Why U.S. strategy on Iran is crumbling
Gulf states no longer want to isolate Iran.
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One hears little today of the "Shiite crescent" threatening the region, against which Arab officials once gravely warned. The Bush administration's proposed "axis of moderation," joining Sunni Arab states and Israel against Iran, has quietly passed from view.Skip to next paragraph
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Meanwhile, the GCC seems more unified and confident than it has in years. Earlier this week the six member countries agreed to form a common market. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have mended fences. Pressures for domestic political reforms have been largely defanged, and the oil bonanza has allowed Saudi Arabia to pursue an energetic foreign policy. The Gulf states won't abandon their US protectors anytime soon, but they seem more willing than ever to act on their own initiative.
The emerging signs of a tentative thaw in the Gulf are not due solely to the release of the findings in last month's National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that Iran was no longer pursuing a nuclear weapons program. The NIE helped trigger the thaw by convincing Arabs that a US-led war against Iran had become much less likely. But it has long been clear that most Gulf rulers have no appetite for a war that would disrupt their economic boom and put them at the most risk. The Gulf media today speaks more of avoiding war than of fomenting it.
Even in Iraq, fears of a Saudi-Iranian proxy war have given way to hints of an emerging modus vivendi. Gulf regimes remain hostile to the pro-Iranian Iraqi government. But instead of trying to replace its Shiite leader, Nouri al-Maliki, they now seem satisfied that the rise of the Sunni "Awakenings" – US-backed neighborhood councils that have begun fighting Al Qaeda – will check Iranian ambitions. Saudi and Iranian clients in Iraq even seem to be carving out zones of influence, as suggested by recent talks between the Sunni Anbar Salvation Council and the Shiite Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
This is not to say that the Gulf states are comfortable with Iranian power. Anti-Shiite and anti-Persian sentiment exists throughout the Gulf. Iran's territorial dispute with the United Arab Emirates generates considerable passion in that country. Few Gulf or Arab leaders publicly welcome an Iranian nuclear program. And Ahmadinejad's proposal of a new Gulf security architecture including Iran was widely seen as an initiative for Iranian hegemony, not a genuine collective security arrangement.
Gulf states see Iran as a challenge that they have been dealing with for decades, not an urgent or existential threat. The shifting Arab approach may leave the US with little choice but to do the same. Just as America's containment of Iraq began to collapse in the late 1990s when its Arab neighbors lost faith in the value of sanctions, the new Gulf attitudes will probably now shape what the US can do with Iran.