US President Barack Obama’s Camp David retreat for Sunni Gulf leaders will not be remembered for the diplomatic snubs, defense deals or even the nuclear proliferation threats. It will be remembered as the most vivid illustration of a changing balance of power in the Middle East after three and a half decades of acrimonious US-Iran relations
The last major shift in the US relationship with the Persian Gulf states took place in the 1970s, in the thick of the Cold War. The 34-year-old deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and the 55-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, may be too young to fully understand what their royal elders struggled with in trying to ensure that the global hegemon would not sacrifice the House of Saud to its Persian allies. After all, an entire generation has only known a world in which US support for Saudi Arabia and hostility toward Iran were a given. But the mandate of King Salman’s successors at Camp David was clear: to prevent history from repeating itself.
Thanks to a wealth of declassified information from the Nixon-Kissinger years, we now have a much more colorful view of how the White House managed its relationships in the Persian Gulf at the time. The Shah of Iran sold himself to the Americans as the Guardian of the Gulf, worthy of an exorbitant amount of military toys, including squadrons of F-14 fighter jets fresh off the assembly line. The Nixon White House indulged the shah in most of these requests. The logic was that Iran, as a steadfast and modernized partner of the United States in contrast to the House of Saud and the arcane Wahhabism it practiced, would help the United States carry the burden of ensuring freedom of navigation through the Strait of Hormuz. Tehran also would help keep the Soviets at bay, and it would do all of this while serving as a reliable oil supplier to the West.
While Iran sat on a pedestal in Washington, the Saudis were of course more than unnerved. With Soviet-backed militant groups operating across the region and multiple eyes set on Saudi oil fields, the last thing the House of Saud needed was for Washington to place its trust in Riyadh’s historical enemy to secure the Gulf. An account by US Ambassador to Iran James Akins on a conversation he had with Saudi Oil Minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani in 1975 is particularly revealing of the Saudi perception of what they viewed as an intolerable US foreign policy. Akins claimed that an infuriated Yamani confronted him about an alleged set of military contingency plans outlined by the shah and the White House. From the Saudi point of view, the Americans were effectively arming Iran to enable an Iranian invasion of the Arabian oil fields and the occupation of the “entire Arabian littoral of the Persian Gulf.”
Though Riyadh certainly felt it had to compete for Washington’s attention, the House of Saud and Washington also took important steps to build up their own strategic relationship. The United States needed Saudi Arabia to balance against Iran in OPEC policy and bankroll regional governments and proxies in a broader battle against Soviet influence. At Camp David 44 years ago, Nixon devised a plan to break from the gold standard, which relied heavily on Saudi cooperation. As Nixon sought to ensure global demand for the dollar for many decades to come, the House of Saud made a deal with Washington to price oil sales in dollars only and buy up billions of US treasuries with surplus petrodollars. Thanks to the Saudis and Nixon’s geopolitical backroom deals, the US dollar has been able to build and preserve its position as the world’s reserve currency, enabling the United States to spend beyond its means as any global empire would.
But it was not until the 1979 Iranian Revolution that toppled the shah and elevated the mullahs that the US-Saudi relationship really took off. From that point onward, the House of Saud and the White House forgave and forgot their many differences and remade the security architecture of the Persian Gulf to put the United States firmly behind the Sunni bloc while Iran remained isolated. However, that alliance structure started to crack in 2003, when the United States toppled the Sunni government of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and wittingly opened the door for Iran to anchor itself in Mesopotamia through a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.
The Gulf state leaders gathered at Camp David on Thursday may feel betrayed by the United States, but they cannot be surprised by the evolution of US relations in the Persian Gulf. This shift was triggered a dozen years ago, even if it is only fully materializing now.
Saudi editorials in the days leading up to the summit were full of contempt. Some argue that Obama’s outreach is an admission that he made a losing bet on Iran and is now groveling for reacceptance by Gulf leaders. Another claims that Obama may want special relations with both Iran and the Gulf states at the same time, but that he simply cannot have it both ways.
But in fact, he can. A US detente with Iran does not mean that Washington’s relationship with the Sunni states of the Gulf is swept to the side. On the contrary, the United States will be working to build up these states, along with Turkey, to counterbalance Iran in the region. The chessboard is also somewhat simpler for the United States this time around.
The United States and Russia may be experiencing Cold War nostalgia today, but Russia’s influence in the Middle East is far more limited today than it was a couple of decades ago.
That means the proxy battles in the region will primarily involve the local players rather than the overarching superpowers. Instead, the United States will be there when it comes to securing energy chokepoints and neutralizing jihadist threats, picking and choosing its battles wisely along the way.
And that is where the core frustration in Saudi Arabia will fester. The United States has revived the power of choice for itself in the Persian Gulf. When it comes to finding another security guarantor in the region, the Saudi royals will inevitably find themselves back in Washington in their time of need. — Copyright © 2015 Stratfor Global Intelligence, All rights reserved.
Publishing by The Manila Times of this analysis is with the express permission of STRATFOR.