On May 5, 2010, the Brookings Doha Center and Saban Center for Middle East Policy hosted a policy forum to explore the extent to which the United States and Gulf countries can forge a common policy in response to Iran’s unwillingness to comply with UN Security Council demands that it cease its nuclear program. This was the first time the Saban Center and Brookings Doha Center held a joint policy discussion via teleconference. Brookings Senior Fellows Suzanne Maloney and Bruce Riedel spoke from Washington. They were joined by the Director of the Center for International and Regional Studies and Interim Dean at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, Mehran Kamrava, and Assistant Professor in Modern Middle East History at Qatar University, Mahjoob Zweiri. Saban Center Director Kenneth Pollack in Washington and Brookings Doha Center Director Hady Amr moderated the discussion in Qatar.
Suzanne Maloney opened the session by commenting on the Obama Administration’s multifaceted policy toward Iran. Maloney said that the debate in Washington over the past 15 months has been similar to the debate that occurred during the George W. Bush Administration. The Obama Administration has adopted a dual track policy toward Iran that applies pressure on Iran while offering to sit down with Tehran at the bargaining table. However, despite Washington’s efforts to improve the diplomatic landscape, the outcome has been disappointing. Obama has been criticized from both sides—some say the administration should engage more wheras others argue engagement with Iran is imprudent, especially in light of the disputed presidential elections last summer. Given what seems to be a stalemate, what comes next?
Currently, the U.S. administration is weighing the options of containment or military action. Washington’s concern is that it has made less headway vis-à-vis the Iran question than it would have liked. Upon taking office, the Obama Administration looked to change U.S. foreign policy, specifically U.S. relationships with the international community. Yet, while there has been a meaningful shift in the U.S. relationship with Russia, Moscow has been reluctant to support a hard-line approach toward Iran. Similarly, Maloney said, the United States receives mixed signals from the Gulf. On one hand, Gulf states have embraced hard-line rhetoric against the Iranian nuclear weapons program, but on the other hand, Gulf countries have been reluctant to jeopardize their political and economic relationship with Iran.
Mehran Kamrava began by arguing that the United States’ strategic objectives pay little regard to the strategic positions of Gulf states. With the exception of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is comprised of small states that have to pursue survival strategies, which includes adopting moderate foreign policies; given that Gulf nations are located in a volatile part of the world, there is a small range of policy options available to them. At the same time, each of these states pursues highly differentiated policies driven by internal and larger, geostrategic considerations. For instance, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the UAE pursue a bandwagoning policy whereby the superpower of the region, Saudi Arabia, does their political bidding for them. Yet, even within this bandwagoning, there are differences—while Bahrain lets Saudi Arabia set the tone of its policies toward Iran, the UAE is assertive because of an island dispute with Iran, and Kuwait is currently purchasing water and liquefied natural gas from Iran. Conversely, Kamrava pointed out, Qatar has an unusually fraternal relationship with Iran as high-ranking officials from both countries make reciprocal state visits. At the same time, Qatar houses the largest U.S. airbase in the world. All this illustrates how the complexity of these relationships contributes to the difficulty the United States has encountered in mobilizing unqualified support in the Gulf on Iran’s nuclear program.
Bruce Riedel then commented on where Iran fits in the Obama Administration’s foreign policy objectives. President Obama is working toward a nuclear-free world and articulated this vision at his nuclear summit in Washington last month. Riedel contended that the United States must look at the Iran question through the prism of the wars in Afghanistan/Pakistan and Iraq, and the so-called “war on terror.” In Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iran has the potential to “make a bad situation worse.” The Iranian Revolutionary Guard has cultivated a relationship with the Afghan Taliban; should the Iranians decide to interfere, they could channel weapons like surface to air missiles to the Taliban. On another front, the United States is competing with Iran over the future of Iraq. Both the Afghani and Iraqi presidents are enthusiastic supporters of Ahmadinejad. Riedel also highlighted the importance of Iran not getting involved in acts of terror against the United States via affiliated groups such as Hizballah, saying that“no one wants to add Hizballah to the terror syndicate problem for the U.S.” He also mentioned that over the past seven years, Israeli interests have figured prominently in U.S. calculations on Iran. Riedel said the United States’ option may come down to, “Living with an Iranian bomb or using military force for Iran not to have a bomb.” He predicted that President Obama’s military advisors will not encourage the military option and that domestic advisors will seek a third way out.
Mahjoob Zweiri began his comments by clarifying a point—he said that there is a diversity of opinions in the Arab world on the question of Iran and that they have changed significantly over the past 30 years. He highlighted the fact that in the Arab world, there is commonly a discrepancy between the official state position on Iran and public opinion. The Arab street’s perception of Iran shifted following the 2009 elections, and politicians and academics now question the legitimacy and credibility of the Iranian regime, which has never happened before. Zweiri emphasized the point that Arab countries are concerned with Iran’s increasingly significant role in the region whereas the United States is concerned with the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Zweiri expects that a new round of sanctions will negatively affect Iran and an internal upheaval will bring about change without the United States having to pursue a military option.
Following the panel’s remarks, a question-and-answer session covered a range of issues, including the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) proposal, the likelihood of war between the United States and Iran, whether it was prudent for President Obama to make repeated overtures to the Iranian leadership, and the likelihood and consequences of Israel or Iran preempting military strikes against one another. On the TRR deal, Maloney questioned whether the United States could revive a TRR arrangement that is acceptable to both the Iranians and Americans. Maloney proffered that perhaps the solution to Iranian intransigence vis-à-vis its nuclear program is that the country is allowed to develop its program without ever making devices or having arsenal. Maloney indicated that the United Sates could tolerate this, but Israel would not, as Israel wants a monopoly of nuclear power in the Middle East. In terms of the likelihood of a United States-Iran military clash, Riedel said it was difficult to imagine President Obama asking for Chapter 7 authorization from the Security Council to use force against Iran when Russia and China do not even want to impose toothless sanctions against Iran. Also, it is unlikely Congress will vote to support a third war in the Middle East. Kamrava added that a U.S. strike against Iran would cause retaliation and consequently destabilize the Gulf region. On the likelihood of Israeli or Iranian preemption, Riedel explained that if Israel struck Iran without U.S. permission, there would be anger in the United States, but it would be unlikely that U.S. economic or military assistance to Israel would cease. Kamrava clarified that Tehran would view an Israeli strike against Tehran as an attack with U.S. complicity. In such a situation, the United States would probably find itself in the position of having to clean up the mess and contain the fallout.