Gulf Monarchs Protest US Diplomacy with Iran

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Jamal Abdi with the National Iranian American Council says the Camp David summit shows that the Saudis believe the United States is beholden to them.

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

Saudi Arabia, a long-time ally of the US, under its new leadership of King Salman has declined an invitation to join President Barack Obama and other Gulf monarchs at Camp David this weekend. The rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council is following suit. Similar to Saudi Arabia, they’re sending lower-level officials. Qatar and Kuwait were the only exceptions. They are sending their Emirs. Some analysts of the region are saying that this is to express the Gulf monarchs’ displeasure over recent progress made by the United States in the Iran nuclear negotiations.

Now joining me to discuss the developments is Jamal Abdi. Jamal is joining me from Washington, DC. Jamal is the policy director at the National Iranian American Council. Jamal, thank you so much for joining us today.

JAMAL ABDI, POLICY DIRECTOR, NATIONAL IRANIAN AMERICAN COUNCIL: My pleasure.

PERIES: Jamal, first of all what do you think of this head of state boycott of sorts? What message is the GCC sending Washington?

ABDI: I think that the message that’s being sent is one of protest. And I think this is clearly aimed at expressing dissatisfaction with what the United States was perhaps prepared to provide the GCC states. Which I think is completely backwards, that the United States needs to offer these countries arms and security guarantees and potentially a qualitative military edge, just because the United States is securing a nuclear deal to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon.

This deal in and of itself should be the security guarantee. This nuclear so-called threat in Iran being resolved should be enough to satisfy the GCC countries, and I think it makes it very clear that some of the protests in the past about Iran’s nuclear behavior were not necessarily aimed at getting a resolution to the nuclear conflict, but were very much aimed at exacerbating the conflict with Iran. And now that the conflict is actually being turned in the opposite direction and we’re beginning to move towards a diplomatic resolution, these countries are now complaining that they don’t want that diplomatic solution and they’d prefer, apparently, the status quo.

So I think this is really – I mean, this looks to me like extortion. That King Salman is apparently not happy with what he’s getting out of this deal, and so is creating political problems for President Obama. But I think it also, it really demonstrates the fundamental problem here, which is that the Saudis believe that the United States is beholden to them. And that the United States can’t pursue interest in the Middle East to benefit the United States, and frankly to benefit the entire region. Because that might upset the Saudis, and they believe that we need to do what they say, which is a complete misunderstanding of the relationship.

And I think this summit is the beginning of hopefully a new chapter in which this starts to change.

PERIES: Now, the US is badly needed in the region. It needs its firepower. It’s also perhaps the largest purchaser of GCC oil in the world. How is the GCC going to assert its power in the region without the United States?

ABDI: Well, I guess that remains to be seen. Although we already have witnessed how the Saudis have led this campaign in Yemen while keeping the United States only informed to a minimal degree, and in a very public way showing that there is this level of independence that they are now willing to take with regard to their foreign policy and military adventurism. And we may, we may see some movements in that direction to try to demonstrate this independence. We may see stunts like accepting and then rejecting this invitation to Camp David.

As far as actual practical steps that the Saudis and the GCC can take, I think that they’re pretty limited. They also, for instance, they brought the, brought Olan from France to Saudi Arabia. And I think this was an attempt to show that there are more games in town other than the US. And you know, the Saudis and the GCC can sign deals with other countries.

But you know, I think this is is somewhat laughable. The idea that they’re going to jettison the United States and link up with the French or somebody else. It’s just, it’s not, it’s not realistic. I really think that this amounts more to a temper tantrum that hopefully gets resolved. And hopefully this is actually an opportunity to push our allies towards actually addressing the real issues in the region. The lack of diplomacy. The sectarianism. The stateless extremist actors. And these problems necessitate diplomatic solutions, and they necessitate having all of the parties, including Iran, at the table. Which has not been possible until now.

So I think this summit is the beginning of hopefully an effort to push towards some sort of dialog. I hope that that was the message that was conveyed. But we will see. But I don’t think there’s a lot of other options for these countries.

PERIES: Now, the Americans wanted to at the summit shape disagreements around the nuclear negotiations with Iran, and also address issues of what’s going on in Yemen, Syria, and the emerging imbalance of power in the region. Whether the GCC countries accept it or not it’s a beginning of a discussion of shaping relations in the region.

Now, how is Iran sitting on all of this, watching all of this? They’re not, obviously, invited to the conference. But they must be watching the situation carefully. What do you think thoughts are in Tehran?

ABDI: Well I think that there is, there is a prevailing sense that the Saudis are sabotaging themselves. For instance, this operation in Yemen. It is very unlikely that the Saudis are going to be able to succeed in Yemen. And far more likely that there’s going to be a significant amount of blowback. We already see that the fighting has crossed into Saudi Arabia. It is unlikely that there’s any kind of military solution on the ground in Yemen. And on top of that, Iran is getting credit for backing the Houthis when what they’ve actually provided is pretty nominal. And so as far as the propaganda effects, Iran’s getting a lot of bang for its buck by not actually providing that much support to the Houthis but being – having this notion spread that they are the chief backers.

And I think that this is emblematic of what we have seen over the past decade and a half in the region, in which Iran is being given credit for any disparate Shia or Shia-linked group that has its own grievances, and which Iran has maybe nominally supported but is not actually the chief backer or the make-or-break supporter. And so I think in Iran they’re sitting back and watching these real tactical errors by the Saudis, and I think they’re fine with it.

Now, there has been, at least with the new administration in Iran, the Rouhani administration, there has been a recognition of the need to be willing to engage the Saudis and the GCC. And to come to the table and find political solutions to these issues. I think that there’s been good rhetoric, and to some degree it’s been matched by actions, but not as much as it could be.

But I hope that this is the beginning of an opportunity where Iran actually, when they say things like the Saudis take a step towards us we’ll take ten steps towards them, that actually means that if the parties are willing to engage they actually can come to the table and start to negotiate on–I mean, whether it’s Yemen or it’s Syria or Iraq, there are these serious challenges that there are only political solutions for. And I think that you have the right team inside of Iran to start to drive Iran to the direction of wanting to resolve these politically. And the question is, are the GCC and the States willing to do the same and can that be brokered, can the United States be part of the process, to actually drive them to the table to start resolving these things?

PERIES: Are the Saudis favorable to this configuration of Iran in the picture of fighting back the IS? Or do you think this is going to fuel their anger, and Saudis who historically have been funding groups like al-Qaeda and other subversive groups in the region, will they continue to fund them, you think?

ABDI: Yeah, I think, I think the latter is what we’re seeing. We’re seeing the Saudis doubling down and funding, and providing support for al-Nusra and other groups. The al-Qaeda linked groups, extremist groups. So I think there’s a serious level of paranoia and concern with Iran. The fact that Iran is in many respects leading the fight against ISIS inside of Iraq.

And really it’s disconcerting because every action has led to an equal and opposite reaction. And every time that, the Saudis react to a perception of Iran expanding its influence or vice versa, this always leads to worse and worse developments. And so you know, there wouldn’t be an ISIS if it wasn’t a response to the perception that Iran was expanding its influence inside of Iraq. Which wasn’t just perception, it was accurate. But–and so the Saudis attempted to counter that, and they fueled the, helped to fuel the insurgency. And then the Iranians counteract that with their support of Shia militias.

And you just get this, this cycle. This endless cycle of violence that has really completely destabilized the region, has empowered these stateless actors. Has created the circumstances where a group like ISIS can now hold territory and become such a significant threat. And what needs to happen is we need to figure out a way, how to cut this cycle. And that’s why this nuclear deal is so important. Because it is finally breaking the cycle in which the United States and Iran can engage, and it can hopefully begin to break this cycle in which all we see is negative-sum military escalation.

And hopefully it can invite in a process where we break the cycle and we figure out, okay, now we can engage diplomatically. And how do we actually deal with these stateless actors, how do we deal with the sectarianism in the region that is only fueled by violence, and can only be dealt with through diplomacy.

PERIES: Jamal Abdi, with the National Iranian American Council. Thank you so much for joining us today.

ABDI: Thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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