Fom the oil crisis of 1973, to international concerns regarding the strict punitive system of Middle Eastern states, to the WikiLeaks cables suggesting how much American diplomats distrust the Middle Eastern countries, the relationship between United States and Gulf Countries has remained uneasy and complicated despite billions of dollars’ worth of mutual pacts, arms sales and history of common enemies.
The Camp David meeting of 14th May was intended to address one such complication – Iranian nuclear deal and the perceived threat to the security of the gulf countries in the wake of an economically and militarily strengthened, as well as potentially nuclear capable Iran.
The nuclear deal between Iran and P5+1, if finalized would not only lift the sanctions that have crippled Iranian economy since last 35 years, but it is also expected to allow Iran to maintain up to five thousand centrifuges and one heavy water reactor, with an enrichment cap of up to 5%. Furthermore, the release of $11 billion of unfrozen Assets and $50 billion of unfrozen cash will boost Iran’s economy in the short term, while the oil sales, after the sanctions are lifted, will help Iranians maintain a steady growth rate in the long run, allowing the country to assume its role as another regional power in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Needless to say, for past 2 years the gulf countries have been scrambling to get the deal taken off the table, to get strict conditions imposed on Iran or to at least get reasonable compensations in return, such as, a mutual defense pact guaranteeing an American intervention in case of any external attack.
The attempts have not yielded significant results in the past, and do not seem to have resulted in any major policy shift on part of the Americans this time around either. Apart from few agreements relating to military exercises, anti-cybercrime training and technical assistance in a few defense projects, there was little that came out of the meeting in favor of the GCC. Gulf countries did not manage to secure a binding mutual defense pact with the United States, neither was there any mention of the advanced 5th Generation stealth fighter aircrafts (F-35), that several Arab states have had their eyes on for the past few years. If anything of significance happened at all, it was that Barack Obama managed to secure the support of Arabs for a “verifiable” nuclear deal with Iran.
It may also be noted that rulers of four out of six invited nations did not personally attend the meeting, including the newly appointed monarch of Saudi Arabia.
Not all has been lost overnight for the gulf countries though, and neither does this perceived diplomatic setback put them in any imminent danger as even after a nuclear deal, Iran, with a fleet of less than three hundred nearly obsolete fighter jets and 35 naval vessels (half of which suits more to museums than they do to battle fields), would be in no position to sustain a conventional war with any of the gulf countries. It would take Iran several decades to modernize their equipment and to increase the size of their fleets up to the level when Iranian military could claim parity with their gulf rivals, let alone building a force capable of penetrating the modernized and well equipped defenses of the Gulf States.
Furthermore while GCC, particularly Saudi Arabia, is concerned that Iran can still develop a nuclear capability with the infrastructure that the deal legally allows, there really is no way such an operation could go unnoticed with daily inspections of nuclear sites and audit of all the uranium that is being extracted and enriched in the country, as stipulated by the proposed deal.
Following the situation in Syria, Iraq and lately Yemen, the rulers of gulf nations should realize that even after a nuclear deal with Iran, the greatest threat to them would not be of a conventional military invasion but that of an armed uprising and/or ideologically motivated terrorist groups, possibly backed by Iran.
The GCC should hold on to, and expand upon the counter-terrorism/counter-insurgency and anti-cybercrime cooperation and training that was offered to and agreed upon by both sides during the summit, instead of trying to pursue F-35s or mutual defense pacts, as not only are the Americans unwilling to agree to the former set of demands, but also because the nature of threat now faced by the gulf states cannot be dealt with by purchasing next generation fighter jets or by building coalitions to protect their countries against external invasions.