America's Dilemma: Juggling the Gulf-Iran Cold War
Time for Washington to demonstrate that it is willing to pursue an enhanced relationship with Iran and a balance between competing actors in the region.
Last month, President Barack Obama reiterated that there is “no military solution” to the Syrian conflict. The sentiment rings true, but considering the militias that dominate Syria, it seems equally unlikely that they will negotiate their way to a solution. Despite rebel advances in the south last week and gains against the regime in the north in March and April of this year, it remains unclear whether Assad will fall, but even if he should, the fight that will emerge amongst the fractured opposition to fill the power vacuum will be brutal and unlikely to result in stability or a solution. What happens in Syria, however, cannot be examined in isolation. Though the war began in Dara’a and Damascus, the country has since been enveloped into a larger conflict between the Gulf states and Iran. Following Syria’s path, Yemen has found itself sucked into the same regional fight. With substantial foreign involvement in both of these conflicts, a meaningful solution must be much larger in scope, and it must be the result of a great balancing of power in the Middle East that challenges the current relationships that are mainly based on inertia—especially the relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Solutions in Syria will not be negotiated at the domestic level. The militias that have gained prominence since the war began in 2011 are not long-existing institutions representing swaths of Syrian society—especially considering the large segment of foreigners fighting both for and against the regime. Groups have emerged quickly and gained power and patronage networks that they will not be willing to sacrifice for unity. Not only do they lack a common vision of the future with the Assad regime, they fail to share one amongst themselves. Furthermore, these fighters have flourished in a lucrative war economy, engaging in looting, kidnapping and smuggling and capitalizing on control of important infrastructure such as border crossings, checkpoints, highways and oil fields. The notion that the leadership of revolutionary, Islamist or Salafist militias profiting from the conflict would take the initiative to coalesce and either represent collective Syrian demands before the regime or cooperatively govern the country is a fantasy.
It’s beyond contention that the ongoing fighting in Syria and Yemen are facets of a larger conflict between the Arab Gulf states and Iran. Yes, both wars have their own domestic dimensions within them that exist independently of the larger regional one, and internal disputes may have sparked the fighting in the first place, but the Gulf and Iran are largely responsible for fueling and facilitating the conflicts through training, funding and arming forces and are even participating in the fight.
In Syria, Saudi Arabia has reportedly spent millions of dollars funding a bloc of non–Al Qaeda Islamist militias, and Qatar has been even less cautious than the Saudi government about its money and weapons falling into the hands of more radical groups. Iran has maintained and increased its support of Lebanese Hezbollah and the Syrian Arab Army loyal to Assad and is sending Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders to enhance their capacity to strategize and collect intelligence. Though Yemen does not have the same level of foreign fighters as Syria, it certainly has its share of foreign involvement. Iran has provided support to the Houthi tribes that overtook the capital Sana’a last September and expanded their control this March, and the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign of airstrikes supporting President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi against Iran’s allies has continued into its third month.
Describing the overarching competition between the Gulf states and Iran as being rooted in a Sunni-Shia divide is too simplistic, if not downright inaccurate. There are exceptions that go beyond proving the rule, and the motivations behind the regional actors are more economically and strategically driven. Take, for example, the quickly forgotten Qatar-Turkey and Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline proposals, both of which would begin at the South Pars/North Dome gas field shared by Iran and Qatar. The Gulf-favored pipeline, proposed in late 2009, would have gone either from Qatar to Saudi Arabia to Jordan to Syria to Turkey or from Qatar to Saudi Arabia to Kuwait to Iraq to Turkey. Bashar al-Assad rejected this proposal in favor of the July 2011 Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline—a $10 billion project that shut out Qatar and Saudi Arabia. As such, one of the objectives of the two Gulf countries has been to prevent the construction of such a pipeline. To this end, the bar for success is quite low. The Saudis and Qataris do not need to commit to stabilizing Syria and invest in the formation of an inclusive government that is friendly to their interests. They simply need to create enough instability in Syria so that Iran is unable to realize its energy goals.
Beyond economic and energy considerations, Saudi Arabia is also highly protective of its special relationship with the United States. While Saudi Arabia is the United States’ second-largest oil partner, providing 13 percent of total U.S. petroleum imports in 2014, and has allowed the United States to maintain a military presence (most of which it withdrew in 2003) and bases, the historical relationship was based on more than “oil for security.” In the Cold War, Saudi Arabia contributed a considerable amount to the U.S. anti-Communist agenda, and when the U.S.-Iranian relationship collapsed after the 1979 revolution and subsequent hostage crisis, the U.S. relationship with the Saudis deepened. Though the Gulf monarchy has continued to cooperate with the United States on anti-terrorism measures (ones that some see as further exacerbating tensions in the country and region), the basis for the relationship today seems largely based off of the inertia of political interests from decades past, one of which being the need for an ally against an Iranian foe. As the United States incrementally improves its relationship with Iran and Saudi Arabia’s strategic value diminishes, the Saudis are becoming increasingly uneasy with the potential for a new, more-balanced political dynamic.
How does the United States pursue this new balance? This would not entail getting into bed with Iran’s hardliners or the IRGC. Rushing into a relationship with Iran would needlessly sacrifice U.S. leverage and interests. Instead, the United States should purposefully continue down the path Obama has set by continuing to engage with Iran by means of negotiations and sanction relief as it fulfills the requirements of the nuclear framework—enhancing the positions of the internationally and diplomatically minded elements of the Iranian leadership.
While preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon is important and preferable to the alternative, perhaps a more important goal of these negotiations is to normalize relations between two countries that share a great deal in the way of security, economic and political interests. This will not be an easy task as there are elements in both Iran and in the United States that seek to dismantle the possibility of détente, and current U.S. relationships in the region will be tested, but such a shift is a necessary remedy to a history of policy that has heavily favored the Gulf. The United States also should not take up a policy favoring Iran in spite of the Gulf—doing so would have its own set of long-term consequences that are equally unpalatable. It should strive to find a balance between the two spheres of regional power, and as such, work to alleviate the tensions between those spheres.
Though rapprochement between the United States and Iran is still a ways off (should it come to fruition), the possibility is still real enough to provoke a response from the Gulf. In late March, the Saudis formed a coalition, mostly composed of Gulf states, and began a campaign of airstrikes against the Iranian-allied Houthis in Yemen to show that they were willing to act independently of Washington. The United States gave way a week and a half later, agreeing to expedite munitions shipments and provide intelligence and logistical support.
A month later, Saudi Arabia deepened its support for Syrian rebels by joining Turkey in backing the Army of Conquest, an umbrella group that includes the Al Qaeda–affiliated al-Nusra Front. While some have attributed the shift in policy to the new Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz’s more-favorable stance towards Islamists, one cannot help but also notice that the Qatari-brokered talks over increased cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Turkey began only days after the United States reached its historic agreement with Iran over a nuclear framework. The Gulf states want the United States to know they will not quietly accept this new attitude toward their adversary—a message reinforced by the Saudis’ poor showing at the recent GCC summit at Camp David—yet this will not be indicative of long-term Gulf policies. Though they will try to stave off a new order, the Gulf states will not take actions that isolate them economically from Europe and the United States, should such a new balance become solidified—especially if the United States takes steps to ensure that its Gulf partners can both save face and benefit from a new regional dynamic.