MESOP TODAY’S COMMENTAR (II) : How the United States Can Reassure Its Arab Allies About Iran

MESOP TODAY’S COMMENTARY BY JOE MACARON – A Lebanese writer and analyst who previously worked on Middle East affairs at the International Monetary Fund and on counterterrorism issues at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.

(FIKRA FORUM) 14 Feb 2015 – Given the animosity of key Arab governments toward Iran and their mistrust of the Obama administration’s attempts at rapprochement with Tehran, Washington is walking a fine line between carefully engaging with Iran and convincing its Arab allies that a nuclear deal would not undermine their national interests. But the seeds of this mistrust predate the Obama administration. In fact, over the past decade three major developments led Arab allies of Washington across the region to fear a U.S.-Iran alliance: the 2003 invasion of Iraq in 2003, Nouri al-Maliki’s ascendance to power in Iraq in 2006, and the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in 2014.

Even though the majority of Arabs did not support Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, the 2003 invasion was seen as paving the way for greater Iranian influence in the Levant. Indeed, Jordan’s King Abdullah coined the term “Shiite crescent” in 2005 to describe this post-Saddam regional reality. Following Maliki’s appointment as prime minister in 2006, and despite U.S. officials’ attempts to portray him as independent from Iran, many in the Arab world thought the United States, eager to exit Iraq, was willing to tacitly recognize Iranian influence in the country. The rise of ISIS took place just as the P5+1 and Iran agreed to extend talks and Maliki resigned his position in Iraq. Arab officials grew skeptical of a possible nuclear deal and Saudi Arabia made it clear that it wanted the negotiations to avoid formally recognizing Iran’s role in the Middle East.

Moreover, Arab officials’ distrust of the Obama administration has been fueled by frustration over what they consider unfulfilled promises. They expected the United States to lend more support to Iraqi Sunnis and the Western-backed March 14 alliance in Lebanon. In the case of Lebanon, the U.S.-backed government in Beirut hoped for U.S. support when Hezbollah gunmen clashed with supporters of the Sunni-led Future Movement in May 2008. But that support never materialized. Similarly, President Obama’s speech in Cairo in 2009 elicited high hopes from Arab officials, but these quickly faded as the administration failed to implement real changes in U.S. policy in the Middle East. Backtracking on its redline in Syria and failing to push forward the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations also profoundly impacted on America’s credibility.

So now Washington is struggling to reassure its Arab partners regarding its approach to Iran, and recent events have not helped. In the wake of the death of Saudi King Abdullah last month, a senior U.S. official told the Washington Post that “a nuclear-armed Iran is more dangerous to Saudi Arabia than any agreement we might reach.” Similarly, the recent takeover of Yemen by the Iranian-backed Houthis only adds to Saudi concerns about Iran’s growing sphere of influence.

Therefore, Washington’s Arab allies need an affirmation of five crucial points. First, America’s engagement with Iran represents a policy of containment, not rapprochement. Second, a deal with Iran that serves Washington’s regional interests will not harm its allies’ interests. Third, a nuclear-armed Iran is a real redline and, as such, sanctions will remain in place. Fourth, talks with Iran have helped defuse regional tensions and promote a more inclusive government in Iraq. Fifth, fighting ISIS should be a priority for global security, not an opportunity for Iran to cement its influence.

The Obama administration should assure its Arab allies of its support and reestablish the trust lost between the two sides.