US seek­ing to al­lay Gulf fears amid re­gional chaos and Iran nu­clear deal talks

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY JO BID­DLE

With con­flicts rag­ing across the Mid­dle East, the U.S. is seek­ing to re­as­sure its Gulf al­lies that it has a re­gional strat­egy which will be bol­stered, not shred­ded, by any Iran nu­clear deal.

The U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion ap­pears in­creas­ingly caught in a game of whack-a-mole as it con­fronts a se­ries of com­plex chal­lenges, with Saudi-led airstrikes in Ye­men just the lat­est com­pli­ca­tion in a re­gional tin­der­box pit­ting Sun­nis against Shi­ites, and even Sunni against Sunni.

From the war in Syria, to the col­lapse of Libya’s gov­ern­ment, the battle against the Sunni Is­lamic State mil­i­tants and the con­flict in Ye­men, the so-called Arab Spring has un­leashed decades of pent-up sec­tar­ian and tribal ten­sions.

“The grow­ing com­plex­ity of the var­i­ous strug­gles the United States now faces have all the fo­cus and sim­plic­ity of a kalei­do­scope, and it is un­clear that the United States and its al­lies have any clear strate­gic op­tions that of­fer a cred­i­ble re­sponse,” wrote An­thony Cordes­man, ex­pert with the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies.

As a June 30 dead­line for a deal with Iran on its nu­clear pro­gram nears, U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama has con­vened a sum­mit of Gulf lead­ers seek­ing to al­lay their fears over any U.S. rap­proche­ment with the Shi­ite Is­lamic repub­lic, and to brain­storm on how to tamp down re­gional fires.

The talks at the White House and the wooded pres­i­den­tial retreat of Camp David on May 13 and 14 will “dis­cuss how we can fur­ther strengthen our se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion while re­solv­ing the mul­ti­ple con­flicts that have caused so much hard­ship and in­sta­bil­ity through­out the Mid­dle East,” Obama said ear­lier this month.

The U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion con­tends that rein­ing in Iran’s sus­pect nu­clear pro­gram will make the re­gion in­her­ently safer, re­mov­ing an im­mi­nent threat of an atomic bomb, and per­haps bring­ing the regime a step closer to in­ter­na­tional rein­te­gra­tion.

But it is also tak­ing a gam­ble that dur­ing the 10-15 year du­ra­tion of any com­pre­hen­sive deal, there could be do­mes­tic changes which may see a fun­da­men­tal shift in Iran’s re­gional am­bi­tions.

Re­straint

It’s a claim viewed with skep­ti­cism by crit­ics who be­lieve a nu­clear deal may just em­bolden Iran, al­ready blamed for med­dling across the Mid­dle East: back­ing Huthi Shi­ite rebels in Ye­men, sup­port­ing the regime of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad and arm­ing Hezbol­lah and Ha­mas mil­i­tants.

“For Iran to be a valu­able mem­ber of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, the pre­req­ui­site is that it ac­cepts re­straint on its abil­ity to desta­bi­lize the Mid­dle East and chal­lenge the broader in­ter­na­tional or­der,” for­mer sec­re­taries of state Henry Kissinger and Ge­orge Schultz wrote in The Wall Street Jour­nal.

“Ab­sent the link­age be­tween nu­clear and po­lit­i­cal re­straint, Amer­ica’s tra­di­tional al­lies will con­clude that the U.S. has traded tem­po­rary nu­clear co­op­er­a­tion for ac­qui­es­cence to Ira­nian hege­mony.”

While Obama has proved un­will­ing to com­mit huge mil­i­tary re­sources to ei­ther Syria or Iraq, the U.S. is lead­ing coali­tion airstrikes against IS ji­hadists, pro­vid­ing vast amounts of hu­man­i­tar­ian aid and seek­ing to train and shore up lo­cal se­cu­rity forces.

Wash­ing­ton is also giv­ing in­tel­li­gence sup­port to the Arab-led coali­tion seek­ing to dis­lodge the Iran-backed Shi­ite Huthi mili­tias in Ye­men.

Some be­lieve Obama’s sup­port was com­pen­sa­tion for U.S. in­de­ci­sive­ness in Syria.

Saudi- U. S. t i es f rayed badly last year amid dis­may in the Sunni ma­jor­ity Gulf king­dom at the lack of U.S. ac­tion in Syria.

But an­a­lysts warn against “out­sourc­ing” the fight, par­tic­u­larly against the IS mil­i­tants, to “a hodge-podge” of non-state ac­tors and mili­tias, some backed and openly guided by Ira­nian mil­i­tary forces.

If the mili­tias win in Iraq, “what it will have done is ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing the U.S., will have taken part in un­der­min­ing the cen­tral state even fur­ther,” said Yezid Sayigh, ex­pert with the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tional Peace.

Re­gional Com­pe­ti­tion

Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Haider al-Abadi, dur­ing a key visit to Wash­ing­ton this week, de­manded all mil­i­tary as­sis­tance should go through his gov­ern­ment, and be­moaned what he called “a re­gional com­pe­ti­tion for con­trol” al­lud­ing to Saudi Ara­bia and Iran.

An­other Carnegie ex­pert, Fred Wehrey, ar­gued Obama should press his Gulf al­lies to en­sure real po­lit­i­cal re­forms as an “an­ti­dote to the Shi­ite-Sunni split.”

“Iden­ti­ties flare up when peo­ple feel they have no pro­tec­tion from the gov­ern­ment,” Wehrey said. “Iran and Saudi Ara­bia ... are pour­ing the gaso­line on that.”

State Depart­ment act­ing spokes­woman Marie Harf Fri­day ac­knowl­edged the Gulf coun­tries’ con­cern. “This is their back yard. This is their neigh­bor­hood.”

“But there are things we can do to re­as­sure them of our ca­pa­bil­i­ties and what we can do to help them feel more se­cure,” she in­sisted.

The ques­tion is whether any U.S. strat­egy may come too late, and whether it has al­ready cre­ated a huge “cred­i­bil­ity gap” by “re­act­ing tac­ti­cally to the im­me­di­ate pres­sure of events in the Mid­dle East ... with­out any clear goals or di­rec­tion,” said Cordes­man.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion “can­not af­ford to sim­plify, spin or ig­nore” any of the chal­lenges con­fronting it, he ar­gued.

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