The Underpublicized Maneuvers of the GCC States

Leave it to two Israeli writers to make a point, which is mostly missed inside the United States, regarding the diplomatic adroitness and political savviness of the States of the Persian/Arabian Gulf. When Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu came to the United States last March and tried to embellish the mutuality of interests between the Gulf States and Israel toward the then impending US-Iran nuclear deal, everyone thought that a political nexus between Israel and the Gulf States was in the process of sprouting.

When the nuclear deal was concluded, Saudi Arabia and the UAE expressed their unhappiness mostly by using unofficial channels and through unnamed spokespersons. However, when US Secretary of State John Kerry went to the Gulf region seeking endorsement for that deal, the GCC states cautiously endorsed it without much fanfare.

One cultural tradition of the Arab states is that they express their unhappiness over heady political and military issues affecting their region through back-channels. Candid discussions with Western or with even their fellow Arab leaders over such matters take place behind closed doors. Through such behavior, they are not at all trying mislead anyone. They are merely signaling their unhappiness and urging their Western or Arab counterparts to keep in mind that they are not happy over the state of affairs affecting specific strategic interests.

In the case of the United States, they are likely to show mild enthusiasm when approached directly for a reaction, signaling that they are still unhappy over the matter, but are willing to go along for the time being, hoping that more mutually advantageous policies would emerge in the future. Secretary Kerry got that message loudly and clearly in the case of the US-Iran nuclear deal, but still appreciated the GCC states’ approval of that deal at a time when a lot of partisan bitterness is being generated from the opponents of the deal inside the US political arena. In return, the Obama administration reassured the GCC states about its serious commitment to their security from any potential shenanigans from Iran. A number of measures involving new arms deals with a number of Gulf states are also in the making.

Extrapolating on this behavior, my guess is that GCC states are likely to initiate their own version of sophisticated diplomacy with Iran.

Viewing this issue from the Iranian side, one can only hope that the leaders in Tehran don’t get inebriated by what they (especially Iran’s neoconservatives) envision as the rising tide of Iranian influence and prestige in its immediate neighborhood and in the Levant. As a matter of fact, things are not as rosy for Iran in Syria and Lebanon. The war in Syria is causing a lot of bleeding on the part of the Iranian economy. Hezbollah, one of the major tools of Iranian foreign policy in the region, is under a lot of pressure. It has lost a lot of its fighters, which, in turn, negatively affects its ability to oppose Israel as a paramilitary entity. Even the hardliners in Iran are wondering when or how the war in Syria will be settled. Saudi Arabia’s abortive attempt to negotiate with Russia on the future of Syria did not produce any results. But one must keep in mind that Russia is also bleeding more than Iran, thanks to US-sponsored and EU-supported economic sanctions.

Bottom line: The GCC states, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are likely to emerge as major regional actors in the coming years through their political dialogue with Iran.