Bilal Y. Saab, a senior fellow and director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute, served from August 2018 to September 2019 in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as senior advisor for security cooperation in the Middle East. Michael P. Mulroy (@MickMulroy), a senior fellow for national security and defense policy at the Middle East Institute and co-founder of the Lobo Institute, served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy from November 2017 to December 2019.
To help prevent a U.S.-Iran war in their neighborhood, the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council have called for diplomacy. They have reached out to Iranian officials to de-escalate. And they have provided Tehran with humanitarian assistance to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
That is remarkable — and in some ways ironic, considering that until recently, they were pushing Washington to adopt a tougher stance against the Islamic regime, their main adversary.
The question now is whether they are able to do more to reduce the chances of a military confrontation between the United States and Iran in the region without alienating Washington, which seems set on pursuing a punitive approach toward Tehran.
It will not be easy for the GCC states.
They cannot afford to increasingly challenge the current U.S. administration on Iran, because it might double down on its latest decision to withdraw some Patriot missile defense batteries from Saudi Arabia and pull out all American troops and equipment stationed on their territory. The U.S. already threatened to do that, had Saudi Arabia not stopped its recent oil price war with Russia.
The Gulf Arab partners cannot live with such an outcome, because the United States remains their ultimate protector despite their recent concerns about its commitment to their security.
These concerns have likely intensified with the recent passage of the Iran war powers resolution, which specifically called for the termination of the use of force against Iran unless explicitly authorized by Congress. Although vetoed by President Trump, it was passed on a bipartisan basis, something the Gulf Arab partners will likely have noted.
That said, the United States cannot simply withdraw from a region that still presses on the world's security agenda and key U.S. interests, including the stability of the global oil market. Therefore, the GCC states have some independent room on Iran strategy.
They need it, because it is not in their interest to stay the course with the current U.S. Iran policy. Following this path could lead them to war, from which they stand to lose a great deal.
If a military conflict erupts, the United States can defend its own personnel and assets in the region, but the Gulf Arab states are less able to do so. This is despite their increasing military capabilities. A major conventional attack last fall against Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure, suspected to have been conducted by Iran, clearly shows the Gulf Arab partners' vulnerabilities.
Unlike Iraq in its eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s, the GCC states lack strategic depth and an integrated defense, which means they cannot absorb significant missile strikes from the Iranians. If they are attacked, their economies, which depend on oil exports, will likely be damaged significantly.
But the Gulf Arab states also have to plan for a possible change in U.S. administration. The longer they take part in the current "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran, the rockier the road will be for them if the Democrats win in November.
This reconciliation process with a potentially new administration will already be tough, due to all the harm Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has caused to the U.S.-Gulf partnership, with the controversial war in Yemen and the killing of Saudi national and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
So the Gulf Arab states have to balance between surviving the current administration, building bridges with possibly a new one, and averting war. In the end, their wisest bet is to persuade Washington, regardless of who is in the Oval Office come January, to pursue a collective diplomatic initiative with Iran while keeping the pressure on its paramilitaries and malign activities in the region.
This is what has been sorely missing in Washington's Iran strategy all along — diplomacy that is crafted with the Gulf Arab states. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or nuclear deal, of the previous administration was planned in Washington, with limited to no input from the Gulf Arab partners. A new strategy need not take the form of a joint overture to Iran, but should at least include effective coordination between the Gulf Arab and U.S. sides on talks with Tehran, because what Washington wants from Iran and what the Gulf Arabs could accept may not be the same.
In general, both want Iran to act more responsibly, but the devil lies in the details. The Gulf Arab states could settle for an end to Iranian destabilization on their own territory but acquiesce to Iranian adventurism elsewhere in the region. That might not be acceptable in Washington.
If the Gulf Arab states fail to engineer a joint diplomatic effort with the current administration over the next few months (or longer, if the president is reelected), perhaps they could lean more on their European allies — primarily Great Britain and France, whose positions are more in line with their own — and concentrate on unifying their own ranks.
They might not achieve much with this option, given their weaker bargaining hand in relation to Tehran. But perhaps the Iranians, just like the Gulf Arab states, are prioritizing war prevention and stability at home more than anything else, given their current dire economic situation, made even worse by the coronavirus crisis. If that is the case, then mutual vulnerability, partly caused by Washington's maximum pressure campaign, is what will bring the Iranians and the Gulf Arab states to finally talk and possibly cooperate.