May 20, 2015

Iran Tracker Blog: So What Did Iran Think of the GCC Summit?

It has been all smiles from the Obama administration since the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit concluded last week. The summit was ostensibly convened to reassure our Arab allies that the United States would continue to back their security after a potential nuclear agreement with Iran. The Arab leaders that did make it to Camp David had a few nice things to say about the summit, though that has not stopped the strong undercurrent of mistrust and uncertainty with President Obama’s policy direction in the region.

Given Tehran’s hyperventilating over Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy’s continuing provocations in the Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Aden, you would think Iranian leaders would be screaming about the summit. Yet Tehran said little, except for a few comments from the Foreign Ministry spokesperson and Supreme Leader Khamenei’s foreign policy advisor Ali Akbar Velayati denouncing the gathering’s promotion of “Iranophobia.”

So what did Iran think about Camp David? Here is a good estimate:

Tehran was undoubtedly pleased with the absence of major US policy shifts. There were no proposed treaties, no new collective security agreements, no nuclear umbrellas, and no announcements of new US force alignments. There was no watershed moment. The summit just did not matter much.

Iran certainly relished the diplomatic faux-pas leading up to the summit, with various heads of state dropping out to attend horse shows with Queen Elizabeth II and the like. Watching the damaged Saudi-US relationship play out in real time on a global stage was particularly rich. Iran’s relative silence on the summit was probably calibrated to not overshadow its enemies’ self-destructive behavior.

But Camp David held some dark clouds for Tehran. The summit reinforced that Iran’s neighbors—and much of the international community—still see the Islamic Republic as a security threat that must be countered. I am sure Iran dismissed some of that to fear-mongering for the participants’ domestic audiences, but the reminder of its international isolation still rankles.

The meeting also displayed increasing GCC integration on security issues, even with (or because of) the uncertainties over continued US commitment to the region. I am sure Iran did not welcome the summit communique’s discussion of developing “rapid response capabilities” for the long-delayed “unified Arab force,” which may be nascent in the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. Neither will Tehran want to see further improvement to the Gulf’s missile defense systems or additional re-enforcement of the Arab states’ relative air power superiority. More worrisome to Iran is if the Gulf states follow through on their pledge to expand diplomatic relations and political engagement with Baghdad, which would undercut a key pillar of Iranian strategy in Iraq.

The mixed Iranian reaction to the summit is perhaps best understood in the context of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s long-term security objectives. Without referencing Camp David, Khamenei stated over the weekend: "We are neighbors… if the Persian Gulf is secure; all of us benefit from this security… those who should maintain its security are those to whom the Persian Gulf belongs to and is their home… Who is America to come here [and] talk about problems of the Persian Gulf; and recruit allies?"

Nothing new here. Iran’s ultimate goal has always been a Persian Gulf security architecture managed only by the regional states, a system that Tehran would presumably dominate and would marginalize the United States and other foreign powers.

President Obama’s comments after the summit imply a not too dissimilar vision. He laid out an interesting response to Arab leaders’ concerns that Iran will emerge stronger following a nuclear deal: Money from sanctions relief will go mainly to rebuilding Iran’s economic infrastructure. You (the Gulf states) will still have more money than Iran to counter their influence and activities. Be smart about it, and we (the United States) have your back if you cannot handle Tehran. Bottom line, you need to start managing yourselves!

This formula will not assuage Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and other Arab capitals. Neither does it satisfy Tehran. In weighing the regional balance of power, the US has long had its thumb decidedly on the GCC side. In the long run, promoting greater GCC self-sufficiency as a substitute for direct US action could nudge the relative balance of power in the Gulf towards Iran. In this sense, I think the Supreme Leader would agree with President Obama: Camp David was a success.