Escaping False Choices in the Middle East

A policy of dual engagement toward Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council would significantly improve our position.

America’s engagement with the Middle East is in flux. Old priorities are being reconsidered, and leaders in Washington are reshaping U.S. foreign policy in an attempt to break the cycle of crisis draining American blood and treasure. However, several long-time U.S. allies in the Middle East are less than happy with Washington’s new approach. The Gulf Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia and united in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have grown increasingly disenchanted with U.S. foreign policy, particularly over the handling of the still-raging Syrian civil war and the opening to Iran. The latter is almost a slap in the face to the GCC states, which have long considered Tehran the biggest threat to their security. Although the GCC states are not yet irreparably alienated, Saudi Arabia recently demonstrated its displeasure with the United States by dramatically rejecting a nonpermanent seat on the Security Council—a first in the history of the organization.

This Saudi gesture has sparked a debate among American pundits—how should the U.S. react? There are some who argue that the Obama administration shouldn’t pay attention to a Saudi temper tantrum and stay the course on Iran. Others say that America should listen to the Gulf states and not abandon longtime allies so lightly. Both sides have valid arguments—the Saudis and their GCC compatriots have good reason to fear an unreformed and unrepentant Iran freed from international sanctions, while the U.S. has a strong strategic interest in making a deal with Iran. However, that debate is limited by the binary thinking broadly in use—a choice between the GCC or Iran. The administration is not limited to choosing one side or the other, and it is not in its strategic interest to do so. Instead, the U.S. should pursue a policy of dual engagement, balancing negotiations with Iran on the one hand with reassurance of the GCC on the other.

Dual engagement is the obverse of President Clinton’s policy of dual containment, the attempt to keep both Iran and Iraq in check in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War and Operation Desert Storm. Instead of straining to keep two powerful countries under control and at bay, the U.S. would instead work with both sides and help them each work to achieve their own security goals. Here, the two targets of the policy are Iran and the Gulf States, each with understandable interests and concerns that have historically conflicted. However, with creativity, an energetic dialogue and revitalized cooperation between Washington and Riyadh can complement the ongoing diplomatic engagement with Tehran.

In practice, a strategy of dual engagement would center on two high-profile initiatives: a Presidential speech to the nation and the appointment of a Special Envoy to the GCC. In the speech, the President would take care to emphasize his sympathy for Gulf concerns, and to lay out expectations for Iran’s behavior after a deal. Such a speech would not only help to rally the American people behind the push for a breakthrough, but would clearly demonstrate that the U.S. will not neglect its Gulf allies. Following the speech, the President would appoint his envoy to spearhead and coordinate ties between Washington and the GCC capitals. This representative would, in his or her person, serve as a reassuring reminder of American attention to Gulf concerns, and act as a direct channel from Gulf leaders to the White House. Specific initiatives could include a comprehensive upgrade and integration of GCC air defenses, upgrading the Gulf Security Dialogue to the Deputy Secretary or Secretary level at the President’s discretion, and continued high-level reassurances of American commitment to a stable region.

A strategy of dual engagement would go a long way toward turning the Obama administration’s recently released new strategy for U.S. involvement in the Middle East into a reality. That strategy aims to use U.S. influence to solve several outstanding problems in the region while scaling back overt involvement in others, envisioning America in an over-the-horizon role—ready to step in if required, but not consistently involved in every conflict. In essence, the President and his advisors want to let the Middle East run itself, with minimal help from Washington.

For that approach to have a chance of working, several conditions need to be met:

● First, the U.S. must ensure that a rough balance of power continues to obtain in the region, and that no potentially hostile internal or external powers come to dominate it.

● Second, there must be reasonable confidence the region will not lapse farther into chaos than it already has, and that the remaining internally stable countries, a.k.a Iran and the Gulf States, are able to hold their own.

● Third, Washington must retain good working relationships with current U.S. partners to protect its ability to influence events and build up capacity if a military intervention is necessary.

Given current regional trends, those three necessities are in jeopardy. However, the pursuit of a dual engagement policy would give the U.S. new tools to pursue each goal.