Washington summit highlights Arab displeasure with Obama over Iran

Saudi Arabia's King Salman, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in the Saudi capital of Riyadh in March, will not be attending the White House's May 14 summit with Gulf Arab leaders. Credit: U.S. Department of State.
Saudi Arabia's King Salman, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in the Saudi capital of Riyadh in March, will not be attending the White House's May 14 summit with Gulf Arab leaders. Credit: U.S. Department of State.

It will be interesting to see if Saudi Arabia’s King Salman gets the “Bibi treatment” from the news media this week. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, you’ll remember, was accused of snubbing President Barack Obama when he addressed Congress on the Iranian nuclear threat back in March. Contrastingly, King Salman can be said to have snubbed the president by not coming to Washington for his May 14 summit with Gulf Arab leaders.

In any case, supporters of Israel should feel some relief at the political heat being directed, if only temporarily, about a thousand miles east of Jerusalem. We should also regard this as an opportunity to remind the American public of how the Gulf states regard a nuclear Iran as such a peril that they’ve lined up with Israel to stop that outcome.

As unpleasant as it is to see Israeli democracy aligned with these regimes, whose human rights records are abominable, there’s no denying the strategic significance of this de facto alliance. Above all else, it demonstrates conclusively that the Iran deal Obama is trying to drive through is opposed by most of the Middle East.

It also underlines that the Obama administration’s bilateral relations have hit rock bottom with the Arab traditionalists, as well as with the Israelis. When King Salman recently said that he would not, after all, attend the summit, he did so two days after the White House announced that he was coming. Perhaps it was an exceptional breach of protocol—officially, it was explained as a timing problem, because the summit coincides with a planned ceasefire in Yemen, where the Saudis have been fighting Iranian-backed forces—but this is an exceptional situation.

More awkward for the White House is the fact that King Salman is not alone—most of the other Gulf states, including Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates, will be represented only at the ministerial level. The issue that those who have turned up want to discuss is Iran, and they will do so without pulling any punches at Camp David.

“We see Iranian support for terrorist organizations and facilitating the work of terrorist organizations, so the challenge will be in how to coordinate U.S.-Gulf efforts in order to collectively face these aggressive moves on the part of Iran”—that statement came from Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, though if you switch the word “Gulf” to “Israeli,” you can imagine Netanyahu saying exactly the same thing.

“I don’t think [Gulf leaders] have a deep respect, a deep trust for Obama and his promises. There is a fundamental difference between his vision of post-nuclear-deal Iran and their vision,” Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a professor of political science at Emirates University, told the Associated Press. Abdullah added, “They think Iran is a destabilizing force and will remain so, probably even more, if the sanctions are lifted.”

The message is clear. Like the Israelis, the Gulf states are convinced that the deal currently being negotiated will fatally weaken their security. Their hostility to sanctions relief is also revealing, and suggests that European businesses looking to get back into the Iranian market could face penalties on the Arab side as a disincentive.

One recent development that reportedly has further alienated the Arab states is Obama’s rejection of their proposed common defense treaty with the U.S.—a decision, ironically, that will make them more dependent on Israel in the event of any military confrontation with Iran. According to Foreign Policy, key members of the Gulf Cooperation Council had lobbied hard for the U.S. to agree to a defense pact ahead of the summit. Still, the pact was not forthcoming, with one analyst, Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, surmising that the administration didn’t feel compelled to “bend over backwards” to countries that repress basic human liberties. (That might have been a sound argument were it not for the Obama administration’s generally feeble commitment to human rights globally, from Syria to China.)

Moreover, Arab leaders know that their displeasure with Obama is not the only obstacle in the way of a final deal with Iran. Domestically, Obama has to contend with the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which passed the Senate last week in a 98-1 vote. The president can still push a deal through in the face of bitter opposition, but he will do so on the defensive, forced to justify an arrangement that leaves the Iranian nuclear program intact—and without the intrusive, round-the-clock monitoring that an effective inspections regime requires. If, indeed, a final deal is reached by the June 30 deadline, the U.S. State Department will need to make sure that any fact sheets it publishes are cleared with the Iranians first, so as to avoid the radically different interpretations of what was supposedly agreed during the last round of talks in the Swiss city of Lausanne.

Those divergent interpretations were not concerned with insignificant points. Ultimately, the failure of the administration to make an effective case for its Iran deal rests on its inability to answer the burning questions. Will sanctions be lifted the day an agreement is signed, as the Iranians claim, or will they be phased out in accordance with Iranian cooperation, as Washington would have us believe? Exactly what kind of inspection regime will be acceptable to the Iranians, and will it include unimpeded rights of access to military installations like Fordow, an enrichment facility located in a bunker beneath a mountain? What will be the fate of the stockpile of enriched uranium that the Iranians originally promised would be shipped to a third party, before reneging on that shortly after?

Arab leaders are skeptical that the Obama administration can deliver an acceptable deal, given these stakes. So are the Israelis. And so is an enormous chunk of the U.S. Congress. This isn’t over yet.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014). 

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