U.S. Relations in the Persian Gulf

U.S. Relations in the Persian Gulf

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Middle East and North Africa

Persian Gulf

Saudi Arabia


Dalia Dassa Kaye, director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy and senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, provides a presentation of U.S. relations in the Persian Gulf.

Please note only the audio and transcript of Dr. Kaye's presentation is available.

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Dalia Dassa Kaye

Director, Center for Middle East Public Policy, and Senior Political Scientist, RAND Corporation


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President, National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the CFR Academic Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.

We’re delighted to have Dalia Dassa Kaye with us today to discuss the current state of U.S. relations in the Persian Gulf. As a reminder, Dr. Kaye’s opening remarks will be on the record.

Dr. Kaye is director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy and a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. Before joining RAND, she lives in The Netherlands, where she served as a Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellow at the Dutch Foreign Ministry and taught at the University of Amsterdam. In 2011 to 2012 she was a visiting professor and fellow at UCLA’s International Institute and Burkle Center. Previously, she was an assistant professor of political science at George Washington University.

Dr. Kaye publishes widely on Middle East regional security issues in outlets ranging from Foreign Affairs magazine, and is author of Talking to the Enemy: Track Two Diplomacy in the Middle East and South Asia, as well as Beyond the Handshake: Multilateral Cooperation in the Arab-Israeli Peace Process.

Dr. Kaye, thank you very much for being with us today. It would be terrific if you could give us an overview of the current state of U.S. relations in the Persian Gulf. And as we sit here today having this conversation, I would just note that the Middle East summit in Warsaw is happening today for the next two days. So perhaps you could touch upon that, too.

KAYE: Yes. Thanks so much, Irina. It’s a real pleasure to be with this group of students. It’s more fun in the classroom, but we’ll do our best to make it interesting here over the phone.

There is the big Middle East summit happening today. I have a piece this morning out on it that’s fairly critical. So we maybe will get to that at the end and in the Q&A.

But what I hope to do is try to simplify and help the group understand this really messy arena of the Persian Gulf. What I think I’ll do is I’ll first focus on U.S. relations on the Arab side of the Gulf. If I were in a classroom I would have a map behind me, but hopefully your professors have one up in the room. If you look at the Persian Gulf, you have a(n) Arab side of the Gulf consisting largely of the so-called Gulf Cooperation Council members—the largest state, of course, in that group being Saudi Arabia, the powerhouse on the Arab side, with the largest population. But you also have on the Arab side the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, and Qatar. And then I’ll turn, secondly, to the Persian side of the Gulf, which would be Iran, and U.S. relations with Iran, which have gotten even more contentious than they normally are. And what I’ll do is I’ll focus in overview of that, but also a particular emphasis on some of the policy shifts that we’ve seen in the Trump administration towards both sides of this Gulf. And then I’ll conclude with a few thoughts about how we might think about the future, including possibly the significance of the summit happening today in Warsaw.

So before I get into the two sides of the Gulf, I really—I think it is important in today’s day and age, when there’s so much fatigue with the Middle East, so much questioning about why do we even care about this region anymore. With exhaustion from costly wars, from growing oil independence or less dependency by the United States on Middle East oil than we’ve ever seen before thanks to the shale revolution, a lot of people are questioning why are we bothering with this region anymore. And I just wanted to preface all of my comments by saying we still should care. Those are all really good questions to be raising, but for two main reasons.

And one is that while it’s true the U.S. is not as dependent on Middle East oil anymore and that’s a good thing, the rest of the world is still quite dependent, including many of our closest allies. Over half the world’s supply still comes from this region. So we still do need to pay attention from that very basic interest.

And secondly—and I’m sure many of you have heard this statement before—but the Las Vegas rules do not apply in the Middle East. What happens there often does not stay there. And when it comes to instability spilling over borders, whether it’s through devastating humanitarian refugee crisis, whether it’s through radicalization and unfortunately terrorism, whether it’s in Europe or here at home, instability in the Middle East ultimately does come back to the United States. So I do think there are good reasons we still should care about this region, but there are good questions to ask about ways we can maybe engage this region a little differently than we have in the past.

So now let’s turn to the issue of U.S. relations toward both sides of the Gulf. And starting on the Arab side, I’ll really just make three points. We’re short on time here. I want to—anything I don’t cover, please raise in the Q&A and we can have further discussion.

The first point, I would say, on the Arab side of the Gulf is that while these countries still rely on the United States for security—and I think it’s important to remember the U.S., with all the talk about disengagement, still has significantly—significant military assets in this region. We have a naval presence in Bahrain. We have land forces still stationed in Kuwait. We have airbases—access to airbases in Qatar, Oman, and the UAE. Our airbase in Qatar is particularly extensive. So we still have assets there. They still rely on the United States for security. We still have significant arms sales to these countries. But I think it’s important to note that the U.S. is no longer the only player in town. We do not have the same dominance we once had in this region, particularly following the end of the Cold War. There are growing, I think—there’s growing assertiveness from Russia in particular throughout the region. We have growing economic interests from China and activity. And, of course, some of these Gulf states, particularly the Emiratis and the Saudis, as we see in the intervention in Yemen, really demonstrates that these actors are much more assertive militarily and taking much more initiative on their own than we’ve ever seen in the past, and not always in ways that fully align with U.S. interests. So that, I think, is an important point, that the era of U.S.—sole U.S. dominance is likely over.

The second point on the Arab side of the Gulf is that we should be really careful about lumping all of these Arab Gulf and I should say Sunni—largely Sunni—states together. One thing to keep in mind is that all of these states, even though they’re Sunni, many of them do have significant Shia populations. The Saudis have a major Shia minority in the eastern province, and Bahrain actually has a Shia-majority population even though it has a Sunni-led government. But we, despite—in addition to the kind of Sunni-Shia divide, which I think sometimes is overplayed, we really see a lot of divergence among these Gulf states on issues when it comes to perception or threat perception of Iran, for example. The Saudis, and the Emiratis, Bahrain side of the aisle take a much stronger anti-Iran stance than the Omanis, for example, often playing more of a bridging role, or the Qataris.

The other, I think, major point of friction within the Gulf, where we see variation, is attitudes toward political Islam and specifically the Muslim Brotherhood. Here I would say the Emiratis are probably in the lead on really promoting a secular vision for the region, very anti-Muslim Brotherhood. The Qataris are on the other side of that aisle.

And, you know, also differences over the significance and willingness to accept the Arab uprisings that we saw in 2011, with the Saudi-led camp taking very much a counterrevolution approach. While all the Gulf states pitched in to help really quash the uprising in Bahrain at the time, I think you see Qatar is taking a much more welcoming view of uprisings, which really bothers the other side of the Arab Gulf.

And all of these differences explain in part the major rift we saw between the Saudi-led camp and Doha in June 2017 that continues to this day. So that’s the second major point, that not all Arab Gulf states are the same. And even though, for example, today in Warsaw you’re likely to hear the U.S. administration talk quite a bit about, you know, a united front against Iran, it’s not quite as united as some of these talking points would suggest.

It’s also, I think, important to note that it’s a dilemma for the United States, these fissures within the Gulf, because we actually have relationships and try to maintain good relationships across the Gulf. We have, as I mentioned, important military assets in all of these countries. So we have to be very careful about not taking sides, but also recognizing there are significant fissures within this region.

And finally, I think an important point on the Arab Gulf—and this relates to some of the shifts we see in the Trump administration—is that the Saudis—Saudi Arabia really, really has become the centerpiece of the Trump administration’s broader approach to the Middle East. President Trump’s first international trip as president was to Saudi Arabia in May 2017. Many of you might remember that as the counterterrorism summit with the big orb, with all the leaders surrounding that famous orb photo, with the sword dancing also a significant moment in that—in that summit. And that really, I think, illustrated how important the administration has seen the Saudis in their broader strategy toward the region.

Now, to be fair, the United States was close to the Saudis for many years, a long—well before Trump, and this relationship is kind of a bread-and-butter aspect of U.S. Middle East policy. We even saw U.S. support for the Saudi-UAE campaign in Yemen well before the Trump administration. I just—I think you see the difference today, though, in the degree in which this administration is doubling down on support for the Saudis despite changes on the ground, including what has become a devastating humanitarian crisis in Yemen; concerns about the Yemen war actually benefitting terrorist groups like al-Qaida, who are thriving off of these weak and failing states and instability that this war is generating; and even doubling down in the wake of the very tragic, brutal murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

So I think it’s very—this is going to be an interesting space to watch. I think what’s most interesting is the pushback we’re seeing in Congress today, and uncharacteristically bipartisan pushback against the administration. Republicans and Democrats are equally concerned about the administration’s unwillingness to listen to the intelligence community’s assessment of the murder and also growing concerns about the war in Yemen. So, again, I think that will be an interesting arena to watch when it comes to our relations with the Arab Gulf moving forward.

Second and lastly, turning to U.S.-Iran—and here we can continue our conversation when you have questions—you know, I’m not going to have time—it’s a very, very complicated relationship; books and books are written about this. Needless today, it has been a contentious relationship since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Now actually forty years ago to this month, in fact, it’s the anniversary of the revolution. Irina, you’ve really timed this call quite well for various developments in the region. And there, of course, are many grievances on both sides, starting with the hostage-taking in 1979 of the U.S. diplomats. Iranians have their own list of grievances against the United States, and Iran continues to pursue policies today that are damaging to U.S. interests across the region.

So it’s not surprising that well before the Trump administration we have seen—long seen a confrontation U.S. approach to Iran, viewed as one of our most significant adversaries in the region. But what I think is different, especially following the Obama administration’s and at least tentative attempts to start an engagement process through the Iran nuclear deal, is confronting Iran has become the foundation of Middle East policy. I think arguably really almost any issue that this administration looks at in the region is viewed through the prism of Iran. Whether it’s fighting terrorism, whether it’s the Middle East peace process, whether it’s trying to diagnose the source of instability, all roads seem to lead back to Iran. And that is a significant difference from previous administrations, who put Iran among several other concerning sources of instability in the region.

What is less clear, I think, about the current approach this administration is taking toward Iran is, is this confrontational approach—what Secretary Pompeo calls “maximum pressure”—you know, is it making Iran any less dangerous? And my short assessment, to date at least, is no. I think the administration’s approach toward the Iran nuclear deal is a good example of this, so I’ll just say a few words on that before concluding.

I think the unilateral withdrawal of the Iran nuclear deal is one of the biggest strategic mistakes the U.S. has made in the Middle East probably since the Iraq War in 2003. It’s very high on the list of strategic errors that I think we will be having to live with the consequences for for years after this administration moves on.

The IAEA—the International Atomic Energy Agency—continuously confirmed Iranian compliance with the agreement. Now, the agreement wasn’t perfect, but it did contain the Iranian—the nuclear issue, at least, for the foreseeable future. We also had the rest of the world onboard with this deal—so not just the International Atomic Energy Agency, but Europe, Russia, China. To be honest, even President Trump’s own defense advisors were arguing at the time that he withdrew that the deal was working, that the Iranians were not violating the agreement, and yet the administration still decided to unilaterally pull out of the agreement and didn’t look for alternative options to work with partners on the other areas of concern—and there are many—of Iran’s behavior.

Now, the president and the secretary of state argued at the time that we would be getting a better deal through this “maximum pressure” campaign, that pulling out of the deal wouldn’t be the end of the world, and—you know, because we would get a better deal and we would solve all these other problems happening in the region. Now, of course, we haven’t gotten a better deal yet; in fact, there doesn’t seem to be any negotiations toward a better deal with the Iranians or anyone else.

And the other problem is the spillover effect this has had on our relationship with Europe, where we have probably the biggest rift we’ve seen since the 2003 Iraq War, which is troublesome for other interests we’re trying to advance in this region. We still see the Iranians moving ahead with all of their destabilizing activities that we don’t like, particularly missile development. None of these unilateral policies of the United States has done anything to stop that. And then we have the worst of both worlds: We’re not stopping bad Iranian behavior, but we’re creating rifts with important partners.

Now, for the time being the Iranians are staying in the agreement. And that’s good news, and that’s mostly because the Europeans are working on ways to keep up trade with Iran. It’s not clear how long this will last. The nuclear deal was ultimately about nuclear rollback for economic gains. If the Iranians do not feel they’re getting economic gains, I think the deal is quite fragile, and we’ll see if it can withstand this pressure. That’s, I think, to be seen.

But meanwhile, we have growing escalation in other theaters with Iran that are extremely concerning. And here I would point especially to what we see happening in Syria, where we have major escalation between Iran/Hezbollah on one side and Israel on the other, and for the first time you really have direct Israeli-Iranian confrontation in Syria. And that could escalate to a broader conflict that ultimately could involve the United States. So none of this policy toward Iran—“maximum pressure”—seems to be producing the results we’d like them to produce, at least to date.

And then, finally, I think one of the other unfortunate results of these policies is that this pressure is hurting the Iranian people as much as it’s hurting its leaders, and that’s leading to growing resentment of the United States. And this is not a population we want to alienate. It’s generally believed to be a fairly pro-American population, despite the very nasty rhetoric of its leaders toward the United States and Israel. We want to find a way to stay on the side of the Iranian people. That’s very important. Recent polling shows that while the Iranians, yes, blame their own corrupt leaders and poor governance of their own government for failing them, you know, we shouldn’t underestimate the ability of populations to blame their own government and the United States at the same time. So a recent poll shows that over 80 percent of Iranians now have unfavorable views of the United States. This is not a good thing for U.S. interest.

So concluding with, you know, a short look into the future—you’re students and I hope all of you are thinking forward. We need you to be thinking forward and asking hard questions, and we should ask hard questions about our relationships on both sides of this Gulf. On the Arab side of the Gulf we need to ask—and this goes to other partners in the region as well—you know, how are our partners furthering U.S. interests? You know, should we think about rebalancing our relationship in this region beyond narrow military relationships that often drive our relationships? And when we do provide military assistance, how can we better leverage that assistance? How can we encourage partners to reconcile internal differences and move forward on important reform programs, which will be important for their own survival and viability but also important for U.S. interests? And also, I think it’s important to include the need to continue to press for accountability when it comes to human rights abuses.

And on the Iranian side, I—we have to really ask, you know, whether it’s the Trump administration, whether it was U.S. policy proceeding the Trump administration, have these years of policies of isolation and confrontation made Iran any more moderate or any less dangerous? It’s not clear that they have. And we might want to be thinking bigger about how do we shape the regional environment in ways that can moderate Iranian behavior over time and, ultimately, prepare for a day when this important country of eighty million people, you know, may no longer be under Islamic rule. I think we don’t do enough thinking in the United States, in U.S. government circles, about the day after, and we need to be doing that kind of thinking. And you as students of the region hopefully can help with some of that thinking moving forward.

FASKIANOS: Dalia, thank you very much for sharing your insights with us today. We really appreciate it.

KAYE: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: I hope this—yes, absolutely. I hope that you will follow Dalia at @DassaKaye on Twitter. And you can also access her work the RAND website, www.RAND.org. So thank you again, Dalia Dassa Kaye. Our next call will be on Wednesday February 27th, at 1:00 p.m. eastern time. James Lindsay, our senior vice president, director of studies, and the Maurice R. Greenberg chair here at CFR, will lead a conversation on Congress’s role in foreign policy. In the meantime, I encourage you to visit us at CFR.org/Campus and follow us on Twitter at @CFR_Campus for information on new CFR resources and upcoming events.

So thank you all again for today’s call, to Dalia, and we look forward to your continued participation this semester.


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