(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As the Trump administration heads to another showdown in the United Nations over the Iranian nuclear deal, the countries most at risk from the Islamic Republic’s malign ambitions are nowhere to be seen.
Given the clear and present danger Iran represents to its Arab neighbors, you’d expect their leaders to be lobbying furiously with members of the Security Council to help the U.S. ensure that Tehran doesn’t get its hands on more sophisticated weapons. But aside from a single statement from the Gulf Cooperation Council, calling for the extension of the arms embargo on Iran, there has been no visible Arab assistance for the American effort.
And even that GCC statement was undercut by one of its members: Officials in Doha said the language didn’t accurately represent the Qatari view. The appearance of Gulf unity was only a mirage.
To a great degree, the Arab reticence represents a diplomatic failure on the part of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in rallying allies to the American cause. But there are several reasons why the Arab states have not fallen in line behind the Trump administration’s Iran strategy. Some can’t, others don’t dare and still others are making alternative arrangements for their security.
There was never going to be any help from Iraq and Lebanon. In Baghdad and Beirut, Iran exerts decisive influence through its control of powerful Shiite militias and political parties. Iraq, additionally, is bound to its eastern neighbor by trade.
In Syria, the dictator Bashar al-Assad is beholden to the Islamic Republic for his very survival: Iranian soldiers and arms, as well as Iranian proxies in the form of Lebanese Hezbollah and Afghan militias, helped turn the tide of the civil war in his favor. Until recently, Iranian oil kept Assad’s home fires burning.
Arab states in the Maghreb are too far away to feel threatened by the Islamic Republic. Egypt, the largest of them, has tended to hedge its bets: It has no direct relations with Iran and is a participant in the Arab coalition fighting against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, but Cairo pulls its rhetorical punches against Tehran.
On the Arabian Peninsula, views on Iran are far from uniform. Kuwait and Oman have been careful to maintain relations, waxing cool and cordial according to circumstance, with the regional giant on the opposite shore of the Persian Gulf. Both countries are within easy striking range of the missiles of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Kuwait, heavily dependent on oil exports through the Gulf, is additionally vulnerable to the threat of the Iranian navy.
Qatar, which historically adopted the same caution toward Iran as Kuwait and Oman, has more recently drawn — or, arguably, has been pushed — closer to the Islamic Republic. The Saudi-led embargo imposed on Qatar in 2017 has made Doha more dependent on Tehran, strengthening the countries’ economic and diplomatic ties. (Ironically, one of the explanations offered for the embargo was Qatar’s friendliness with Iran.)
That leaves Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Gulf’s most powerful nations, and the most frequent targets of Iranian belligerence, in word and deed. (Tiny Bahrain tends to go along with Saudi Arabia in economic and foreign-policy matters.) Iran and its Houthi allies have launched rocket and drone strikes deep into Saudi territory, culminating in last fall’s devastating attack on the world’s biggest crude processing plant in Abqaiq.
Iran’s verbal attacks on the Emirati city-states have grown more frequent in recent years. Long before last week’s agreement between Israel and the UAE, Tehran was threatening them both in the same breath. Iran and its proxies have also attacked Emirati and Saudi shipping.
So you’d expect the Saudis and Emiratis to be even more anxious than the Trump administration to deny Iran access to the advanced systems that Russian and Chinese arms manufacturers are so keen to sell. You might even expect Saudi and Emirati leaders to be engaging in vigorous shuttle diplomacy between the world powers to ensure the weapons embargo is extended well beyond October.
And yet, the two prominent crown princes — Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh and Mohammed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi — did little to support the American effort in the Security Council last week, and raised barely a murmur of protest when it failed. Nor have they been heard from this week, as the Trump administration plays its last card in the UN, invoking the snapback clause of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
The silence can be explained at least in part by a reluctance to support a lost cause: The U.S., having pulled out of the deal two years ago, will struggle to make the case it retains the right to invoke the snapback. Or perhaps, the Saudis and Emiratis have every confidence that unilateral American sanctions will serve their purposes even if the other powers demur.
In either case, they have been making alternative arrangements to deal with the Iranian menace. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have both been splurging on the latest military hardware from the U.S. and Europe — and even China and Russia. And the new Emirati agreement with Israel was inspired in no small part by a desire to box in the Islamic Republic.
The best the Trump administration can expect from its Arab allies if the snapback gambit fails is quiet commiseration.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.
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