, are facing internal challenges. And again, to differing degrees they are addressing these challenges by confronting extremism and reforming their educational and religious institutions, and by working to create educational and employment opportunities for their young. In each of these areas U.S. support can be helpful and will be welcomed. But if the U.S. were to attempt to meddle in the internal affairs of these countries, it will neither be helpful nor welcomed—not only by leaders, but by a majority of the Arab public.

With three wars being fought in their immediate vicinity, with the threat of Iran looming large, and with trust in the U.S. at extremely low levels -- the President needs to tread carefully and speak even more carefully. As our most recent polling demonstrates, Arab attitudes toward the U.S. remain deeply conflicted. Arabs want ties with the U.S., but they lack trust in America's intentions and remain profoundly disturbed by U.S. policies toward Israel, Iraq, and Syria. 

As I noted, the nuclear deal establishes that when the U.S., together with other powers, use all of the political and diplomatic tools available to them, negotiations can yield results. Moving forward, the U.S. should demonstrate that it can use those same tools to help rein in Iran's regional ambitions. And it should do so with Arabs as partners in this process, not as mere by-standers.

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