A near unanimous decision by the six heads of state of the Gulf Cooperation Council not to personally attend the meeting convened by the American President is a most dramatic demonstration of the decline of American clout in a part of the West Asian region where it was the strongest. The meeting was called by the President to explain and reassure his Gulf allies about the Iran nuclear deal. The boycott is a measure of the extent of the loss of trust of the Gulf countries in the leadership and credibility of the United States. The American Administration has of course been aware of the widening gulf in mutual trust between the two sides but was probably not aware of its depth. It tried to assuage its erstwhile protégés’ sensibilities by vocally and strongly supporting the Saudi-led intervention against the Houthi-led insurrection in Yemen. It provided crucial logistic and intelligence support and deployed powerful naval armada in the Gulf of Aden, even ordering the hugely powerful aircraft carrier USS Enterprise to those waters. Evidently, these efforts and gestures have not had the desired result.
The causes of this disenchantment among the kingdom and its GCC allies are well known. It started with the phenomenon which prematurely came to be described as the Arab Spring. The Saudis were deeply disappointed with the American lack of decisiveness in standing behind President Mubarak and for eventually ditching him.
They left the Americans in no doubt about their displeasure. When Morsy was overthrown, the Americans again were on the other side since they openly condemned what they called the coup against the ‘democratically elected’ leader, even though they knew that Saudi Arabia was firmly opposed to Moslem Brotherhood.
The Saudi disillusionment with America became stronger with the developments in the Syrian civil war. The Saudis expected their American friends to be more forthright in joining the campaign to topple President Bashar Al Assad. The kingdom had never been happy with the unwillingness of the Syrian regime to align itself with them. Syria’s dominance of Lebanon, especially during the period when Rafiq Hariri was its Prime Minister, was intensely resented by the then King who considered Hariri as his protégé. (Hariri made his millions in Saudi Arabia.)
President Obama had declared that if the Assad regime used chemical weapons, that would mean crossing a ‘red line’ for him and he would bomb the regime’s strongholds. Chemical weapons were used and Obama did nothing. The Saudis were furious at being let down. The concerted propaganda launched by them as well as Qatar had succeeded in creating a strong perception that it was the Assad government which had used the weapon of mass destruction. However, an internal investigation in Washington, at the least, found several holes in the story, compelling Mr. Obama not to carry out his threat or promise.
The proverbial last straw which broke the camel’s back was the determined push by the American President in the nuclear talks with Iran. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have been polite in their public utterances and played down the intense mistrust and hostility which they entertain for each other. The fact remains that the two are rivals in the region for dominance. The sectarian divide is no doubt one important factor since the kingdom regards itself as the leader of all the Muslims in the world and the Islamic Republic considers itself as the defender of the Shia community. Shias and Sunnis deliberately downplay their differences in public discourse but the theological gap between them is unbridgeable. Worldwide, Shias are only 10 to 15 % of the Muslim Ummah and are in majority in only four countries – Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Azerbaijan. Shia minorities have been persecuted in most Sunni majority countries, and it is only in recent years that they have asserted themselves. Iran’s rise as the Islamic Republic has undoubtedly a lot to do with this assertiveness.
Saudi Arabia has legitimate concerns at the rise of Iran, given the fact that its Shia population, about 10-12 %, is located in the eastern province where the kingdom’s oil resources are concentrated. If Iran comes to have an effective voice in Yemen, it might generate dissidence in the country. Sectarian considerations, while important, have been overplayed by the Saudis. Their principal concern is that if Iran succeeds in striking a deal with the US, which would permit it to retain its nuclear weapon capability, it would forever tilt the balance of power in favor of Iran. Consequently, when the talks between Iran and P-5 + 1 made progress, raising expectations about a successful conclusion by the end of June, the Saudi kingdom thought something had to be done.
That something turned out to be the intervention in Yemen. In this adventure, they were actively encouraged and assisted by Israel whose Prime Minister has mounted a most effective campaign against the nuclear deal for his own reasons. The Saudis and Israelis are allies in this anti-Iran exercise. If the nuclear talks conclude in a mutually acceptable agreement, Iran will undoubtedly emerge as the dominant power in the region.
Saudi Arabia has mounted a huge media blitz to convince the major powers of Iran’s active involvement on the side of the Houthis, alleging political, logistical and military support to the Houthi insurgency. Iran denies all such allegations. The U.S. has warned Iran against helping the Houthis, accusing it of everything that the Saudis accuse Iran of. But not all Western politicians subscribe to the claim of Iranian involvement. Even by the UN account, Yemen is flush with 40 to 60 million weapons of different sorts. Yemen’s deposed President has aligned himself with the Houthis, mainly to secure political future for his son, and he has strong following in the Yemeni army.
If Iran miscalculates, it might force Mr. Obama to rethink the nuclear deal. He is already under tremendous pressure domestically. Mr. Netanyahu has mobilized the Republican Senators against the deal. It is to the President’s credit that he has withstood all the pressure and persevered in the negotiations. A misstep by Iran just might force Obama’s hand and call off the talks. Iran of course realizes this danger.
Not everyone in Iran is in favor of the deal, but a huge majority is, especially the one person whose voice counts the most, namely, the Supreme Leader. It is perhaps more up to Iran to make sure that it exercises maximum restraint in the Yemeni affair. It is also Iran’s responsibility to reassure its smaller neighbors about its peaceful and good neighborly intentions towards them.
The unprecedented public display of no-confidence by the Gulf countries in President Obama is equally a challenge for him as well as for Iran.