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Muath Al Wari

The path to Iran
runs through Camp David

The Iran deal could also be a new beginning that normalizes Iran in the region and ends decades of ruinous proxy wars with Gulf states

US President Barack Obama listens Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani at the end of a summit meeting at Camp David on 14 May 2015. (AFP/Nicholas Kamm)

The nuclear agreement hopes to weaken Iran’s domestic constituency for its regional policy. Through the inexorable pull of membership in the international community, the P5+1 aim to “strengthen the hands of more moderate leaders in Iran.” Yet there needs to be a regional strategy that eliminates the strategic rationale for Iran’s policy. At the heart of such a strategy are the Gulf states, and one way they could be induced to de-escalate tensions vis-a-vis Tehran is by acting and building on the Camp David commitments.

 

The view from the Gulf is that Iran is committed to its regional hegemony, and it’s hard to dispute that. In Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq, Iranian proxies have extended Tehran’s influence to such a degree that the GCC perceives an existential threat. The Yemen intervention, which may tip the scales there, is a perfect indicator of the stakes involved. Unprecedented for a confrontation of nearly four decades, Saudi and Emirati troops are deployed to the fight.

 

Zero sum gains leave no space for moves toward de-escalation, and the GCC will not adopt a conciliatory posture if it means concessions to Iranian encroachment. As such, they will double down on the kind of policies seen in Yemen. For example, soon after the Vienna announcement, the Gulf was consumed with talk of an intervention in Syria.

 

Yet, there is also a recognition that these conflicts can only be resolved politically. But the steps necessary for a resolution cannot be attempted if the view is that they would pave the path for Iranian hegemony. In this respect, the United States has a key role to play if it is determined to stabilize the Middle East. The agreement with Iran potentially addressed one side of the coin: domestic dynamics that inform regional policy. Now it is time to address the external drivers.

 

The Islamic Republic’s strategic outlook is driven in part by ideological imperative. But states are not static — they respond to their environment and modify their approaches accordingly. Iran’s threat-perception, and accordingly its regional posture, has hardened partly because of a long history of mutual hostility with its Gulf neighbors.

 

The neighbors — save for Saudi Arabia, which only commented on the deal — sent cautious congratulatory messages to Tehran. United Arab Emirates’ Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash expressed in an op-ed the hope that this agreement would mark a turning of the page on decades of hostility. He outlined initial steps in Syria and Yemen that Iran can take to make its intentions clear.

 

Yet an Iranian calculus that sees these conflicts as winnable acts as a disincentive to sue for peace. The path to changing Tehran’s outlook begins in Camp David. The commitments made in May establish an institutional framework for the GCC-US partnership. The agreement is remarkable for its depth, through maritime security, cyber security, arms transfers, missile defense, and military training — it reads as a formalized strategy that, if acted on, would be a comprehensive check against Iranian encroachment.

 

The summit was seen in the Gulf as a surprising success. An administration long accused of a credibility deficit finally articulated a clear commitment to its allies. Initially meant to rebuild a relationship weakened by years of disagreement, the summit can now be seen as a constituent part of the Iran deal’s greater success. Which is why it is critical to expedite the implementation of the summit’s commitments.

 

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was in the region last week and Secretary of State John Kerry is reportedly going to the Gulf next month. The administration clearly recognizes the importance of addressing its allies’ concerns. Announcing that actioning Camp David is a key priority would help tranquilize some of the anxiety around the deal.

 

Furthermore, the administration can appoint a high-profile coordinator for the summit’s commitments. Responsible for managing the necessary interagency process, an empowered Camp David czar would act as the president’s special representative to all GCC matters. A key place to start would be the status of the dedicated Foreign Military Sales office. King Salman’s visit to the US later in the year can serve as the perfect opportunity to provide an update on the expedited implementation of the May agreement.

 

The security of the knowledge that they are able to counter Iran will build the firm ground on which the GCC can test the de-escalatory proposition. Iran, on the other hand, would be induced to reciprocate if it recognizes that these proxy wars are not winnable and that there is space for compromise with its neighbors.

 

This would not be unprecedented: the Rafsanjani and Khatami eras included fleeting moments of rapprochement. It is not fantastical, either; neither Iran nor its neighbors are inherently belligerent. Furthermore, the notion that sectarianism defines this conflict is lazy. This, like any other conflict, is driven primarily by a need for security.

 

Building a security architecture in the region where the Gulf states no longer see Iran as an existential threat will be difficult, but it is possible. The Camp David commitment is only one step toward that goal. My colleagues at the Center for American Progress provided a useful outline for other steps that can be taken to counter Iran. I would only add launching a new, serious effort to resolve the Syrian question.

 

Successfully countering Iran in the region will make clear to Tehran that it simply cannot win the regional chess game. Secure Gulf states could, for their part, test if this is indeed a new Iran, desirous of normal relations with its neighbors. Absent that security, the potential for the agreement to strengthen the moderates, and in turn socialize Iran, will dissipate.

 

Barack Obama just broke a status quo between America and Iran that has held since 1979, and according to Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule, he now owns it. It is possible that what was signed in Vienna will only be an arms-control agreement and, if successful, could very well have been worth the effort. But the deal can also be a new beginning that normalizes Iran in the region and ends decades of ruinous proxy wars.

 

Muath Al Wari is Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress. He tweets @MuathAlWari

US President Barack Obama listens Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani at the end of a summit meeting at Camp David on 14 May 2015. (AFP/Nicholas Kamm)

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was in the region last week and Secretary of State John Kerry is reportedly going to the Gulf next month. The administration clearly recognizes the importance of addressing its allies’ concerns."