Upheaval: U.S. Policy Towards Iran in a Changing World

The Center for a New American Security is releasing my new report this morning:  Upheaval: U.S. Policy Towards Iran in a Changing Middle East.  I had been ready to release this report in January, with a focus on how to better approach negotiations with Iran about its nuclear program and broader regional political issues in order to avoid an unnecessary and destructive war.   But I felt that the Arab upheavals fundamentally changed the situation facing both the U.S. and Iran, creating both opportunities and challenges for both. Key U.S. allies in its efforts to contain and pressure Iran have either fallen from power or face serious internal threats, the Libya war has further undermined the logic of nuclear negotiations, Israeli and Saudi fears are growing, and the risk of an unwanted and disastrous war has grown. 

Upheaval argues that the  Obama administration's strategy towards Iran had been more successful in the narrow task of pressuring Tehran than many had expected, but that the foundations of its strategy of containment are rapidly crumbling.  At the same time, Iran has had difficulty taking advantage of the struggles of some of its key Arab rivals, partly because of the powerful memory of its 2009 repression of its own protest movement and partly because of the emergence of more attractive competitors for the leadership of the "Resistance" such as Turkey and the new Egypt. The Saudi-led counter-revolution, particularly in Bahrain, threatens to repolarize the region in ways which could revive Iran's appeal across the region and undermine American efforts to reach out to emerging Arab publics.  The risk of a rapid escalation to war along a range of flashpoints, from Israel's borders to the Gulf, is higher than many believe --- and such a war would radically repolarize the region, most likely against the United States.

Upheaval offers a range of policy recommendations to help guide the Obama administration towards an effective rethinking of its policy towards Iran -- including an appeal to avoid repolarization and inflation of the Iranian threat, more effective engagement with Arab publics and with emerging new independent-minded Arab players such as Egypt and Turkey, and a different approach to the nuclear negotiations.    I expect some of the arguments to be controversial -- including the case for Iran's diminished power, the skepticism about negotiations in the current environment, and the risks of aligning with the Saudi-driven campaign against Tehran.  As always,  I look forward to comments, discussions, debate and feedback.  

You can download the full report here.  

Marc Lynch

The What Cooperation Council?

The Gulf Cooperation Council surprised virtually everyone yesterday by announcing that it would begin membership talks with Jordan and Morocco.  While actual membership is likely a long way off, the announcement signals a new alliance in the region which conspicuously omits Egyp, along with more obvious candidates for GCC membership such as Yemen and Iraq.  This expanded GCC would of course no longer really be an organization of states in the Gulf. Nor would it be a club for small, rich oil producing states. Instead, it seems to be evolving into a club for Sunni Arab monarchs -- the institutional home of the counter-revolution, directed against not only Iran but also against the forces for change in the region.  Where the United States fits in that new conception remains distinctly unclear.

There has been widespread disbelief and a lot of jokes since the news broke of the invitations to Jordan and Morocco. It isn't only that Jordan and Morocco are rather conspicuously not in the Gulf.  It's also that they don't fit the profile of rich petro-states which has defined the identity of the GCC. If they actually do become members  -- which is far from a certainty, given the wide gap between an invitation to apply and acceptance -- it would profoundly change the character of the organization.  Jordan and Morocco have virtually nothing in common economically, culturally, or (of course) geographically with the GCC states.  They have different security challenges, different demographics, and different domestic problems.  Their inclusion would significantly erode the major commonalities which kept the GCC together over the years. 

The two things which Jordan and Morocco do have in common with the GCC states, of course, are a Sunni monarchy and a pro-Western alignment. The creation of a Sunni King's club would bring the region back even more viscerally than before into the classical Arab Cold War of the 1950s and 1960, when conservative monarchies faced off against pan-Arabist republics.  Neither Jordan nor Morocco really faces the same sectarian Sunni-Shi'a issues as do most of the Gulf states, however, despite King Abdullah of Jordan's "Shi'a Crescent" ramblings of the mid-2000s and his enthusiasm to be part of any pro-U.S. and anti-Iranian alliance available.  Iran simply doesn't loom as large for Morocco as it does for, say, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia.  The real point here would seem to be a promise of GCC, or more specifically Saudi, assistance to those non-Gulf monarchies in order to prevent them from going too far in meeting popular demands for reform.  Such a Sunni King's Club would be a counter-revolutionary institution, one which would work directly against hopes for change in the Arab world.  

The exclusions are in many ways more important than the inclusions.  Yemen has been left standing at the doorstep of the GCC for many years, despite the advantage of actually being a Gulf state. The GCC initiative to transition Ali Abdullah Saleh from power has stalled, and most Yemenis seem to be pretty suspicious of Saudi intentions in that regard anyway.  It isn't clear whether a post-Saleh Yemen would be considered for an expanded GCC, but it doesn't seem likely. 

The two more important exclusions are Iraq and Egypt.  Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq has been mooted as a possible candidate for inclusion in the GCC.  It's a wealthy oil producer in the Gulf region, so there is a surface plausibility.  GCC membership, by this argument, might embed Iraq in an institutional structure which firmly rooted it in a pro-U.S. and anti-Iranian camp, while dramatically increasing the size and power of the GCC alliance.  But its exclusion from this round isn't that surprising.  The Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, remain deeply hostile towards and suspicious of the Shi'a dominated Iraqi government in general and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki specifically.  They have never been comfortable with its new democratic forms.  And an Iraq inside the GCC would pose a real challenge to Saudi expectations of dominating the alliance.  So the GCC not inviting Iraq to apply is hardly a surprise -- but not inviting it while inviting other, less plausible, candidates will only further drive a wedge between Baghdad and the Arab Gulf states with potentially dangerous results.

And then there's Egypt. Saudi anger at the fall of Hosni Mubarak has been palpable. It has clearly been furious over the new Egypt's softer line on Iran, and high-level Saudis were conspicuously absent from the Hamas-Fatah signing ceremony in Cairo.  Obviously, there is no rational economic or cultural reason to invite Egypt to join the GCC.... but neither is there any such logic to inviting Jordan and Morocco.  The exclusion feels pointed and direct: the new revolutionary Egypt is not part of the Sunni King's Club, while the expanded GCC will directly compete with the Arab League even if it gets a new Egyptian Secretary-General. This is a dangerous message at a time when Egypt's foreign policy orientation is very much a work in progress.  The new Egypt is likely to be far more responsive to public opinion, as has already been evident in its decisions to open the border with Gaza and broker Palestinian reconicilation.  If it comes to identify Saudi Arabia as an adversary, rather than as a slightly less close ally, then this will have major repercussions for regional politics and for the U.S. alliance structure. 

It is far too soon to expect anything tangible to emerge from this proposed GCC expansion. It may very well go the way of other short-lived alliances -- remember the Damascus Declaration?  And it is hard to see how Jordan or Morocco would fit into any kind of economic integration schemes such as those the GCC has intermittently discussed.  But as a signal of emerging trends in regional politics, even the declaration of intent is quite significant.  It could push Iraq and Egypt in other directions. It could intensify the lines of regional conflict both between revolution and counter-revolution, and between Sunni and Shi'a, while inhibiting serious efforts at reform which might ameliorate either.  And it could put the new GCC, particularly Saudi Arabia, into ever more open conflict with the United States over the future of Arab reforms and priorities.