Despite the realization coming out of the recent Camp David summit that the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council states will still need each other in dealing with common challenges, there is one issue that was simply not going to be resolved at Camp David: the GCC fear of expanding Iranian influence as Iran comes out of international isolation. With a possible agreement with Iran nearing, it may be too late for GCC concerns to be fully addressed.
How did the GCC states find themselves in this position? By relying onIsraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to do the job for them. In the process, they watched Bibi shoot himself in the foot and injure them.
By framing the nuclear issue as an “existential threat,” Netanyahu enabled the sidestepping of broader worries that both Arabs and Israelis have about Iran.
Saudi and GCC concerns were never about the Iranian nuclear program as such. Sure, they don’t want Iran to become a nuclear power. But this stems less from fear that Iran would ever use a nuclear bomb against them and more because of the prestige and increased influence Iran would gain. They saw a nuclear Iran as a threat for sure, but never as an existential threat, as Netanyahu framed the issue.
Nor was this a public opinion issue for the GCC states. Despite growing concern about Iran since the Iraq war among GCC publics, anger with the United States and the West, and a sense of double standards in the West’s dealing with the Iranian and Israeli nuclear issues, persuaded Arabs even in the GCC to oppose international pressure on Iran to curtail its nuclear program. The issue was always about political influence, Iranian meddling in domestic Arab affairs, and conventional capacities and resources to enable this meddling.
To put the choice bluntly, if the Saudis were facing an Iran with nuclear weapons that remains under international sanctions and isolated (think North Korea), on the one hand, and an Iran that has a robust nuclear program without nuclear weapons but is integrated economically, technologically, and politically with West, on the other hand, my guess is that the Saudis would prefer the former. That is why they have felt uncomfortable about the possible nuclear deal.
The Saudis and the other GCC states have certainly been making the case about their concerns to the United States from the outset of the negotiations with Iran. But their bet was always that Israel’s prime minister, with his enormous influence with the Congress, would have a better shot at stopping the deal. And he certainly did his part in communicating with them, seeking their backing, and underscoring common interests on Iran, even as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remained a wedge issue.
At some level, one cannot blame GCC rulers. Israel has far more influence in the United States and fears Iran even more than they do. But the focus on the nuclear issue, which was a direct consequence of framing it as an “existential threat” to Israel, and decoupling it from more urgent concerns about Iranian regional behavior shifted the conversation away from primary GCC concerns.
The Saudi bet was that, regardless of the nature of the conversation, if Israel takes the lead, the chances of success in preventing a deal with Iran would be higher. Sure, the strict focus on the nuclear issue sidesteps other concerns. But if the outcome was in the end expanded sanctions on Iran — or even war that guarantees confrontation between Iran and the West for years to come — Iran’s ability to challenge GCC states in their own backyard would be undermined.
So they allowed Netanyahu to present Israel’s — and the GCC’s — case in Washington. And he let them down, as well as undermined his own ability to focus attention on broader Israeli fears.
One can certainly argue that the political and conventional influence of Iran is the real Israeli worry too. Many in the Israeli security establishment challenged their prime minister’s argument that a nuclear Iran would pose an existential threat. This included the previous defense minister and former prime minister, Ehud Barak, and former Mossad chiefs Efraim Halevy and Meir Dagan, who have counseled against using such terminology.
Like Arab states, Israel certainly didn’t want to see Iran develop nuclear weapons. Israel’s deterrence capability has always been based on having a technological edge and escalation dominance; parity, especially at the top of the escalation ladder, is strategically troubling for Israel.
But that does not add up to “existential” threat.
In fact, one of the problems in this framing of the issue is its impact on Israeli public opinion. True, fear has helped mobilize the public behind the Israeli prime minister and left his opponents at a loss in search of an alternative strategy. But the vast majority of Israelis have long believed that Iran will ultimately develop nuclear weapons, regardless of what Israel and the international community do.
In Israeli polls that I conducted with Dahaf in 2011 and 2013, 90 percent said it was likely Iran would eventually develop nuclear weapons. Imagine, if Israelis believe that Iran’s nuclear weapons pose an existential threat to them, what they would actually do the morning Iran announces such capabilities. Actually we can guess: a sizable minority in the polls says they would pack and leave.
But more serious in the immediate future are Israeli concerns about Hezbollah (and to a much lesser extent Hamas). Hezbollah is Iran’s key ally and has produced the most effective fighting force against Israel since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Many Israeli strategists view Hezbollah’s expanding conventional capabilities as the biggest threat in the foreseeable future, especially given the chaos in the Arab world that has distracted most from concerns about Israel. If the Palestinian Authority collapses in the West Bank, absent a viable way to end the occupation, Hamas and like-minded groups would grow — and their most likely backer in the current environment remains Iran. Sure, one Israeli way to head off the trouble is to make peace with the Palestinians and end Israeli occupation. But that’s even more far away now that Israel has formed the most extreme government in its history.
An existential threat demands priority attention. It demanded a singular focus: Negotiate the best possible deal that significantly lowers the chance of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. All else became secondary, which is why few raised questions when the nuclear issue was fully decoupled from all other issues. It was impossible to address all issues at once; it was either the nuclear issue, or Iran’s behavior in the region broadly.
One cannot know for sure how much Bibi believed his own rhetoric and how much of it was purely instrumental. But there is no escaping the fact that a nuclear weapons threat is more capable of rallying publics at home and abroad. For a while, it looked like a winning strategy, as long as it kept Iran in a box. It’s a strategy that bet there would be no deal; either war, or increased sanctions. And the GCC jumped on board. They are now trying to find their own way, when it’s a little too late.
Of course, a deal is by no means guaranteed at this point, and if it comes about, congressional support remains in question, and Bibi may still have his way. If a good deal arrives, it will serve American interests well. But there is no escaping that Iran would emerge stronger, especially if it’s wise enough to use the next decade of international opening to strengthen its economy and bolster its influence. This will never be welcomed by Israel and the GCC states. But the American bet is that both will then need Washington even more.
Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, a nonresident senior fellow with the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and a former advisor to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and the Iraq Study Group. This article first appeared May 21 on the Brookings Institution’s website.