Colin Kahl, Michael Gfoeller, Mark N. Katz and Mark T. Kimmitt
The following is an edited transcript of the seventy-sixth in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held on April 23, 2014, at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC, with Ford M. Fraker moderating and Thomas R. Mattair as the discussant. The video can be accessed here.
COLIN KAHL, Associate Professor, Georgetown University; Senior Fellow and Director, Middle East Security Program, Center for a New American Security; Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East
I will focus my remarks on Gulf anxieties as they relate to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, specifically as they relate to U.S. policy vis-à-vis Iran, which is very much a hot topic. There are some deep structural sources of anxiety that have created tensions in the relationship between the United States and our closest partners in the Gulf. There is a widespread perception in the Gulf region that the United States is simply politically exhausted with the Middle East as a whole and with the Gulf in particular, after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think they see the U.S. drawdown from Iraq and the imminent drawdown from Afghanistan, and they wonder when the United States will start to draw down its 35,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and others who are every day on mission in the Gulf region.
I think they also looked at the domestic political conversation that we had when it seemed as if President Obama might strike Syria's chemical-weapons facilities and other military targets back in August and saw how much political reluctance there was on Capitol Hill to authorize such a strike, and among the American public in general. I spoke with a number of offices, in both the House and Senate, who said calls were running 1,000 to three against taking even very limited military action. It seems that Washington has limited appetite for deploying military force in this part of the world, and that worries many of our friends in the Gulf, who still believe they face significant threats that require U.S. military protection.
There may also be some broader sense that the United States is in relative economic decline. I say relative because the U.S. economy is in much better shape than it was a few years ago, and I think the Obama administration gets a lot of credit for that. But there's a general sense that other nations are rising fast and furiously, especially countries in Asia that have increasingly close relationships with Middle Eastern states. China and India come to mind, but other important countries, like Turkey, would also fall into that category of rising powers.
More particularly, Gulf leaders look at the United States in the context of all of the debates about the sequester and long-term budget issues and see that, in the aftermath of more than a decade of war and the economic crisis, the United States is in a period of fiscal overstretch. This is likely to place burdens on the U.S. defense budget over the next decade or two, and that will have implications for the U.S. security commitment in the region.
Last but not least, they hear talk of North American energy independence. It's a global market, so the U.S. economy will be just as vulnerable to price shocks that emanate from conflicts and crises in the Middle East even if we don't import a single drop of oil from that part of the world. Indeed, we don't actually import very much from there currently. Nevertheless, I think there's a notion that psychologically, the perception of U.S. energy independence in coming years might create additional distance between the United States and the Gulf.
All of these are deeply structural sources of anxiety, but I think there are also particularly acute policy disagreements. I'll mention two and focus on one. The first is, obviously, that the conservative monarchies in the Gulf — in particular, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — had many disagreements with how the United States reacted to the Arab Spring at the outset. They were very concerned about the United States' dumping of Mubarak during the 2011 uprising in Egypt. They were equally concerned about what they saw as an overeager engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood when Morsi won the presidential election there.
I think that the Obama administration's policies on both Mubarak and Morsi were completely justifiable, but from the perception of the Gulf states, this was a sea change in longstanding U.S. policy. It spoke to whether the United States could be counted on as a reliable ally in the event that their own regimes faced crisis. It also suggested that the United States was willing to engage populist Sunni Islamist groups, which the Saudis, the Emiratis, the Kuwaitis and others see as quite threatening to their domestic legitimacy and, potentially, their political stability. So, there are a lot of concerns with the U.S. approach, manifested in disagreements over Egypt, principally, but also Bahrain, where there has been significant disagreement on pushing reform.
A second acute policy difference between Washington and many Gulf partners is the U.S. approach towards Iran, and that policy disagreement has become more profound since the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran's new president last summer. Let me highlight a number of anxieties that I think the Gulf states have about U.S.-Iran policy. Here I'm using the term "Gulf states," but the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) states are not a unified bloc. They don't have a unified vision of the region or a unified geopolitical orientation. You can broadly map them across a kind of hawk-dove continuum. I would put the Saudis and the Emiratis and the Bahrainis clearly in the hawk camp vis-à-vis Iran. I would put the Qataris and the Omanis more in the dove camp; they tend to have a more accommodationist policy towards Iran. I would put Kuwait somewhere in the middle, although trending toward the Saudi and Emirati side of the equation.
So, really, I'm talking about the hawkish Gulf states and their concerns with U.S. policy towards Iran. These states are worried that, in the aftermath of the Geneva "Joint Plan of Action" nuclear agreement struck between the United States and its P5+1 partners and Iran last November, which began to be implemented in January, there will be a final nuclear agreement sometime in the next year or so that will be a bad deal. By "bad," I think they mean that it will leave Iran with too much latent nuclear capability. The Joint Plan of Action recognizes that, at the end of the day, there is likely to be a limited Iranian enrichment program. Even in the context of a comprehensive nuclear accord, this would leave the Iranians with a latent capability that, in the future, could manifest itself in a uranium pathway, potentially, to nuclear weapons.
That said, in my view, there is no alternative. The Iranians have invested at least $100 billion in their nuclear program. They've invested even more of the regime's domestic legitimacy. There is no Iran expert on planet Earth — not one — who believes that Iran would completely abandon its enrichment program. They would risk a war and more crippling sanctions from the United States to defend what they see as their inalienable rights on this issue. So I think the Obama administration's policy is completely realistic and pragmatic, but it has spooked Gulf leaders a bit.
I think they're also worried that a comprehensive nuclear deal will break Iran's international economic isolation. After all, if Iran is going to make concessions to roll back its nuclear program, it's only going to be in response to a set of incentives that deconstructs a significant portion of the financial and energy sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy. So they worry about a rise in Iranian power and a latent nuclear capability lingering there in the background. I also think they worry about the fact that U.S. nuclear negotiations with Iran are just that: nuclear negotiations that have kind of hermetically sealed off Iran's other behavior in the region. For years, the more hawkish Gulf states have been at least as worried about Iran's support for militancy and terrorism and domestic subversion, especially in countries with either significant Shiite minority populations or, in the case of Bahrain, a Shiite majority. These anxieties have become even more acute in the aftermath of the Arab Spring as all these regimes have seen how fragile and brittle some of the governments in the region have turned out to be.
For a long time, the Gulf states were actually worried that the United States might strike a grand bargain with Iran. Now the fear is, in some ways, the opposite — that the United States is only focused on the nuclear issue and not on these destabilizing activities.
I think they also fear that, if the United States strikes a deal that resolves our two most vital interests as they relate to Iran — the threat of their becoming a nuclear-armed state in the near term and the threat of a direct military confrontation over their nuclear program, which is what a comprehensive deal would accomplish — that it will reduce the urgency of U.S. interests in the Gulf region. In the context of a clear desire by the Obama administration to pivot or rebalance to Asia and in the context of Russia's resurgence as a security challenge in Europe and all that that might entail, the United States might be incentivized to get out of the way and draw down some of its forces from the Gulf, shifting them to Asia or even to Europe.
So, in essence, the concern is that the United States will leave Iran's destabilizing activities intact and yet reduce its presence or not be as concerned in the aftermath of a nuclear deal. Effectively, from the perspective of some Gulf states, a nuclear deal could end up ratifying Iran's hegemonic ambitions in this part of the world.
Let me say two things, though. The alternative is what? I would ask my friends in the Gulf this question. If there's a collapse of diplomacy — especially a collapse of diplomacy that is seen to emerge from the fact that the United States has taken an intransigent and unreasonable position — Iran will be able to play the victim and break out of sanctions anyway. And if there is a collapse of diplomacy on the nuclear front, their nuclear program will be unconstrained. So if you think a latent nuclear capability is bad, wait until Iran emerges as an actual nuclear-armed state, and your anxieties will be much higher. And if a nuclear-armed Iran doesn't emerge because either Israel or the United States takes preventive military action, the Gulf states are also really worried about that. They understand that neither Israel nor the United States is going to go all the way to Tehran and change the regime, so, in essence, a military conflict in that part of the world would stir up a hornet's nest with all sorts of direct collateral effects on Gulf security. Therefore, as bad as the hawkish Gulf states feel about current Obama policy towards Iran, I would argue "it's the worst thing, except for every other thing." Every other outcome for them is worse for their interests as they relate to the Iranian nuclear issue.
This brings me to my concluding point: the argument needs to be made more effectively that we don't live in a perfect world, a world where our interests and our views are identical to those of our partners in the Gulf. At the same time, broadly speaking, our pursuit of our own interests is not incompatible with the security interests of our partners in the Gulf. I think President Obama at the UN General Assembly and Secretary Hagel at the Manama Dialogue outlined the fact that the United States will continue to have enduring interests in the Middle East. And these are almost all about the Gulf: defending partners against external aggression, countering violent extremists and terrorist networks that threaten the United States and our allies, countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ensuring the free flow of energy resources. If that's not about the Gulf, I don't know what is. Nothing about striking a deal or not striking a deal with Iran will change this fundamental equation.
More can be communicated in that context, and one concrete suggestion would be to elevate and institutionalize the level of strategic dialogue. You may notice that two or three times a year, a very senior Israeli delegation comes to the United States. The national security adviser of Israel sits down with the national security adviser of the United States; they have their entire teams there, and they spend one or two days in intensive discussions on every issue that we agree on and disagree on in the Middle East. I think that there needs to be more of this kind of institutionalized, high-level strategic dialogue directly between the White House and the Saudis, the Emiratis and maybe some others to at least identify those places where we can agree and work forward together, and those places where we can agree to disagree but not let it rupture the strategic partnership.
I also think we need to find a better common agenda. The Obama administration has been playing a lot of defense in terms of the anxieties of the Gulf states, trying to assure them that we're not really leaving and that we are still with them, even if they don't like everything we're doing. There needs to be a more positive agenda. What is the positive stability agenda in Egypt? Maybe we don't agree on the democratic transition or the Muslim Brotherhood portions of Egypt policy, but we should agree on the economic stabilization portion. What's the common agenda there? What's the common agenda to coordinate our actives on the Syrian conflict even if you're not happy with the fact that we're not going to militarily intervene on a large scale? Even in the aftermath of a deal with Iran on the nuclear issue, if it emerges, what's our common regional agenda on Iran? One idea that's floating around, for example, is that the P5+1 should survive a nuclear deal with Iran and transition to a "P5+1 Plus the GCC" conversation with Iran on broader regional issues. It's an interesting idea; I think we should talk about it.
More efforts should be made to move forward on the regional security architecture in the Gulf. Secretary Hagel announced at Manama that there would be a defense ministerial engagement within six months. We're probably not going to have one within six months, but I think the plan is to have one this year. It's great to have those engagements at the highest level. But I think there's a lot more that can be done to strengthen integrative air and missile defense and maritime security and critical-infrastructure protection, including addressing stumbling blocks to better integration within our own defense bureaucracy.
In short, there are a lot of things we can do to assuage current Gulf anxieties. And if can we do that, I anticipate that the United States will have a strong partnership with the Gulf states for many years to come.
MICHAEL GFOELLER, Adviser, Chertoff Group; Former Head, Middle East and North African Affairs, International Government Relations, ExxonMobil; Former Deputy Chief of Mission and Chargé d'Affaires, United States Embassy, Riyadh
I agree with much of Dr. Kahl's analysis and I'm going to try and take it a bit further, focusing on what I hear from my interlocutors in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries when I travel in the region. I lived there for most of the last 10 years, until about a year ago, and I've been back around 10 times since then. So I have some idea, to the extent that a Westerner can really figure these things out, about current thinking in the UAE and Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf on these major security issues.
Starting with Iran, when I talk to my Saudi friends in private, away from the press, what I pick up from the intelligentsia — the foreign-policy-interested class — is a sense that Saudi and U.S. policy on Iran have diverged fundamentally. The Saudis have largely dismissed the P5+1 negotiations as a diplomatic exercise that will do nothing to really limit Iran's inevitable progress toward the status of a nuclear-weapons state.
What they're attempting to do right now is ask themselves, to what extent will they be able to rely on their traditional alliance with the United States in a Gulf security environment in which Iran, sometime in the near to medium term, becomes a nuclear-weapons state? They're looking at alternatives to the traditional alliance with the United States. Not that they wish to abandon that alliance, but they need to reinforce it by developing other relationships. Hence, as it was explained to me at any rate, the importance of Crown Prince Salman's recent trips to Pakistan, India and even Japan. These were designed to show outside powers, including the United States, that the Saudis have other options in terms of alliances with great powers.
With regard to Pakistan, what the Saudis are doing is developing further a military and security relationship that is decades old. Many people don't know this, but the second-largest foreign embassy in Riyadh is the embassy of Pakistan, and the Saudi embassy is the largest in Islamabad. The relationship is not often on the front pages of the newspapers, but it's extremely robust.
After Salman's visit, there was a lot of discussion in the press and privately about intensified defense cooperation. The Saudis are talking about buying fighter aircraft, tanks, troop transports and this sort of thing from the Pakistanis and stepping up military exercises and military cooperation across the board. It's safe to assume that Saudi strategic thinkers are looking at Pakistan's playing a major role in Saudi Arabia's regional security strategy going forward.
I think Salman's visit to China was equally important. The coverage of that visit focused on economic cooperation, which is huge. China is rapidly becoming the kingdom's premier customer for energy exports. But there is a military relationship that goes back at least as far as Saudi Arabia's purchase of East Wind ballistic missiles in the 1980s. From time to time, reports have surfaced that these discussions are continuing in parallel with the economic relationship between Beijing and Riyadh, so I think we're going to see an increasingly important military relationship as well.
The kingdom is drifting away from the United States, and this drift is powered largely by serious policy differences over Syria and Iran. There is a profound sense of disappointment, not to say anger, over what the Saudis view as a missed opportunity to deal with the Assad regime in August 2013, when the United States came very close to launching a military operation, a bombing campaign, and then opted to pivot toward a deal — initially with Russia — on chemical-weapons disposal instead.
This deal was widely welcomed in the West, but in the Gulf, it seemed a major missed opportunity, which was followed by a revival of Bashar al-Assad's military fortunes. Saudis now think that the likelihood of Assad's actually achieving something that might reasonably be described as a victory in the civil war is growing. Nobody thinks he'll be able to retake all of pre-civil-war Syria, but there's an increasing likelihood he'll take Aleppo. If he can hold everything from Aleppo to Damascus, he can hang onto a very serious "rump" Syria, a section of territory with the bulk of the population and most of the economic potential.
There were concerns in the Gulf about what Assad would do after such a limited victory. Would he attempt to take revenge against countries in the region that have backed the opposition against him? Some people think he would. Another concern, of course, is the large number of young Saudi men who have gone to wage jihad against the Assad regime and who are now coming back to the kingdom. Many people see this as a repeat of what happened 20 years ago, when Saudi veterans of the jihad in Afghanistan came home. And then we had the al-Qaeda intifada, which I had the pleasure of living through in Riyadh from 2004 to 2008. That was a very serious threat to the dynasty, more serious than is commonly recognized outside the kingdom because of the limited press coverage.
The Saudis have enforced tough new laws against Saudi jihadists returning from Syria: minimum prison sentences of 20 years, longer if the individual in question had military experience. There is obviously a concern that Saudi enlisted people and officers might, out of religious convictions, go to Syria and use their military expertise there.
The Syria issue has also caused major changes in the power line-up inside the dynasty. Recently, Prince Bandar, a fixture of Saudi foreign policy for decades and ambassador to this country for 22 years, was relieved of all of his official duties. The word in Riyadh attributed it to disappointment at the highest level with the results of his leadership of Saudi policy in Syria.
The Saudi commitment to Syria is an issue. The commitment to stay involved in the civil war for the long term, I think, is best illustrated by the fact that Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the formidable minister of interior who led the dynasty's counterinsurgency campaign against al-Qaeda 10 years ago, is now in charge of the Syria dossier. Like Ambassador Fraker, I know Prince Mohammed fairly well, and if anybody knows how to fight al-Qaeda, he does. He is widely given credit for the recent royal decrees declaring both branches of al-Qaeda in Syria — Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant — terrorist organizations, along with the Muslim Brotherhood. So we're seeing a real intensification of the counterterrorism campaign and the counter-Islamist campaign in Saudi Arabia. This is happening both within the kingdom and the immediate region, in particular in Syria.
As someone who has spent the last 40 years studying the Middle East, I never thought I would live to see the day when influential Saudi thinkers would make positive comments to me about Israel and its foreign policy. But the perception in Riyadh that Tehran — particularly if Iran succeeds in becoming a nuclear-weapons state — poses the greatest threat to the kingdom's future security is causing many of my friends in Saudi Arabia to comment that there's a lot in common between the Israeli strategic position and that of Saudi Arabia, at least insofar as the Iranian threat is concerned. I never thought I would hear that.
There are also numerous rumors in the press and in policy-making circles of unpublicized contacts between the kingdom and the UAE, on the one hand, and Israel, on the other. This is really unprecedented in my experience. It's an indication of how much the political dialogue in the region is changing. The Saudi declaration of war last month against the Muslim Brotherhood in a royal decree that banned the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization is of fundamental importance for the political environment in the kingdom and in the Gulf. It also creates a political axis around which a much stronger relationship between Riyadh and Cairo will grow.
The Saudis, as Dr. Kahl mentioned, were disappointed with the U.S. attitude towards Egypt in the early days of the Arab Spring. They were also very disappointed with the reduction in U.S. military assistance following the change of government in Egypt on June 30 last year. At this point, the Saudis have declared that, whatever reductions the United States makes in military assistance to Egypt, they will make up. What I've heard in private was that they are prepared to spend up to $10 billion financing Egyptian weapons purchases from non-U.S. sources, primarily Russia. And the Russians are exploiting this opportunity. There's a Russian military delegation in Cairo today, and today's Israeli Times reports that they're discussing, inter alia, the sale of MI-35 helicopters and MIG-35 fighter aircraft. The previous discussion was about the MIG-29, a very formidable aircraft. I had some experience with them in my Cold War days. It's the rough equivalent of the F-16. The MIG-35 is the latest generation of Russian fighter aircraft; it has never been sold outside Russia. If that sale takes place, it will mark the return of Russian-Egyptian relations to the highest level since President Sadat expelled Soviet advisers from Egypt back in '72.
This restoration of Russian-Egyptian relations is largely being financed by the Wahhabi monarchy. After 40 years of studying the Middle East, I thought I'd have to live a long time before I saw that, but it's actually taking place. We're looking at the possible emergence of an anti-Brotherhood alliance among Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, certainly Bahrain and perhaps Jordan as well. That's a new bloc in the region that I think will be important going forward.
I was recently in Amman and was struck by the intensity of the Saudi-Jordanian relationship. It is counterintuitive that the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, with 6 million people, would be able to have endured three years of Arab Spring unrest on its borders and the arrival of as many as a million refugees from Syria without suffering serious political instability. One of the reasons they've been able to handle it, aside from very good governance on the part of King Abdullah, is a massive Saudi financial lifeline that's been coming their way in security terms. People in Riyadh see Amman and Manama as part of the kingdom's outer circle of defense. So defending the stability of Jordan and Bahrain is seen as integral to defending the security and stability of the peninsula. The perception of U.S. withdrawal from the region that Dr. Kahl very astutely mentioned is driving this. The Saudis think that, to a certain extent, they have to step into Uncle Sam's shoes, which are a bit too large for them, but they're trying to do it anyway.
A final couple of points on Saudi dynastic politics: there have been some really big events recently. King Abdullah is extraordinarily popular, even loved, by his people, but they are quite aware that he can no longer stand for long periods of time. He can only walk with a cane. He has suffered serious health problems in recent years, going through a couple of major surgeries. So the anticipation is that his reign, which began in 2005, may not last much longer. So the Allegiance Commission, the committee of 35 senior Saudi princes who select the king and the crown prince from among their membership, recently, for the first time, designated a crown-prince-in-waiting, Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, the half-brother of the king and the youngest son of King Abdulaziz. He's a youngster by Saudi standards, in his mid-60s. He could conceivably serve as king for 20 years.
So when King Abdullah or Crown Prince Salman passes away — you can't know which will happen first — Prince Muqrin will become crown prince. He is an extraordinarily competent leader, the governor of two provinces. He's got a military background and served as head of Saudi external intelligence. He has wide experience in dealing with American officials. His are a pretty good pair of hands to leave the dynasty in. And he speaks fluent English, the first of them all who can talk to U.S. officials without an interpreter.
This dynastic shift indicates that Abdullah, despite his poor health, is still capable of putting his stamp on the big decisions the dynasty takes, even down to his last days. I think it also opens the way for Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, the minister of interior, to enter the royal succession at some point, probably after Muqrin has become king. If this were to happen, it would mean that we in Washington would have reasonable interlocutors to deal with in Riyadh at the highest level for the foreseeable future.
MARK N. KATZ, Professor of Government and Politics, George Mason University; Former Soviet Affairs Analyst, United States Department of State; Former Visiting Scholar, Middle East Policy Council
If I had to title my presentation, I'd call it "the Gulf between the United States and the Gulf." Washington has security-cooperation agreements with all six GCC countries. The United States signed a Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement with Saudi Arabia in 1951; a Facilities Access Agreement with Oman in 1980, which has been renewed four times; and Defense Cooperation Agreements with Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar in 1991, in the wake of the first Gulf War. It also has a Bilateral Defense Pact with the United Arab Emirates, signed in 1994. In 2001, the United States designated Bahrain a major non-NATO ally. Precisely what these commitments entail, though, is difficult to tell, since the texts of most of them are classified. The 1951 Saudi-United States Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement is publicly available, and it pertains mainly to U.S. arms sales to the kingdom as well as military training for those arms. Press accounts of the other agreements suggest that they mainly concern U.S. access to military facilities in these countries, as well as the prepositioning of U.S. military equipment. They do not appear to contain an explicit mutual defense commitment such as that contained in Article 5 of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty.
But, while the nature of the U.S. commitment to the security of the Arab Gulf states has never been explicit, what it involved or didn't involve, in my view, has been implicit. The United States undertook to protect the Gulf monarchies against external aggression, not so much against internal opposition. This was because internal opposition was to be dealt with by each of the Gulf states themselves or by Saudi Arabia in case one of the smaller states could not manage on its own.
While it's impossible to prove causation of something that did not happen in international relations, some combination of the U.S. commitment to defend the Gulf from external aggression, combined with the strength of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, appears to have played a significant role in protecting the Gulf states from the Soviet Union and its radical allies during the Cold War, and from Iran after its 1979 revolution. Indeed, U.S. cooperation with Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states played an instrumental role in thwarting Soviet efforts to pacify Afghanistan in the 1980s, in Gorbachev's decision to withdraw from that country and, arguably, in the demise of the Soviet empire. In the one dramatic case when deterrence did not work — the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 — the U.S.-led coalition of many countries, including others in the Gulf, moved quickly to expel Saddam's forces and restore the Kuwaiti monarchy.
Further, the importance of the American commitment to the security of the Gulf appeared quite clear in the past. With the Gulf countries possessing about 40 percent of the world's proven oil reserves, and with America and its Western allies so highly dependent on oil imports, the Western interest in having cooperative governments in control of these countries was obvious — especially when hostile governments had come to power in other oil-rich nations including Iran, Iraq and Libya. Similarly, Western dependence on their oil served the interests of the rich but highly vulnerable Gulf states by providing America and the West with a strong incentive to protect them.
But things have changed in more recent years. While all of the Gulf states have cooperated with the United States in the "War on Terror," or whatever we're calling it these days, some of them have also had disagreements with the United States and also with one another. Saudi Arabia did not support the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq that began in 2003, but both Kuwait and Qatar played important roles in supporting it. Despite having opposed the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, among others, is concerned that the U.S. withdrawal from that country has allowed Iran the opportunity to gain influence there that it would not have had if the United States had not intervened in the first place.
With the onset of the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia has disagreed with both the United States and Qatar on policy toward Egypt. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, though, have both been bitterly disappointed in the Obama administration's unwillingness to support the Syrian opposition's efforts to overthrow the Assad regime and thus eliminate an Iranian ally in the region. Further, the Obama administration's effort to achieve rapprochement with Iran is seen as highly misguided by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, except Oman, which has actually helped facilitate the effort.
Larger trends are also at work that serve to raise questions about the U.S. commitment in the Gulf. One, as mentioned earlier, is the shale revolution in North America, lessening the dependence of America and potentially some of its allies on oil from the Gulf. Another is the growth in domestic demand for oil in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, which, if projections are accurate, will lead to sharply reduced oil exports from the region. Together, these trends give rise to the perception that the Gulf is simply not as vital for the West economically as it once was. Further, the Obama administration's withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan and its unwillingness to get involved in Syria, combined with its pivot toward Asia in response to a rising China and more recently the focus on the crisis over Ukraine, all signal that Washington is not as focused on the Gulf as it has been in the past.
Finally, while the Gulf countries, except for Bahrain, largely avoided the tumult of the Arab Spring, the combination of young, growing populations, lack of economic opportunities for them, aging leaders, and unclear succession plans in some of them could give rise to the sort of chronic unrest in other Gulf states that Bahrain has been experiencing over the past three years. If this does occur and it cannot be contained by Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies, it is doubtful that the United States will be willing or able to protect them from their internal opponents.
What does all this mean for the future of the American commitment to Gulf security? This is something that can't be foretold with any certainty, but I'd like to offer some observations. First, while the United States may no longer see the Gulf as being as vitally important as it once did, it does still see it as important. We shouldn't forget that. The United States is likely to remain willing and able to defend the Gulf against external threats. The Gulf states, then, should not succumb to fears that an improved U.S.-Iranian relationship means Washington would be willing to countenance an Iranian threat to the Gulf. Indeed, hostile Iranian behavior toward the Gulf would lead to the collapse of Iranian-American rapprochement, just as interventions by the Soviets and their allies in the Third World in the 1970s led to the end of the Nixon-era Soviet-American détente, which also had focused on the nuclear issue. By contrast, an improved Iranian-American relationship could instead provide Tehran with greater incentive to behave with restraint toward the Gulf.
If the United States is unlikely to be willing or able to defend Gulf states against internal threats, then the Gulf states would do well to make sure either that these do not arise or that they can be contained internally through economic and political reform efforts that engage their citizens, co-opt their moderate opponents, marginalize the jihadists, and elicit American and Western support.
While it's understandable and even desirable for the Gulf states to look for allies other than the United States, they need to be aware of the limits to the utility of doing so. Countries such as Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and Pakistan may be willing but not necessarily able to play this role. These are poor countries; they could serve as supplements to, but not substitutes for, American security assistance. Farther afield, Europe is simply not willing to substitute for the United States in the Gulf. And even if Russia and China were willing, it's doubtful that they have the capacity to do this effectively. Further, the price they would want the Gulf to pay for their services (whether in terms of concessionary petroleum pricing, access to Gulf markets, investment commitments from the Gulf or general deference) would not be cheap. Further, and also highly important, it's doubtful that either Russia or China would be willing to forgo their close relations with either Israel or Iran for the sake of the Gulf.
American and Western leaders need to keep firmly in mind that, even if the Gulf is going to be less important to them as a petroleum supplier, it matters a great deal whether there are governments there that are friendly or unfriendly. Even if the West buys less of their petroleum, China, India and others in Asia will continue to do so, and the West is much better off if actors in the Gulf continue to be willing to invest in and trade with the West, rather than Asia.
Finally, it matters very much whether the government of the country containing Islam's two holy cities, Mecca and Medina, is willing to cooperate with America and the West or is hostile to them. Even if we never buy a single drop of oil from them again, America and the West cannot afford to see the Gulf states become hostile. It should be worth it to them to spend the time and attention necessary to make sure that this doesn't come about.
In the end, the U.S.-Gulf security relationship depends far less on what is written in those secret or even not-so-secret agreements than on how American and Gulf leaders perceive their mutual interests going forward. While it may be tempting to give in to isolationism on one side, or to self-defeating pessimism on the other, it is in troubled times that clarity of thinking about this relationship is needed on both sides.
MARK T. KIMMITT, Brigadier General, United States Army (retired); Former Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs; Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East
I particularly appreciate the last remarks. I think to a great extent they demonstrate, although in somewhat diplomatic terms, how severe the crisis is between the Gulf allies and their perception of American willingness to stay in the Gulf, and also the American willingness to uphold what our Gulf Allies believe are longstanding commitments.
In 2010, just before General James Mattis took over as the CENTCOM commander, he brought together a small group to talk about what he would experience in that role. My view was simple: his major job was going to be to convince the Middle East allies in general, and the Gulf Arabs in particular, that America is a reliable ally. They'd seen a change in administration; they'd seen a significant change in our policy towards the Middle East. To many, that was disturbing. To most of the countries in the Gulf, it was alarming.
I think it's always important to remember that, despite current politics, America still has vital national interests in the Middle East. This is a transactional relationship, a beneficial relationship for both sides. As Dr. Kahl said earlier and President Obama reiterated in his UN General Assembly speech, we want to protect our friends. We want to defend our allies. We want to deter our enemies. We want to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction. We want to fight terrorism. We want to maintain access to strategic materials in the region.
These are our vital national interests. The concern the Gulf Arabs have is that we're unwilling to take the steps necessary to defend and to uphold these national interests in the relationship that we've had with them for so many years. Quite frankly — and I take Dr. Kahl's point about political exhaustion — political exhaustion cannot be seen as an excuse for doing nothing. We saw that at the Munich Conference in 1939. The consequences of political exhaustion led us into the greatest war that this country has ever fought.
We can put great stock in the press releases that continue to re-emphasize the basing of American troops, ships and aircraft in the region — the 35,000 troops that are there every day conducting strategic and security-cooperation activities with our allies. I am not worried about the capability that we have on the ground. I worry about our willingness to use it. It's not only been demonstrated since 2009, when the Mubarak regime was overturned; we saw it more recently in Syria. And we're seeing it today in Ukraine: the unwillingness of the American government, and this administration in particular, to go through the effort to use those American forces, whether it's pre-emptive deployments, strategic communications or security cooperation. To the Gulf allies, it is of great concern.
I'm not up here to blame President Obama or his administration. But, just as we are re-examining Lyndon Johnson's legacy of 50 years ago, I think 50 years from now the same will be done of President Obama. President Johnson despised the war that John Kennedy had brought him in Vietnam; President Johnson's agenda was the Great Society — Medicare, Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act. He wanted to focus on domestic-policy issues, not foreign policy. But some of the greatest foreign-policy successes of the twentieth century emerged after the Johnson administration. Some were mentioned here today: the vacuum that was created when the Egyptians expelled the Soviets in '72 was filled by the United States, and those two longstanding enemies — Egypt and Israel — at last had a referee between them, the United States. We now see the benefit of U.S. involvement over the past decades — Madrid, Oslo. Some of the greatest agreements of that time were accomplished by very assertive foreign policy.
This didn't necessarily take American troops, American economics, or American trade, but it did take an American commitment. What I'm concerned about is that this president may be consumed by his domestic legacy, whether it's characterized as rebuilding America, nation building at home, political exhaustion or war weariness. I think our Gulf allies are starting to worry about how far America will go to defend those interests that Mark Katz and Dr. Kahl laid out.
It is not beyond the ken of this president to do foreign policy right. In many ways, the decisions he made leading up the West Point speech in 2009, which led to the Afghan surge, were a classic example of great foreign policy. Foreign policy remains the province of the executive branch, not the legislative branch. He made the decision, he did the analysis, and then took it upon himself to convince the American people that it was the right answer to the question. He understood he had to convince the American people of the rightness of his action.
Since then, what has happened? I view the problem as the result of our four national security leaders — President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary Hagel, Secretary Kerry — all coming from the legislative branch of the government. For years and years, they have kept their ears to the ground, listening to polls, because that's how one gets re-elected. But, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, to truly lead you can't keep your ear to the ground. "It is an unnatural position that the British people will not accept — to try to lead from the front with your ear to the ground." My personal view is that that's what's happened too frequently in foreign policy. The effect is being seen inside the Gulf. Overall, the record of this administration's support for the Middle East is in pretty bad shape.
It's not my job simply to stand up here and complain but to offer some prescription. I have spent as much time in the Middle East as anyone in this room; I spend most of my time there now doing business. And doing foreign policy in the Middle East and doing business there isn't that much different. It is a unique area of the world to work in, and there are some rules on how to do it right. The first rule is you've got to show up. You've got to have the patience, persistence and presence with your Gulf allies to convince them that you're really serious about making commitments and honoring them.
I remember in 2004, as an officer working in Central Command, an ambassador in the region said he really admired the way that CENTCOM engaged the Middle East. He said, "You have a general officer in this country once a month talking to the leadership, engaging the leadership, working with the leadership. I've been in this job now for three years and I have yet to see an assistant secretary of state or higher come to this country." That was a very telling analysis of foreign policy, particularly in that region. You've got to show up.
Decisions aren't necessarily made at the NSC [National Security Council] or inside the White House Situation Room. They've got to be honored and upheld by engagement inside the region. Ambassadors are great; they're there every day. But they need the support of their assistant secretaries, their deputy assistant secretaries and key leaders, so that when the vice president or the president shows up, America is putting the most important person they have in the region; that is an indicator that we're there to make a difference.
The second point I would make is that, if one takes a look at the record over the past few years, there's not a lot of reason for the Gulf Arabs to be happy. Let's just list the countries and ponder where we are now versus where we were simply a decade or two ago: Palestine, Syria, Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen. In every one of those countries, they have seen a retrenchment and reversal in terms of their internal situation.
What they get in response from the United States, aside from Yemen, is little more than rhetorical support. You can't just show up; you've got to be committed. You've got to put not only boots on the ground; you've got to put bankers on the ground. You've got to put aid emissaries on the ground as well. My personal view is that we're not doing that to the satisfaction of the Gulf allies. This is why they remain concerned about whether we are truly committed to the strategic arrangement that we have set up and that Dr. Katz articulated. I agree that strategic dialogue in Washington, D.C., four times a year is an element of that, but there certainly has to be more.
I also think that we've got to get out of the business of painting everything as requiring one of two options: doing nothing or bringing in the 82nd Airborne Division. That's what we've done in Syria. We've said we'll do nothing, which is a policy, or we'll go full-bore by parachuting in America's Airborne Division. Policy nuances are important. Policy differences are important. But there have to be policy options that thread the needle between doing nothing and doing too much. We see this right now in Syria, where our do-nothing policy is getting us what we expected. It is creating a petri dish of more al-Qaeda fighters every day. And, while I'm glad to see that the administration is pushing towards providing vetted rebels with more capacity in the form of anti-tank weapons and perhaps even MANPADS, one wonders if it's not too little, too late.
We've got to remember that we have a mutually beneficial relationship between ourselves and the Gulf. It is in our vital national interest for the United States to stay engaged and committed to the region. The region doesn't believe in our commitment. They don't believe our rhetoric. It will remain the job of this and future administrations to try to reverse the mistakes that have been made over the last couple of administrations.
FORD M. FRAKER, President, Middle East Policy Council; Former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia
I want to make a few comments about the U.S. military commitment to Saudi Arabia. When I arrived as ambassador in 2007, Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world where the U.S. government had two separate military training missions, each one run by a U.S. general, one to train the National Guard and the other to train the Ministry of Defense. With the help of my very capable deputy chief of mission, Mike Gfoeller, and Mark Kimmitt, we also stood up a third military training mission, so that by the time I left in 2009, I had five U.S. generals in country under my authority and a thousand U.S. soldiers carrying out training capabilities, in a country where the U.S. government has no formal military presence.
The other thing I would comment about is the nature of U.S. engagement in the region. Mark made a comment about everyone measuring the U.S. commitment to the region over the last few years on the basis of how many boots are on the ground. That's not traditionally the measure. The measure really is how much behind-the-scenes, ongoing diplomatic engagement and involvement there is. John Kerry made this point in Davos when he was being challenged about the United States retreating from the region. He said: Don't measure it on the basis of boots on the ground. We're back to the situation that preceded the invasion of Iraq, to an engagement that is a lot more diplomatic, a lot more private, very much behind the scenes, which is traditionally how we've been engaged in the Middle East. And our engagement at that level is as intense, if not more intense, these days than ever before.
Q & A
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
My first question deals with something every speaker mentioned, the concern in these states that the United States is not a reliable partner. It's making foreign-policy mistakes in the region that impact them — the invasion of Iraq, the instability that ensued and continues today, the unwillingness to intervene in Syria. The list goes on. What would the panelists have us do differently that would alleviate some of these Gulf concerns? What specific steps should we be taking in Egypt and Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan?
AMB. GFOELLER: When I travel to the region and talk to my friends in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, in particular, and they voice their frustrations with the nuclear-negotiation process with Iran, what they complain about as the first issue is the lack of consultation. They'll say, you've basically been conducting this negotiation with almost no input from us. Yet, we are going to be the front line facing what we think will one day be a nuclear Iran. They also point out that our positions have changed dramatically over time, from a very clear position six or seven years ago regarding the impossibility of Iran's having any enrichment infrastructure to a position today, judging by what appears in the press regarding these very closely held negotiations, that seems to indicate a willingness for Iran to end up in possession of a very large uranium-enrichment infrastructure of 10,000, 20,000 centrifuges. Who knows what the ultimate number will be? But it'll be a big number.
As these red lines slip by, perhaps we forget about the previous ones. But Saudi princes who've been monitoring this closely for decades have long memories; they remember that today's red line is not 2005's red line. Given the political culture of the region — which is based on continual consultation and consensus building — when we don't consult with them on an issue of vital importance to them, they think it's because we don't take their national security seriously and that our commitment to their security is not a serious one.
GEN. KIMMITT: If we're going to focus on the specific issue that worries the Gulf Arabs every day — Iran — and we accept Dr. Kahl's view that, instead of demanding that Iran give up its enrichment capability, we now accept a limited enrichment capability that has a finite breakout period, I would not believe, if I were a Gulf Arab, that the United States was serious unless two things happened. First, they expressly adopted a containment policy, since obviously an elimination policy has been forgone. Second, they signed a mutual defense treaty that suggests, as we do in NATO, an attack on one would be an attack on all — that the use of a nuclear weapon by the Iranians would be tantamount to an attack on the United States, and we would respond appropriately. I know it's radical and probably unattainable in this political environment, but my view is that the Gulf Arabs would not take us seriously at the end of nuclear negotiations that leave Iran with any remaining enrichment capability with a finite breakout period.
DR. MATTAIR: Dr. Kahl has written about that, so would you like to talk about the additional commitments the United States should make if our negotiations don't succeed and Iran does develop capabilities that are of concern?
DR. KAHL: First, I'd like to correct the record on a couple of things that were just said that are wrong. One, the notion that the United States would accept a deal that would leave Iran with tens of thousands of centrifuges is crazy talk. There's no way that the Obama administration would accept such a deal. The question becomes whether leaving Iran with, say, 2,000 to 6,000 centrifuges — a breakout cushion of six to 12 months — is acceptable or not. And the question has to be, acceptable compared to what?
Let's imagine, compared to zero, which is the preference of some. Iran installed 3,000 centrifuges a year in 2007 and 2008, the end of the Bush administration, when they were demanding zero enrichment. Getting them down to zero centrifuges doesn't dismantle their program; it adds 12 to 18 months to the breakout timeline. Mark Kimmitt talked about avoiding these straw-man all-or-nothing arguments. We should avoid the mythology that dismantling Iran's enrichment capabilities ends their latent capability. It will not. The U.S. intelligence community, since at least 2007, has publicly testified that they have all the knowledge and technological and industrial capacity to produce nuclear weapons if they want to. You could raze every installation to the ground, you could destroy every centrifuge, and they would still have that capability. It's only a question of how much cushion time you build in. Now, there can be a legitimate debate about whether six to 12 months versus 18 to 24 months is worth fighting a war over. We can have that debate. But let's avoid these mythological alternatives.
The other thing is, we had a zero-enrichment policy during the entire Bush administration and the first half of the Obama administration. Do you know what we got? Nineteen thousand Iranian centrifuges. The Bush administration had an opportunity from 2003 to 2005 to capitalize on the initial success in Iraq and accept a very small Iranian enrichment program, but they weren't willing to do it. The consequence is that we have a very large Iranian enrichment program. So, thank you for that.
I'm a little frustrated by this notion that if only the right people were in charge, with big ideas that have already been tried, we would have solved this issue. I sometimes also experience a little bit of frustration with our friends in the Gulf. I travel to the region often — I took 80 trips in three years as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East — and I heard the following arguments from Gulf friends: You can't engage Iran; that's naïve; they take 80 years to weave a carpet; they will string these talks along until they have a nuclear bomb; they will sucker you; you will accept a bad deal, and we will pay the consequences, so no diplomacy and engagement with Iran; don't do that. They would say, don't sanction Iran either, though; that'll hurt our economies, because we trade with Iran. Don't start a war with Iran, either; it will just stir up the hornet's nest, and that'll blow back on Gulf security. So then you would ask, well, what do you want us to do? And the only alternative seemed to be: "Just fix it. Fix the problem." I think there's a lot to be said for more strategic dialogue, but at the end of the day, the president of the United States, whoever that is, has to defend American vital interests in the best way that he or she can.
I think this president is doing a much better job in the Gulf than others may think. After all, this is a president who regularly engages in military force in Yemen against Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula and has put in place — not just kept in place — tens of thousands of troops in the Persian Gulf, with all the capabilities necessary for any contingency with Iran. Those were decisions that went to the highest level, the president's desk, and he signed orders to put those troops in the field, so when he said all options related to Iran are on the table, the options were actually on the table.
Part of this is that the Gulf states are not happy the United States didn't intervene in Syria. But the solution is not for us to send in the 82nd Airborne; it's to do basically what it looks like we're doing. That is, to increase our support to the moderates — according to press reports, through operations in Jordan — to coordinate better with the Saudis, the Qataris and others, and to capitalize on the transition from Bandar to Mohammed bin Nayef in Saudi Arabia, to focus on some of the foreign-fighter blowback and jihadi challenges. Then we're going to have to agree to disagree on whether the United States is going to go all in on Syria.
GEN. KIMMITT: On the issue of all or nothing with regard to the centrifuges, that's the Obama position in the negotiations, as expressed by Bill Burns as recently as September of last year, when he stood up and said, we have three conditions for the negotiations: one, elimination of the highly enriched uranium (HEU) centrifuges; two, exportation of of their HEU stock out of the country; three, the elimination of a second-source plutonium program through Arak. I'm not arguing that point; I'm just saying that the administration has now, number one, apparently changed their own position. Number two, I'm not advocating for a zero base. What I am advocating is that if we can't get that — and it certainly seems we're not going to — then we ought to open our minds to the notion of containment, which this administration has said we're not going to consider.
DR. MATTAIR: But Dr. Kahl, you have written about what the United States ought to do — to deter, to defend, to contain — if Iran does in fact move toward a nuclear weapon. What should we do? What have you advocated? And how likely is it that the administration would take your prescriptions?
DR. KAHL: I think we're going to end up containing Iran no matter what the outcome is. We've been containing Iran since the revolution. We had a dual-containment policy while Saddam Hussein was alive. We now have a single-containment policy. In a world where there's a nuclear deal, Iran will still be a powerful country engaged in a lot of destabilizing activities, sitting astride the Strait of Hormuz, where 20 percent of the world's oil flows, and we will be containing — conventionally and through the use of irregular operations — Iran's ambitions in the region.
In a world where diplomacy fails and there is a military confrontation, we will also have to contain Iran. Why? Because a military strike on Iran's programs, whether by Israel or the United States, sets their program back a few years, less than a diplomatic deal in most regards, and would require containment on the back end to prevent Iran from reconstituting its program. This is similar to another case: it wasn't the 1991 war with Saddam that ended his WMD program, or the 2003 war. It was the 10 years of sanctions and no-fly zones and intrusive inspections — that is, containment of Saddam — in the intervening period that ended his program. The same type of containment architecture would be required for Iran. And if, heaven forbid, they acquired a nuclear weapon despite our prevention efforts, then we should be planning for that, too. One of the things I advocated for inside the administration was to not rule anything out. My personal view is that we should plan for the things we don't want to happen, not just the things that we want to happen.
I take Mark's point that maybe we should be thinking about that and planning for that, but can you imagine what the Gulf reaction would have been to a Washington Post headline that said, "Obama administration has secret plan for containment of a nuclear-armed Iran"? It would have fed all the anxieties that the speakers are talking about today. So I understand why the president ruled that out of bounds.
We're going to contain Iran, one way or another, and it would be easier to contain an Iran in the aftermath of a diplomatic deal than it would be in the aftermath of either a military confrontation with them or the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran.
GEN. KIMMITT: I agree with Dr. Kahl completely. I just differ with the current policy of this administration.
DR. KATZ: Do we really assume that Iran would be more irrational than anyone else? Why would a nuclear Iran behave differently than other nuclear powers? I've been to Iran a couple of times and maintain dialogue with Iranian scholars, and they think of this very, very differently. When you first talk about it, they spend the first hour denying that they want nuclear weapons, but then they talk about how, if they did have nuclear weapons, what would they actually do with them? They live in a fairly bad neighborhood, and our withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan is not just causing problems for the Gulf; it causes problems for Iran. They're faced with instability on their borders. They are worried about Pakistan. And I think for most Iranians I know, what mystifies them is that we in America seem to worry about the potential of a nuclear Iran, but not about the reality of a nuclear Pakistan, a far more unstable country.
They've also noticed that countries that possess nuclear weapons are dealt with rather more respectfully by the United States than countries without nuclear weapons. They see these weapons in highly defensive terms. The idea that they would actually use them to attack or threaten the Gulf states — is this realistic at all? They know what would happen. Do they think they can use them and just get away with it? I don't think so, and I don't think they do either.
This is one of the important reasons for pursuing this dialogue with the Iranians. They are looking for a way to break out of their isolation. It's not simply the United States and its allies that they have a problem with; they're also frightened of radical Islamism in the region; they're also nervous about a rising China; they don't like Russia at all, believe me. They have a tremendous number of security challenges and the only country with any potential for helping them out is the United States. So I think that they are, in fact, trying to reach out to us.
Traveling abroad has taught me that international relations for other countries is mainly a competition with one another for influence here in Washington, D.C. Before the Iranian revolution, the United States had good relations with Israel, with the Gulf states, and with Iran, and this was uncomfortable for all three parties. Many in the Gulf don't want to see that happen again. But I think it's better than the alternative. Surely an Iran that has a stake in continued good relations with the United States also has a stake in not damaging them — because there are real consequences for that.
GEN. KIMMITT: I agree with you completely, Dr. Katz, that the Iranians would never have the intention to use nuclear weapons militarily. But one of the reasons, as Dr. Kahl brought out, we have such a great relationship in the Gulf is our presence there. I would like to see us do more with it, but as long as we have presence, we have influence.
It is different when Tehran shows up in Manama and says, why don't we be friendly neighbors, if Iran only has conventional weapons. When Manama can look out and see the Fifth Fleet in the ports, they can say to Iran, go away; we know you have hegemonic aspirations in the region, but we've got the Americans here. It is another thing when the Iranians show up as a nuclear power and say, we should have peace among our brothers, and the irritant in this region is the Americans. So as a sign of brotherly aspirations, why don't you ask the Americans to leave; let's declare this an American-free zone so we as fellow Muslims can work out our differences together. What I worry about most is Iran's ability to wrap their nuclear capability into a diplomatic policy of nuclear coercion in the Gulf.
DR. MATTAIR: And so do the Gulf Arabs. What about the Obama meeting with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia? Will our strategic dialogue and strategic cooperation be greater now? Was it a successful meeting? American-made anti-tank weapons just appeared in Syria in the last week or so. Is that an outcome of the meeting?
AMB. FRAKER: I heard from individuals who attended that it was an effective meeting; it went some way toward resetting the level of confidence in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. I know on the Saudi side, there was a great effort to try and bill this as a meeting where the king and the president would talk about the future of the relationship. One individual said that he hoped it would a Roosevelt-Abdulaziz moment. The focus was not supposed to be on the nitty-gritty details of what was happening in Iran or Syria, but a general restatement of U.S. commitments in the region. I'm told that our president looked at the king and said, Your Majesty, like every single president since Roosevelt, I am here to categorically state our unwavering commitment to the defense and security of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. These are statements we've all heard over the years, but it's important when they are made eyeball to eyeball in Riyadh.
For people who were expecting breakthroughs on some of the big issues like Iran and Syria, that clearly did not happen. I'm told that there was no discussion about Egypt. I think by any measure, it was a moderate success in terms of re-establishing belief in the relationship, but it still leaves a lot of question marks about what's going to happen moving forward on the issues.
I think the replacement of Bandar with Muhammad bin Nayef — because of the level of confidence that everybody on the U.S. side has in Bin Nayef's capabilities — will make for much closer cooperation on Syria.
AMB. GFOELLER: I would agree. I'm hearing similar things. My friends are telling me that there was a clear restatement of the position of both sides. There wasn't a whole lot of movement toward closing some of the gaps, particularly on big issues like Iran, but there was another issue that did come up, and it's a symbolic issue, but also a substantive one. The king, whose reign may not last much longer, unfortunately, given his state of health, took the opportunity to introduce the president to the future lineup of people who hold power at the top of the Saudi state structure. Crown Prince Salman was there, and so, very significantly, was Prince Muqrin, who was declared the crown-prince-in-waiting just a few days after the meeting. It's not quite a passing of the torch, but something like that, with King Abdullah showing the U.S. side that these are the people who are going to be running things and speaking with you after I'm gone.
AMB. FRAKER: I sat with Prince Muqrin last week and had the chance to ask him how he thought the meeting had gone with the president. He looked at me and smiled wryly and said, "Well, we did have the opportunity to clarify a number of important issues."
DR. KAHL: I think Mark made a good point earlier that it's important to "be there," and being there is about relationships. So to the degree that the president and the king could look each other in the eye and say the relationship is strong, even if we disagree on a host of issues, that's what's needed. We shouldn't sugarcoat our differences; we should have open, frank conversations. But we also shouldn't obscure the fact that the areas where we have common interests and an incentive to cooperate outweigh those where we have disagreements. I think they're moving closer together on Egypt, because I think the Obama administration is walking back some of its Egypt rhetoric. I think there is a common agenda to be had on economic stabilization in Egypt. I didn't hear that it was a topic between Obama and the king, but nevertheless, moving forward, there should be more ability to work on Egypt.
On Syria, I think that you're already seeing a narrowing of the gap, in part because the Saudis also recognize — in moving from Bandar to Muhammad bin Nayef — that their policy on Syria hasn't been perfect either and that there are a lot of blowback risks to some of the ways in which Saudi Arabia has pursued its interests in Syria. They're going to have to start to reckon with these foreign fighters and jihadists coming back to the kingdom.
DR. MATTAIR: Could the panelists address the relationship we have with the Gulf in sharing intelligence and how it's being put into effect in places like Syria and Afghanistan, and what more we could do in those areas and whether it's going to become a more important part of the relationship as defense budges are cut?
AMB. FRAKER: My friends at the Ministry of Interior will make comments to me such as, "Don't worry about all the noise at the senior level on these political issues; down here, where we operate day to day in counterterrorism and intelligence exchanges, we are rock solid and even getting stronger." I think that summarizes what the relationship is in terms of intelligence exchanges. It got to the point that in 2008, Michael Hayden, then head of the CIA, stood up and publically stated that the intelligence-sharing relationship with Saudi Arabia was the best relationship the United States had anywhere in the world, that we'd surpassed the relationship with the UK in terms of the exchange of raw data. That's a pretty strong statement. If anything, that relationship has gotten stronger, certainly within Saudi Arabia.
GEN. KIMMITT: I think you can generalize that to the entire region. Whether in uniform, civilian clothes in the government or as a civilian now working in the region, I've never heard a complaint about intelligence sharing, at least from the Americans providing intelligence to the region. I think we would prefer to get much more back from the regional actors, but America has been quite good about intelligence-sharing programs with these countries.
AMB. GFOELLER: When I was working with Ambassador Fraker, the kingdom was without question the largest source of intelligence information for us on al-Qaeda issues. They don't get much credit for that, of course. It's not publicly discussed. But the information we received from them was of enormous value in targeting al-Qaeda, both within the kingdom and regionally. It's an incredibly vital portion of the relationship. And despite differences on Syria, I would only expect that to continue; it is a huge common interest that we have with the kingdom going forward.
DR. KAHL: That was particularly true in Yemen until recently, when concern about the foreign-fighter and al-Qaeda element within Syria has risen up the ladder. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen, in many respects was seen as a more imminent and acute threat to the U.S. homeland than al-Qaeda central in Pakistan, and the Saudis have been essential in providing intelligence in that domain.
The Saudis see three existential challenges in the region. They see Iran and its activities. They see the Muslim Brotherhood as an entity, but also as a proxy for populist Sunni Islamist political organizations that could challenge the legitimacy of the monarchies. And they see the al-Qaeda problem. I think there's no divergence with the United States on al-Qaeda; I think that there's a huge common interest between the United States and Saudi Arabia on that. It's on the other two axes where we have more disagreement with how the Saudis see things.
DR. MATTAIR: I can recall being in Saudi Arabia a year or two ago, and one of the leaders said, we could work with Rafsanjani and we could work with Khatami, but we can't work with Ahmadinejad. Is there any feeling in these states that Rouhani is a different animal and that there's any potential for dealing with him more successfully?
AMB. FRAKER: A number of people I talk to refer to Rouhani as a duplicitous snake. If you look into his background on the intelligence side and his boasts, when he started negotiations with the IAEA on enrichment, there were only a few centrifuges working, and when he'd finished, there were 10 times that number. There's enormous skepticism about his sincerity, and I think that clouds their ability to come to any sort of realistic judgment about whether or not he's a reliable interlocutor.
DR. KAHL: I think we have to be very cautious in talking about Iran as a unitary entity and whether the Saudis or anybody else can have relationships with Iran as a unitary entity. The reality is this: Iran is a complicated, factionalized political system. It's not a democracy in the way that we think about it; but there's elite competition and factional politics that matter to an incredible degree — who's up and who's down and who owns what portfolios and who doesn't.
On foreign-policy issues, President Rouhani is the second-most-powerful person in the country; and Foreign Minister Zarif is the most powerful foreign minister Iran has had in a long time. But they own exactly one foreign-policy issue at the moment, and that's the nuclear file. Every other foreign policy issue, in the Middle East at least, is owned by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force. And they're not the same. I don't buy the wolf in sheep's clothing thing; I think Rouhani is for real. He's not a reformer, he is a pragmatist. I know some people disagree, but, whatever one thinks of him, the principlists and ultra-hardliners associated with elements of the IRGC, and especially the Quds Force, are a very different breed. And I think that many of the activities that Saudi Arabia is most concerned about in the region stem from that factional quadrant of the Iranian system.
This is actually one of the reasons it's not a good idea at the moment to fuse the nuclear issue and the regional issues into one giant conversation. That would bring the IRGC into the conversation the United States is having with the more moderate camp in Iran. Better to try to seek agreement on the nuclear issue and pivot off of that to build momentum for the pragmatists and moderates to own more of the files or have more leverage within their own system. Then we can have conversations with them and bring the Gulf states into those conversations as well.
Think of all the things that are happening. The Saudis are engaging Israel, perhaps, behind the scenes. Who would have thought of that? The Saudis are talking to the Chinese and the Russians, who are, by the way, closer to Iran and Assad, suggesting that it's not just their anger about our failure to get rid of Assad. The Saudis are making a huge number of realpolitik considerations. I think that as they move to try to tamp down the sectarian polarization and conflagration that is Syria, it would not surprise me if Rouhani visited the kingdom at some point, and if there were a Rafsanjani-like rapprochement between the Saudis and the Iranians, not because they love each other, but because both sides may have an interest in de-escalation.
DR. KATZ: I agree completely that Iran is a highly variegated country. Even the Islamic Republican Guard Corps is. We have students at my university who are connected with it. Their families are part of it. They report that there is factionalization within the IRGC. There was a tremendous degree of unhappiness within the Guards over Ahmadinejad. He was not their guy; they regarded him as a complete screw-up. They're not necessarily the irrational revolutionary actors that they're portrayed to be. What do they want, mainly? They want to stay in power. That's what they want. And that entails a degree of pragmatism.
DR. MATTAIR: When Ambassador Fraker and I were in the kingdom and other countries in March, we expected to hear about Syria. We expected to hear about Iran. We expected to hear about Egypt. But we didn't expect to hear as much as we did about Iraq and the concern that these countries — not just Saudi Arabia, but Kuwait and the UAE — have about the developments in Iraq. It is about to have parliamentary elections, and it is engaged in a dispute with the Kurdish government about whether the Kurds can export oil through Turkey. The continuing violence is considered a threat by these countries, particularly because the Iraqi government is dominated by Shias who have a relationship with Iran.
GEN. KIMMITT: I spend that majority of my time inside Iraq and close to the Iraqi government. I think part of this is a perceptual problem. To suggest that the current Baghdad government is somehow aligned with Iran neglects the historical fact that they fought probably the bloodiest war in the two countries' history against each other. The Qom school and the Najaf school of Shia Islam are very much at odds. I think we actually have an opportunity there with Maliki and a successor government — even if it is with Maliki — not only to improve the relationship considerably between the United States and Iraq, but also to improve the standing of Iraq within the GCC.
The fact is that, unless the United States takes a strong leadership role, Iraq will fall into an Iranian orbit. But with the failure of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) negotiations in 2011, there is a significant sense within Iraq that America has abandoned them. Our military presence has gone from fairly robust to about 200 security-assistance personnel who, for the most part, aren't allowed out of the embassy. The amount of interface between the American embassy at other than the highest levels in normal Iraqi society is virtually nil. I would like to see us interface with Iraqi society and pull them back, into a stronger relationship. This would not only be helpful for the United States, but for the region as well.
I have been in other countries where they won't refer to Maliki as the prime minister. They refer to him as "that Iranian up in Baghdad." And that informational and intellectual and diplomatic firewall between the GCC and Iraq perpetuates the myth that somehow Iraq has fallen into Iran's orbit, and now they are simply a vassal state of Tehran. I don't see this to be true, and certainly nobody in Iraq would feel that way except the most hard-line of the Islamist parties in the country.
AMB. GFOELLER: I talk to my friends in Riyadh and they have no great affection for Prime Minister Maliki, and I think, until the passing of this king, that attitude will remain. It will probably change with the next king, and certainly with the king after that. I'm not sure how many years we'll get out of King Salman, God grant him life, but I think Saudi attitudes will change. The kingdom isn't a monolith any more than Iran is. There are great differences of opinion on these things at the level below the royal family. I've talked to many Saudi billionaires who've told me of their fervent desire to get more involved in the Iraqi market. I think there's a lot of pent-up demand on the part of the Saudi investor class to see that happen.
But the real shift I've seen in the last year or so is the Saudi realization that ISIL, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (or Daeesh), is becoming more and more entrenched in al-Anbar province and in other Sunni regions of Iraq. It is actually carrying out coordinated operations militarily and politically across the Syrian-Iraqi frontier. Having just declared Daeesh and Jabhat al-Nusra as terrorist branches of al-Qaeda, and having just unleashed the full force of the Ministry of Interior, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef's men, against them, I think the Saudis see what's happening in al-Anbar and western and northern Iraq as a huge threat to them. They see Iraq as the perfect jumping-off place for al-Qaeda to resume, at some point, its insurgency in the kingdom. They succeeded very handily, under Muhammad bin Nayef's leadership, between 2004 and 2008 in pushing Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula out of the kingdom proper and into Yemen. But they're under no illusions that the insurgency won't begin again, and they see the radicalization of a good part of Iraq under the influence of Daeesh as a real danger.
I think this danger is an opportunity in the sense that perhaps under a future monarch, enhanced security cooperation between Iraq and Saudi Arabia will become a real priority. They share a huge common threat from the growth of al-Qaeda in western Iraq.
DR. MATTAIR: Do they blame al-Maliki for al-Qaeda's continuance and resurgence, since he hasn't brought Sunnis into the government, as was expected?
AMB. GFOELLER: That's a frequently heard complaint, but he reversed the political gains he inherited after the withdrawal of U.S. forces. People will tell you at every opportunity that the Iraqis did not do enough to encourage the United States to maintain a follow-on force. There's the sense that, as General Kimmitt was saying, a vacuum was left behind when the last U.S. forces pulled out. They would definitely say that the combination of those two factors has opened the door to Daeesh by creating a political opportunity that they've seized.
DR. KAHL: Yes, I think events in Iraq are concerning. The judgment of the analytical community in the United States, when we were talking about withdrawal options, was that things in Iraq were not going to fall apart, that it would, all else being equal, be better for us to have a small number of forces than not, but that things weren't going to fall apart in the absence of U.S. forces. Largely because the insurgency was beaten down, the population was exhausted, the political process was not great but better than the alternatives for most Sunni elites, and that the Iraqi security forces had overwhelming military overmatch vis-à-vis what remained of the insurgency. So Iraq wouldn't be a vacation destination anytime soon, but it wouldn't go off the rails.
Two things after the withdrawal made things worse. Maliki is partly to blame. He had engaged in some overreaction to political threats from Sunni politicians in ways that radicalized certain elements of the Sunni population. But the biggest source of the resurgence of Al-Qaeda in Iraq was the black swan that is the Syrian civil war and insurgency. It has made the border between Syria and Iraq just one expanse of al-Qaeda-inspired insurgency. That was something the analytical community didn't anticipate.
What is the Obama administration doing about it? My sense is that their approach is sensible; they are ramping up counterterrorism cooperation. Most of it is quiet. Most of it's not done by the U.S. military, at least if you believe the media reports. Simultaneously, they've put a lot of pressure on Maliki to engage the tribes, especially in Anbar, to try to peel some of the support away from al-Qaeda. And they continue to push for broader political accommodation with the Sunni community. This, by the way, has been the U.S. position since 2003, but we weren't able to convince the government in Baghdad to do it when we had 175,000 troops in the country. So the notion that if we had left 5,000 folks in uniform there, it would have magically forged political accommodation in Iraq, I think is a little fanciful. But we need to continue to push for political compromise.
I completely agree that the Saudis and the Emiratis and others have a very acute interest in the AQI problem. But they also worry about Iranian influence in Baghdad. And this has been especially problematic as it relates to Saudi Arabia's engagement. The implication is, if you're worried about Iranian influence in Baghdad, then exert your own influence in Baghdad. But the Saudis have refused to even stand up a permanent embassy. I remember getting into long arguments with senior Saudis, asking, why don't you stand up your embassy in Baghdad, exert some of your own influence if you're worried about the vacuum filled by Tehran? The answer was, "We can't do that; Maliki's a puppet dangling at the end of Tehran's strings." And I said, "But you have an embassy in Tehran!"
It ultimately boils down to the fact that the king hates Maliki. This brings us to Mike's point. King Abdullah takes personal relationships very, very seriously, and in this case, it's irreparably damaged. He believes Maliki made some commitments to him in the 2006 period that he didn't live up to, and it's just not going to be resolved until there is a new king or a new Iraqi prime minister. In the event that there is a new king or a new prime minister, I think there is some possibility for a different approach toward Iraq.
GEN. KIMMITT: I have spent most of my time with the Iraqi military, the Ministry of Information and the Iraqi special-operations forces; and I think what's underappreciated in the current reports is the degradation of Iraqi readiness since the American troops departed in 2011. A small element of those American trainers and advisers would have made a significant amount of difference. When the problems happened in Fallujah and Ramadi, luckily in Ramadi, Sattar and his tribe made the choice between the central government and al-Qaeda and said, we want to stick with the central government, the lesser of two evils. That was not the case with the Dulaimi tribes and some of the others in Fallujah. As a result, the counterterrorism campaign that was referred to earlier started off with the Ministry of Interior (MOI) troops, and the MOI were not capable of confronting the threat. They sent in the Iraqi army, which was also virtually incapable of taking it on.
So now General Barawy and his Iraqi special forces — equivalent to our Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), roughly about 1,200 men — are the ones at the point of the spear, taking tremendous casualties because of the lack of readiness of the other forces. But in terms of their military capabilities, they closed the best training facility, so they don't do regular operations training. Their vehicles have not been repaired in a number of years. All these elements that a good train-and-assist program — which would have been provided, not by 5,000 or 10,000 fighters, but by 5,000 or 10,000 trainers and advisers — would have put us in a very different place in terms of the al-Qaeda insurgency that we're seeing out in the west right now.
Dr. Kahl is correct, we are providing some support: Hellfire missiles, drones. We're providing those things that are absolutely unnecessary in the type of fighting that we're seeing in Fallujah. What we need there, and what we could've had there, were American captains and majors who, the first time a company commander got into a fight in the middle of the street, could say, "Don't worry, it's going to be OK, you're going to take some casualties, but you've got to move to that next house." We don't have that, because we don't have a SOFA with Iraq. We don't have American troops on the ground who could provide that kind of support.
As a result, al-Qaeda is getting stronger in Iraq. The Iraqi security forces have not stood up to the fight. Maliki has surrounded himself with the special forces, strong military people. The sense among the Iraqi military is, we need support from you; where are you guys? It's great that we get a couple of Hellfires and a couple of bombs, but that's not really what we need in the street-to-street fighting.
I think you will see in the coming days another offensive that will be put on by Maliki and his people. He wanted to time this closer to the elections so that, win or lose, it wouldn't affect them. But the Iraqis have a real problem with al-Qaeda. They have a problem with the insurgent Sunnis, who have made the dreadful choice of going with al-Qaeda. They weren't getting what they needed out of the United States and the central government. I think this is going to be a problem that persists far beyond the elections and beyond the current fight. Essentially, al-Qaeda has set up a safe haven in Western Anbar that is going to take some time for any force to clear up. It is fed by this petri dish in Syria that is creating fighters at an astronomical rate.
AMB. FRAKER: The rhetoric on the ground has become more and more worrying between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. We understand that, for the first time, Maliki has publicly accused the Saudis of sending terrorists, jihadists, into Iraq.
GEN. KIMMITT: And Qataris. I was at the conference when he did that.
AMB. FRAKER: The Saudis therefore think, if he's accusing us of that, how long is it going to be before a suicide bomber from Iraq shows up in Riyadh and blows himself up? You hear that discussion more and more now. When the Saudis look north to Iraq, they're increasingly alarmed about what they see.
DR. MATTAIR: Mike, would you elaborate on Saudi Arabia's regional alliances and their importance in light of concerns about Saudi-Jordanian relations and Saudi-Pakistani relations?
AMB. GFOELLER: Starting with Jordan, the Saudis tend to view Amman — and Manama — as outposts in their outer line of defense. So for them, the internal security of Jordan is tantamount to the internal security of the kingdom. There is a historical competition between the Hashemite and al-Saud dynasties, of course. The Hashemites were the traditional rulers of Jeddah and the Hejaz until forced out by King Abdulaziz, the father of the current king. But the Jordanian monarchy would not have managed to survive three years of the Arab Spring, three years of revolution and civil war in Syria, without massive Saudi financial assistance. One hears various estimates of how much money is involved, multiple billions of dollars per year. The kingdom has a $750 billion reserve fund now, generated by oil profits the last five or six years, so they can afford to keep doing this indefinitely.
There is also a very close, quiet military relationship. Quite a few Saudi officers can be found in the coffee shops in Amman, all there on vacation, and quite a few Jordanians are being trained in the kingdom. This relationship is very strong. And I think from the Saudi point of view, the survival of the Jordanian monarchy is a key national-security imperative. Of course, without revealing things that shouldn't be revealed in a public meeting, it works both ways. Jordan is a two-way door for the Saudis. It's a way to gain information on what happens in Syria. It's a way to attempt to influence things in Syria. And there's been a lot of traffic through that door.
As for Egypt, the Saudis viewed the Morsi government, the Muslim Brotherhood government, in Cairo as a strategic disaster. They see the Brotherhood as a standing threat to the monarchy per se. They focus on the Brotherhood's ideology, which rejects the idea of traditional Arab monarchy in favor of a more theocratic notion of governance. They see themselves as the guardians of a particular tradition, rooted in traditions that go back before Islam as well. The Saudi monarchy is very much sui generis. They feel much more comfortable dealing with a situation in Cairo now in which General Sisi is waging an all-out war against the Brotherhood.
The Saudis have had an ambiguous relationship with the Brotherhood for decades. The brother of Sayyid Qutb, Muhammad Qutb, founded the faculty of Islamic studies at the University of Jeddah in 1967 after he fled Nasser's executioners. This was a very close relationship. Much of the Saudi religious elite were educated by people who were members of the Muslim Brotherhood. So when we see the Saudi government declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization and unleashing the minister of interior on it, this is a fundamental change. This is something that's very risky from the point of view of the stability and internal coherence of the Saudi state and society. I know many prominent Saudis who were enthusiastic members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and now all of a sudden they have to abandon the organization and many of their beliefs. This is very serious business.
And I think we're seeing an Egyptian-Saudi alliance that is being transformed in its very nature from a practical, pragmatic alliance based on financial support for Egypt and local cooperation on issues like the peace process, to one that's rooted in a new axis opposing the Muslim Brotherhood, in both the peninsula and Egypt. Others have mentioned this today: Part of this new relationship boils down to a Saudi willingness to provide billions of dollars in direct financial support for Egyptian weapons purchases from Moscow. There is a military delegation in Cairo today talking about MiG-35s, Mi-35 helicopters and a variety of other gear. One hears various estimates for the amount of matériel that could be involved, but they range between $2 billion and $10 billion.
It's clear that the Saudis are willing to fund this because of what they see as a reluctance or a reduced willingness on the part of Washington to supply Egypt with what it needs to conduct what is, at the end of the day, the most extensive conventional military campaign in the Sinai since the '73 war. Egypt's engaged in a real war against al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula. The Saudis, at least, tend to view the fight against the Brotherhood and the fight against al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula as two sides of the same coin. Obviously, that's not a point of view that's shared over here, but this is how they see it and it's a view that's dictating their action. I think this is part of the new strategic reality, an unusual alliance developing to a certain extent sub rosa between the king of Saudi Arabia, General Sisi — perhaps almost certainly soon President Sisi — and President Putin. I've been following the Middle East for decades now, never thought I was going to see this, certainly not after 1972.
Bahrain is another key alliance for the Saudis. Having recently spent a few days on the island, one can see the impact of the so-called GCC intervention, which is really a Saudi military intervention. I was there on March 14, the anniversary in Manama. I was expecting massive demonstrations; I wasn't sure I'd be able to land, actually. But the city was completely quiet — a very tense, quiet, big police presence. Still, not a single tire was burned. When I ventured out into the Shiite villages around Manama, it was clear that the insurgency there was going to go on for a long time. There was lots of anti-Al-Khalifa graffiti everywhere and many signs, when one stopped to talk to people, of strong sentiments against the monarchy.
But there's a general sense in Bahrain that, with Saudi and Emirati support, they've turned some sort of corner and are, at least in the short to medium term, in charge. One sees an enormous number of really huge — 20 stories high — portraits of King Hamad, who used to be a rather retiring fellow, adorning the city. The message is very clear to the population: The Al-Khalifa are in charge, and we're not going anywhere.
I think this is a sign of how seriously the Saudis take this. If they were to lose the Al-Khalifa dynasty in Bahrain, the security and stability of the Eastern Province would be in question, and they're not going to permit that. So at least as long as the Al-Saud are in power in Riyadh, I think we'll see Saudi forces — which are still in Bahrain, by the way — remaining there.
DR. KATZ: I just want to raise the question of how far Russia and Saudi Arabia actually are going to cooperate. Certainly, there has been a lot of discussion, and apparently it's quite serious, about Saudis funding arms purchases from Russia. But the Saudi-Russian relationship is not good at all. Essentially, in Russia, they have a tendency to view Saudi Arabia the same way Americans view Iran: nothing good can come from these people. The Russian elite blames Saudi Arabia for any and all Muslim opposition activity in their country; they see Saudi Arabia as the mastermind of the Arab Spring; and they believe Saudi Arabia intends to spread this revolutionary activity from the Middle East into Russia itself. They are on opposite sides in Syria. The Saudis are not very happy about the Russian relationship with Iran. I think that there is a limit to how far Saudi-Russian relations can improve. If Saudi Arabia really is going to fund these purchases, it's going to want some concessions from Moscow, and Moscow is not going to want to make them.
Let's face it: The Saudis are making this offer essentially to teach the Americans a lesson or to get the Americans to say, "No, no, don't do that, we're going to resume arms transfers to Egypt." And it seems to be happening. See today's Washington Post regarding the Apache helicopters. I very much question how far any cooperation can go between Saudi Arabia and Russia, given how much Vladimir Putin mistrusts the Saudis as well as the Qataris.
DR. KAHL: So much was made a few months ago, when a number of senior Saudi princes intimated that there might be a significant strategic rupture with the United States, and Saudi Arabia would pivot to alternative strategic allies. This was around the time, too, when the Saudis turned down the rotating seat on the UN Security Council. This was the height of the fear that there was going to be an extreme rupture between the United States and the kingdom.
I think you need to distinguish between two sets of allies – and one type are not viewed as strategic alternatives to Washington but rather a defensive perimeter around the kingdom. There are countries in the region that Saudi Arabia perceives it needs to prop up because instability there could threaten the kingdom in some way. Jordan fits into that category, as do Bahrain and Egypt. There's also some talk of having Jordan and Morocco and maybe even Egypt become part of the GCC, providing ground troops and other things. So there is a way in which they can protect the kingdom, as a defensive buffer.
When Saudi princes were suggesting that the Saudis could go elsewhere for strategic relationships, they weren't talking about those types of relationships; they were talking about a second category of countries, which Mark hinted at — the Russians, the Chinese and the Pakistanis. The problem is that a potential Saudi pivot away from the United States is a pivot to nowhere. The Russians and the Chinese cannot provide the military hardware that we can. Their systems don't interoperate with us. If they chose China and Russia over the United States and that actually produced a rupture, most of Saudi Arabia's conventional military would cease to work within two or three weeks of American contractors being pulled out. So it's not about rupturing. It's about sending signals to Washington and hedging one's bets. As much as the Saudis have complaints about U.S. policy, China's policy and Russia's policy are worse in every way that they care about as it relates to Iran and Syria; perhaps Egypt is slightly different. China and Russia aren't significant alternatives to the United States.
Pakistan is interesting because there is such a deep and longstanding relationship between the Saudi and Pakistani militaries and also because the Saudis helped bankroll the Pakistani nuclear program. This has raised rumors for years, which the Saudis like to feed, that if Iran gets too close to a bomb or actually gets one, Pakistan would provide nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia. First of all, nobody knows the reality. The Saudis put these rumors into the bloodstream to put pressure on us to deal seriously with the Iranian nuclear issue. They have basically threatened that, if the Iranians go nuclear, we'll go nuclear the next day. Nobody knows whether that would actually happen. But Pakistan cannot supplant the United States as the primary security guarantor of the kingdom. They can't do it conventionally; Pakistan does not have power-projection capabilities. They can't defend the Gulf. They can defend the kingdom conventionally, maybe, but that's not the threat that the kingdom faces from countries like Iran. It's about subversion and terrorism and threats to critical infrastructure. The Pakistanis can't really help with any of these problems very well. And the Pakistanis can't dominate escalation below the nuclear level with the Iranians.
So what good is the Pakistani security guarantee relative to what the United States can provide? Even in a world in which the Iranians get nuclear weapons, Pakistan's never extended a nuclear umbrella over anybody. And Pakistan's number one, number two and number three strategic challenges are India, India and India. Raise your hand if you believe that Pakistan would like every single crisis between Saudi Arabia and Iran for the rest of time to become a nuclear crisis that Pakistan has to deal with. This is a bad arrangement.
I have no doubt that in a world in which the Saudis are really upset about an Iran deal or the collapse of an Iran deal that leads to a nuclear-armed Iran, they would be really upset with the United States, and they will likely look for other alternatives. But all the alternatives are worse.
Q: Would you explore more of this rift between Qatar and Riyadh and what's happening to the GCC as a result of their feud over the Muslim Brotherhood? Is it a passing cloud, or is the GCC really in trouble in terms of cohesion?
AMB. FRAKER: I was living in the Emirates in the '70s, when the GCC was put together, and all of us living down there were highly skeptical that this was ever going to be a functioning and effective political entity. We all thought it would be fine as long as everything worked out for everybody who was a member, but the minute there were problems, it was highly likely that it would cease to be anything close to an effective unit.
Over the last 30 or 40 years, there have been many efforts to bolster the GCC as a workable entity. Certainly, from the U.S. standpoint, we'd be much happier selling one missile-defense unit to one entity down there rather than having to sell seven or eight different ones. But you're never going to get away from the old historical tribal rivalries. There are longstanding ones between the Saudis and Qataris, enormous annoyance on the part of the Saudis over Qatari actions in a number of areas. I've seen films of meetings involving the emir of Qatar, the king of Saudi Arabia and the emir of Kuwait where the body language alone was enough to tell you that this wasn't a functioning group. So I've been relatively skeptical about the GCC as an effective entity from the beginning. The fact that there's been a falling out between Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain doesn't surprise me.
Q: No one has mentioned Israel among the issues that we have been discussing. Israel seems to have been successful in making us believe that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not a threat to the Arab world anymore, especially to the GCC. The main threat now is apparently Iran's nuclear program. I thought that you would spend some part of your discussion on Israel; its impact is very important in the region.
DR. MATTAIR: Mike said that conversations are evidently taking place. How far can that go between Saudi Arabia and Israel, when the Palestinian issue is not resolved? Have they successfully turned Gulf attention away from the issue, or is it sill vitally important?
AMB. GFOELLER: I think the Palestinian issue is still extremely important inside Saudi Arabia, for the royal family and for its constituents. The kingdom is not an absolute monarchy. It rules by consensus. When a new king is proclaimed, he doesn't become king until enough people have carried out the bayah, the allegiance ceremony. When Abdullah became king in 2005, this took weeks. He had to travel all over the kingdom and receive formal pledges of loyalty from working people in the various provinces. I remember at one point the vice president of the United States, the king of Spain and the prince of Wales were all kept waiting in Riyadh. They wanted to congratulate King Abdullah, then-Crown Prince Adbullah, on his accession to the throne, but they didn't realize that it hadn't happened yet. He wouldn't be king until a critical mass was reached of followers who had pledged loyalty. As long as the Palestinian issue is important to the rank-and-file population of the kingdom, it will be important to the royal family. It's not something they can afford to ignore.
Saudi strategists do see more common ground with Israel as Iran becomes more powerful and more of a potential threat to both of their interests. Therefore, a certainly amount of pragmatic conversation sub rosa is probably taking place. I don't know this to be the case, but there are enough rumors to suggest this is happening. But there are limits to any such rapprochement, and those limits are set by the existence of the Palestinian problem.
DR. KAHL: I think there is no question that the Israeli-Palestinian issue continues to resonate to some degree. But one gets the sense that when the Saudis talk about it these days, their heart really isn't in it, and that it's not the fundamental geopolitical fault line in the region anymore. I would argue that it hasn't been since the 1991 Gulf War. The geopolitical fault line that's mattered most for regional patterns of behavior and alignment has been between defenders of the status quo — the so-called "moderate camp," of which the United States, Israel and the conservative Gulf monarchies are a part — and the "resistance axis," Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamist militants, Hamas, PIJ (Palestinian Islamic Jihad) and others. Since the Iraqi civil war, and now with the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war, the divide between the resistance camp and the moderate camp is increasingly sectarian in its nature. Sunni-Shia polarization has swept across the region, and the residual Arab-Israeli tensions are less of a barrier to quiet potential cooperation between some of the Gulf states and Israel.
That said, I think one of the most potent arguments the United States has made to Israel for years was that an agreement with the Palestinians would pave the way for security and intelligence cooperation at a different level with the Gulf states against the common foe, Iran. The Israelis dismissed that for years; they don't dismiss it anymore. In fact, some of the most powerful arguments inside Israel's own establishment for reaching a Palestinian agreement and linking it to the Iran threat derives from the possibility of being able to forge a counter-Iran coalition with Arab states. Now, I don't think they are going to get beyond the Palestinian issue anytime soon, but it is at least a live argument in favor of a deal.
This is not the only geopolitical fault line that matters in the region. We shouldn't discount the fact that within the Sunni camp, there is a fundamental fault line principally between the conservative and more hawkish monarchies — led by the Saudis and the Emiraties — and the Qataris and the Turks, who are much more comfortable with having relationships with the Muslim Brotherhood and other popular Islamist movements and who very much bent in that direction in the aftermath of the fall of Mubarak. The Saudis have never forgiven the Qataris for that. I think they thought that a change in emir might be an opportunity for that shift, and apparently, the Qataris didn't go far enough. Obviously, they have disagreements in Syria now as well. So I think both the Iran-Saudi axis and, within the Sunni community, the Saudi vs. Qatar-Turkey schism are more important to the geopolitics to the region than the Arab-Israeli fault line currently is.
Q: Saudi Arabia's official stated position on the Iranian nuclear program is that Iran has every right to develop a commercial nuclear-energy program under the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. If I remember correctly, the Saudi representative at President Obama's Nuclear Security Summit here in 2011 stated that position at great length and did not specifically preclude the idea that Iran could have its own enrichment program. So either the Saudis don't really espouse the policy that they have articulated in public, or they want us to take a harder line than they do on the subject. Which of those is it?
DR. KAHL: To my knowledge, they haven't had an explicit statement on issues like the right to enrichment and whether a civil nuclear program actually requires a domestic enrichment program. That can be finessed. Some people say yes; most people would say no. In reality, the Saudis have not given a lot of deep thought to strategically exactly how much Iranian nuclear capability is too much. They just think the Obama administration is going to settle for a bad deal. They just have this general notion; it's actually not detailed. I don't think you're going to hear from a lot of Saudi officials, "If they have 1,500 centrifuges, that's OK, as long as they're IR-1s and they're only at Natanz. But if they have 15,000 centrifuges, and they have IR-2ms, and they're somewhere else, and 3,000 of them are at Fordo, then that's bad." The Israelis would have that conversation with Americans; the Saudis would not.
This is principally because Israeli and Saudi concerns about Obama's Iran policy are actually a bit different. The Israelis very much worry about the details of that nuclear deal; it's the existential threat, in their minds. The Saudis care about Iran's nuclear ambitions but only in the context of Iran's broader hegemonic ambitions for the region. What they worry almost as much about is that we will leave Iran, not just with a latent nuclear capability but with the sanctions lifted. The Iranian economy will go up, Iranian oil will come back on the market, and Iran will be legitimized in the eyes of the region and able to resume its march toward regional hegemony and the subversion of Bahrain and the kingdom, among other activities elsewhere in the region.
AMB. FRAKER: In a conversation with a senior official in the Gulf, he said, of course, we would like to see Iran nuclear-free. But, frankly, if they get it, we'll get it. What we're more concerned about is the continuing spread of Iranian influence in the region. It's their interference in local governments. It's the sense that Iran is going to encircle the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia, et cetera, et cetera.
GEN. KIMMITT: I just wanted to finish up that comment on Iraq — and it actually is appropriate, given the last comment from Ambassador Fraker about this supposed Iranian-Iraq-Syrian-Lebanon axis. For all the criticisms of Prime Minister Maliki, people need to give him a bit of credit for the fact that the easiest proof of his alignment with Iran would be for him to unleash the militias — Jaish al-Haq, Jaish al-Mahdi, the IRGC, the Sadrists — to fight the Sunni scourge, the al-Qaeda scourge in al-Anbar. It's a credit to Prime Minister Maliki that he's retained a monopoly on the use of force inside of Iraq and has not, as we've seen so many other times in Iraq, allowed the militias to take control of this fight. If the Shia militias were unleashed against the Sunni militias inside Iraq, you truly would have that devastating civil war that would make things far, far worse than they currently are.