The timing of the overture by President Barack Obama to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin after a two-year chill in relations between the two big powers cannot be merely coincidental. It comes 48 hours before Obama’s summit meeting with the leaders of the member countries belonging to the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] in Washington and the Camp David retreat. The Secretary of State’s visit to Moscow as announced in Washington a day after the ruler of Saudi Arabia King Salman bin Abdulaziz snubbed Obama by regretting at the last minute the latter’s invitation for the summit meeting (although the White House had already announced the president’s intention to have a one-on-one with the monarch).
The U.S. state department press release said that Kerry’s discussions with Putin would relate to “a full range of bilateral and regional issues, including Iran, Syria, and Ukraine” and that the Secretary would thereafter “return to Washington to join” Obama’s dinner for the GCC leaders on Wednesday evening. Other reports in the U.S. media highlighted that Kerry’s focus will be on seeking Russia’s cooperation in resolving the conflicts in the Middle East.
What emerges, in particular, is that Obama hopes to rope in Russia to help the U.S. to navigate the intra-Syrian dialogue under UN auspices and also to close the nuclear deal with Iran. It implies that the U.S. is seeking a negotiated settlement in Syria. It also implies that Obama is determined to conclude the deal with Iran by end-June.
The Obama administration needs Russia’s help and cooperation on these two issues to offset the constant pinpricking and behind-the-scene sabotage by the U.S.’ traditional allies in the Middle East.
To be sure, Obama went out of the way during the past one-year period to try and carry the Gulf Arab states along in his engagement of Iran and he kept promising that the U.S. will never allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. But, if anything, Saudi Arabia has become more obdurate.
Saudi Arabia has precipitated a dangerous crisis in Yemen, which has the potential to derail the U.S.-Iranian normalization. On Syria, Saudi Arabia is gain sponsoring a military push by extremist Islamist groups (including al-Qaeda affiliates), which amounts to a confrontation with Iran, and which, again, places the U.S. in an awkward position to having to choose between the devil and the deep sea. A nadir has been reached with the so-called Syrian National Coalition, which is a creation of Saudi Arabia, announcing its boycott of the UN-sponsored talks in Geneva.
Enter Russia. As I wrote in an earlier blog, Obama should have ideally planned a summit meeting with the GCC leaders with the involvement of Russia. (See The Gulf Arab snub to Obama isn’t so bad.)
The salience to be noted here is that the U.S.’ interests both in Syria’s transition and in Iran’s integration into the international community, do not coincide with the Saudi interests — and the sharp divergence is surging to the surface.
The fact of the matter is that the U.S. no longer feels it prudent to try to topple the Syrian regime without a viable alternative set-up in sight to replace it. Anarchy in Syria can only work to the advantage of the extremist Islamist groups. Equally, the U.S. has no axe to grind in fueling sectarian strife. The U.S. is also aware that the extremist Islamist forces, including the Islamist State [IS], which pose a serious threat, continue to enjoy Saudi backing.
Suffice it to say, as a veteran American diplomat, Ambassador Robert Hunter recently wrote, “When the GCC leaders are at the White House and Camp David, Obama needs to send a message, quietly but firmly and unmistakable: cut it out or we will cut you off.”
Most important, the U.S.’ regional policies in the Middle East will remain ineffectual unless the Cold War with Iran is ended. Iran is a far more developed country than any of its Arab neighbors and it is unrealistic to try to exclude it. Ironically, it is also one of the most Westernized countries in the Middle East with which the U.S. can do business.
In sum, unless the Arab oligarchies in the Persian Gulf undertake reforms and social and political modernization, they cannot hope to compete with Iran, and, to quote Hunter, “there is nothing the United States can do to help in this sphere, and just providing military-oriented palliatives will do little if anything to relieve what should be the genuine fears of the Gulf monarchies.” (See Obama to the GCC: Getting the Message Right.)
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