The Gulf States have not explicitly voiced disapproval of this agreement, but they have not embraced it either. And it is clear that Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council are concerned that the agreement signifies a broader policy of rapprochement which will allow Iran to grow in strength and influence.
Indeed, the Times of Israel characterized the meeting between Obama and Salman as being aimed at reassuring the Saudis that the US will help to keep Iran’s regionally destabilizing activities in check wherever doing so seems appropriate. But Arab concerns largely hinge on the idea that US policy reflects differing interpretations of when this is appropriate.
The Times of Israel quotes former White House national security adviser Elliot Abrams as saying that the Saudis believe the US sees Iran as a potential partner in Middle Eastern affairs, including the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Indeed, the Obama administration has given clear public indications that this is their view, with the president himself famously declaring that he foresaw nuclear negotiations as leading Iran toward status as a “very successful regional power.”
Some elements in the West apparently hope that Tehran could do some of the heavy lifting in the crises that are threatening long-term Middle Eastern stability, and this seemingly supports efforts to draw down US power in the midst of those crises. While the Obama administration’s intention is apparently to avoid entanglement in potential regional quagmires like the unpopular US-Iraq War, the administration’s opponents fear that it has been betraying former commitments in order to remain uninvolved.
This view is seemingly shared by Saudi Arabia and has surely influenced the recent conversations that King Salman and his officials have had with their American counterparts. One of the topics that was expected to be central to their conversation on Friday was the ongoing civil war in Yemen, where Shiite rebels backed by Iran seized power from the elected, pro-Western president early this year.
In absence of US action curtailing Iran’s reach into Yemen, the Saudis and their Gulf State partners formed a coalition to conduct bomb strikes against rebel targets. But the crisis in the country remains far from being resolved, and US action could help to tip the currently uncertain balance of power.
In Yemen, the US lost a major foothold for intelligence and combat operations against especially dangerous offshoots of Al Qaeda. However, the US never took an explicit stance on the civil war that grew out of Iranian influence. The same cannot be said of other conflicts in the region, including the more-than four-year-long Syrian Civil War. The Times of Israel criticized the Obama administration on Friday for effectively giving up on its stated commitments to the end of the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, apparent in the interest of not jeopardizing rapprochement with Iran.
Recently, the Obama administration has stated that it believes Iran could be open to more productive conversations on the topic of Syria in the wake of the nuclear agreement. But no evidence has been presented to suggest that the Iranian position has changed or that it is willing to consider a political solution that includes the end of Assad’s rule.
The marginalization of Sunnis under Assad has been blamed for contributing to local recruitment successes for the Islamic State. And this situation has only grown worse in light of Iran’s contribution of Shiite militias to the pro-Assad faction in the civil war.
The Syrian Civil War has now created the greatest European refugee crisis since the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s, according a report published Friday by Al Jazeera. As many as 4,000 Syrian refugees were expected to cross from Hungary into Austria by the end of Saturday, after the Austrian government announced that it would take them in.
At the same time that Friday’s meeting between King Salman and President Obama represented an opportunity for the US to reassure Saudi Arabian over the Iran situation, it also signified the possibility for the US to coordinate with its traditional allies in the Gulf region to confront the refugee crisis and the broader problem of the Syrian Civil War. No such opportunity is immediately available between the US and Iran, as Tehran’s leadership has repeatedly emphasized that its policies are directly at odds with those of the US and that it will avoid diplomatic meetings and other developments that might lead to Western influence on Iran.
Fox News once again emphasized the persistence of these anti-Western attitudes in a report published on Friday. It raised questions about Obama’s assurances to King Salman, describing Iran’s top defense officials as “scoffing at U.S. claims the pact will restrict the Islamic Republic’s military ambitions.”
Speaking to Iranian media this week, Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan said that Iran had no intention of opening up all of its suspected nuclear sites to foreign inspection, adding that it would continue to conceal its military sites and the associated information about its military and ballistic missile capabilities.
For many opponents of the regime, these sorts of comments lead to the conclusion that notwithstanding the nuclear agreement, Iran has no intention of changing its regional and foreign policy ambitions. If this is the case, it speaks to the continuation of Iran’s continued contribution to the Syrian Civil War in support of Assad, and also to its confrontation with policies and security of its primary regional rival and the US’s primary Gulf ally, Saudi Arabia.