Hillary assessed the Obama administration’s exceptionally maladroit handling of President Obama’s “summit” with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC leader) at Camp David on CCTV’s The Heat last week, see here. She noted that, while ostensibly called to “reassure” GCC elites, Obama’s gathering at Camp David failed utterly to address the concerns that some Gulf Arab rulers actually have:
“Although there is some language that the U.S. would potentially use force to protect our Gulf allies, it’s very carefully caveated, with this language: that we would be prepared—prepared, not that we would, but we would be prepared—to potentially use force if their territorial integrity, according to the UN Charter, is threatened. That means, first and foremost, a very loud signal to them that if there’s an uprising in your country and they want to change the government, the United States is not coming. That’s a very pointed message. We have the example of Bahrain, where there’s been a lot of unrest. If the people of Bahrain decided to rise up and change the government, the United States isn’t going to be there.
This is just about this speculative concern that maybe Iran, somehow, would invade these [GCC] countries and we would protect them. But that’s not their fear; their fear is from their internal populations. They call these segments of their populations—which, in some case, have been restive; they’ve often been marginalized, especially among the Shi’a communities—the Gulf States have taken to calling them ‘foreign, Iranian-backed elements.’ But they are part of their populations; these are their domestic constituencies…
Their [GCC] concerns are [also] about rising Iranian power in the region. I have never met an official or an analyst from a Gulf state—or from here, in the U.S. government in Washington—that thinks Iran is going to send its military into any one of these countries. The Islamic Republic of Iran has never invaded another country, and has never even threatened to do so.
Their [GCC] concern is not that a nuclear-armed Iran is going to use nuclear weapons to annihilate them. Their concern is that, the more money Iran could amass coming out from under sanctions, the more it will have economic power, and it will translate that into military power, which it could use to support—either militarily or just philosophically—these domestic constituencies in the Gulf states, to rise up against their governments or to constrain their governments from attacking Iran. That’s their concern; it’s not about Iran acquiring some mythical nuclear weapon.”
Hillary explained that the refusal of the kings of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to “even show up” at the meeting with President Obama was a particularly significant development:
“It was a very deliberate message, signal to the United States that Saudi Arabia may be going its own way. Even more important, in some ways, than the Saudi king not coming—he said it was ostensibly because of developments in Yemen—was the probable Saudi instruction to the King of Bahrain, this small state where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based, that the King of Bahrain not come here and instead go to London for a horse show with the Queen of England. There could not be any greater insult…What it signifies is a profound shift, by the Saudis, away from the United States, and potentially for them even to deploy some of the elements of their power against the United States, in a way we’ve seen some precursors of before, but we’ve not really seen full force.”
Hillary goes on to elaborate some of the ways in which Saudi Arabia can deploy some of the elements of its power against the United States.
Of course, if the Obama administration really wanted to use a prospective nuclear deal with Iran to recast America’s Middle East strategy in more positive ways—including by recalibrating U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia—then GCC leaders’ unhappiness with the Camp David summit wouldn’t matter that much. But the administration isn’t seeking to use an Iran nuclear agreement as the springboard for a comprehensive revision of America’s Middle East strategy. In this regard, preemptively circumscribing the potential diplomatic impact of an Iran nuclear deal is the Obama administration’s most consequential—and foolish—way of pandering to GCC (and Israeli) concerns about nuclear diplomacy with Tehran.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes made this clear on the day GCC representatives met Obama at Camp David. Speaking about a prospective nuclear deal with Iran, Rhodes presented the administration’s perspective in stark terms:
“It’s a transaction on the nuclear issue. This is not a broader rapprochement between the United States and Iran on a range of issues; it is a very specific agreement that will deal with the Iranian nuclear program…We’ll still be just as concerned about Iran’s destabilizing activities, support for terrorism and proxies across the region.”
The episode of CCTV’s The Heat on which Hillary appeared also includes an important and in-depth discussion with our colleague, Seyed Mohammad Marandi of the University of Tehran’s Faculty of World Studies, see here and (for YouTube) here.
—Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett