In less than two weeks the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme will resume in Geneva. To say that the Arab countries of the Gulf are watching these talks with concern would be an understatement. There is a feeling that decisions taken in Geneva may decide much more than nuclear non-proliferation, important as this is, and perhaps even the future balance of power in the Middle East.
America’s Arab allies have been asking questions about its long-term goals in the region ever since Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, announced in 2011 that Washington was focusing its attentions eastward for its “Pacific century”. If the so-called “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region is the signature policy of the Obama administration, the questions for the regional Arab powers are obvious: why now – when the Middle East is in ferment – and to what end, when the US has a 20-year lead over China in military technology?
Recent events – the Obama’s administration’s love-in with Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, its dithering over Syria and unwelcome embrace of Vladimir Putin’s Russia – have crystallised those questions into real fears.
Last Friday Saudi Arabia stunned the diplomatic world by announcing it would not take a seat on the United Nations Security Council which it had lobbied for two years to get. The reasons given were the UN’s failure to solve the Israel-Palestine issue and its allowing the Syrian regime to kill its own citizens “while the world stands idly by.”
Diplomats are still analysing the foreign ministry’s statement, but it is clear that, as often in diplomacy, what is left unsaid between the lines may carry more weight than the actual words.
While it accused the UN of “double standards”, the organisation is hardly to blame. As currently constituted, it is the servant of the big powers, and thus the US and Russia, together or separately, are the source of that double standard.
In a bizarre throwback to the last century, the two old superpowers are now back in charge of the big dossiers of the Middle East.
Washington is now working to solve the Syrian crisis in tandem with Russia, the main arms supplier and diplomatic supporter of President Bashar Al Assad. Last year the western powers said he should go but now, confident of support from Russia and Iran, he is predicting he will stand for office again in 2014.
It is on the Iranian dossier that concerns are most pronounced. An agreement to put Iran’s nuclear programme back under full international supervision would be welcome, but the real issue, according to a well-placed Arab diplomatic source, is the price that Iran will exact for any compromise on the nuclear issue.
The background for this is a belief that the chances of a nuclear deal are high, given Tehran’s need to escape the crippling sanctions regime and Mr Obama’s desire to cement a breakthrough with Iran and avoid the pressure for military strikes on Iran.
But if the price of this deal is accepting that Iran can pursue an expansionist foreign policy in the Middle East, then that would be too high.
Despite years of international isolation, Iran has become the dominant power in Iraq following the US withdrawal, while the Iranian-backed Hizbollah-militia has succeeded in closing down the Lebanese state since it brought down the government in March. If Tehran manages to use the same skills in projecting power in Syria, then it could keep a friendly regime in power in Damascus, even if much of the rest of the country is contested.
Arab governments are used to seeing the ebb and flow of US engagement in the world. But policymakers in the Gulf are wondering if they are witnessing a more significant change – the first sign of a new America, one blessed with new-found energy independence and resolutely focused on its internal issues.
Has this new America lost the art of proactive international engagement, with military force if necessary?
There are no quick answers to such questions of grand strategy. But the mere fact that they are being aired by Gulf policymakers indicates the level of disquiet.
In the short term, the real danger is seen as the desire to rush to a speedy nuclear agreement, within the framework of Mr Rouhani’s suggested timetable of six months. This suggests that the power holders in Tehran may be using Mr Rouhani as a “get out of jail free” card to ease international sanctions.
The real issue is to establish whether Iran is ready to chart a new course for its revolution, one which involves it being a status quo power in the region, not a would-be hegemon. Given the economic power of the Revolutionary Guard and its business partners, and its network of control of foreign surrogates, the ascendancy of the moderates remains very much to be proven.
The second issue is one of inclusion. High-level communication between Washington and the Gulf states has been lacking for a couple of years. Given the flaccid, reactive responses of the US to the Arab Spring revolts, the Gulf states have stepped up their involvement, particularly in supporting the Syrian opposition. What is seen on the Arab side as a lack of communication has become a more serious issue since the US now appears to have ears only for Russia. Given that the Middle East is at issue, this is a backward step.
As one diplomat remarked, why is Russia, a country with a smaller population than Pakistan, exerting so much influence on our region? The Russians are hardly helping, since with their regained superpower status, they are interested only in talking to the Americans.
There are enormous issues at play here. An American president with precious little to show for his years in power is trying to create a legacy the contours of which are fuzzy but which could end up shaping the Middle East.
So all the more reason for Washington to keep its old allies close.
On Twitter: @aphilps