President Barack Obama has invited the leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates — to Camp David this week to have a serious talk about their relationship. Meeting (or not meeting) with foreign heads of state can be a big indicator of important happenings. But inviting people to Camp David, the official presidential retreat, conveys an even greater personal investment.
Imagine you were worried that the next Star Wars movie was going to suck so bad that it would cause you actual harm and mental anguish. It would be nice of JJ Abrams to meet with you in a conference room at Disney to discuss your concerns. But imagine if he instead invited you to talk about all your problems — and what he can do personally to solve them — while the two of you sat in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon and Chewbacca warbled his sympathy at you.
That's the difference between inviting a head of state to talk shop at the White House and inviting a head of state on a retreat at Camp David.
Which makes the fact that four of the six Gulf leaders are blowing off Obama — they're sending representatives rather than showing up in person — a very big diss. Only the rulers of Kuwait and Qatar are planning on attending in person, which says something about the determined Qatari effort to mend fences with the US. The poor attendance would also seem to indicate that Obama is correct in thinking that a nice note and fruit basket from the local ambassador isn't anywhere near enough to get at what's bothering the GCC.
So what's got these guys so upset? Iranian nukes, baby.
Earlier this year, Iran and the US completed enormously complex and drawn-out negotiations, reaching an agreement to… reach a future agreement that would keep Iran away from nuclear mischief for a good long while. From the White House's point of view, the US was able to hammer out a deal that means Iran won't be getting the bomb anytime soon, and that buys the world a full decade or more to talk Iran off the ledge and persuade it not to act all crazy, running around screaming about nukes and scaring the neighbors.
That, however, is not the way the deal looks to the GCC.
To them, the deal amounted to the US saying, "Okay Iran, you can have as many nukes as your heart desires starting a decade from now when the agreement expires, because once we relax sanctions there'll be no way to get another coalition together to impose them again. You just have to sound really sincere (wink, wink) about chilling out, nukes-wise, for the next 10 years."
The North Korean nuclear program can't be far from the minds of the GCC. Way back in 1994, North Korea said it didn't have much use for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Following that crisis, an agreement was reached in which North Korea agreed to play nice in return for aid/bribes. Despite that diplomatic triumph, by 2006 North Korea had tested its first nuke. Today, there's no indication that North Korea has any interest in talking about limiting nukes ever again.
Members of the GCC may also have noted that countries that have given up their nuclear programs — forcibly or otherwise — have fared poorly (Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Libya). Countries that have subscribed to the "You can take them when you pry them from my cold, dead hands" school of nuclear disarmament (Pakistan, North Korea) have survived relatively unscathed.
GCC members also know Iran can read a history book just as well as anyone else, and so may assume that in order to ensure its long-term survival, Iran will make a beeline to get nukes in 10 years. Therefore, to keep up, Iran's strategic rivals must start thinking about their own nuclear programs. Recently, the Saudis inked a $2 billion deal with South Korea for two nuclear reactors, and now they're demanding to be allowed to bring their enrichment and technology development to the levels under which Iran will be operating.
Meanwhile, Saudi ally Egypt has made a deal with Russia for nuclear power. The UAE has just applied for an operating license for two new reactors. Saudi ally Pakistan already has nuclear weapons, and there's a lot of speculation about how much technical help Pakistan will be willing to provide other countries looking to convert civilian nuclear programs to bomb making.
Oh, and local wildcard Turkey just broke ground on a new reactor project involving a French-Japanese consortium.
Many of these countries have talked on and off about nuclear capability for ages, but there's really no need to "question the timing" of all these new nuclear programs. There is no conspiracy here; the Arab world is reading the Iran nuke deal as the start of a 10-year race to have — at minimum — nuclear weapons capability on speed dial.
The regional scramble for increased nuclear capability indicates even more bad things about the GCC's relationship with the US. American allies like Saudi Arabia have been operating under the US nuclear umbrella for decades in an arrangement known as extended deterrence. If someone nukes a key non-nuclear US ally (say, Japan or Canada), then the US launches a massive retaliatory strike on their behalf. And in Saudi Arabia — along with some other US allies — the quid pro quo is that the US guarantees the security of the country in exchange for the country at least tacitly agreeing not to develop its own nukes.
But deterrence is a psychological phenomenon. And the fact that the Saudis and just about everyone else in the region are loading for bear seems to point to an enormous crisis of confidence about America's promise of extended deterrence.
To start with, if the Iran nuclear deal goes swimmingly, the US and its allies are going to lift a whole lot of economic sanctions on Iran, sanctions that have been brutal for the country's economy. That means that the cash-starved Iranian government is going to be rolling in the green pretty soon, which means there could be some very good times ahead for the Iranian military. Ammunition! Spare parts! Fancy new towels!
Beyond what some in the Middle East might describe as the US-led drive to rebuild the Iranian military, comments like the ones Obama made in an April interview with the New York Times aren't helping much either. While discussing the security concerns of the Arab states, he said, "I think the biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It's going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries…. That's a tough conversation to have, but it's one that we have to have."
Obama has pledged strong US support for the Arab world, but nevertheless, the GCC may have heard only that the US doesn't actually believe that the GCC countries face any meaningful threat from their regional rival and arch-nemesis, Iran. In addition, it probably wasn't very comforting to hear the response they could expect when going to the US for help with internal security is that the biggest problem facing the GCC states is how much they suck at running themselves.
Pulling back further, it wouldn't be entirely crazy for the GCC to read the history of post-9/11 American involvement in the Middle East as kicking off with the destruction of all the security structures and institutional arrangements — however unsavory — that kept a lid on Iran and some measure of stability. Now unhappy with the mess they made, the US is taking its ball and going home.
The US will face an uphill battle for the next two years, building on what the president is trying to do this week in repairing alliances with GCC members — particularly in reassuring them about extended nuclear deterrence. Obama may even be faced with the possibility that there's no way for the US to both thaw relations with Iran and maintain good relationships with the countries of the GCC. And so negotiating over Iran's nuclear program could end up sparking the very nuclear arms race it was meant to prevent.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan
Photo via the White House