Gulf states fear nuclear Iran

During an interview with The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg at the Aspen Ideas Festival, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the US offered some surprisingly candid remarks about the military option on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Goldberg asked: “Do you want the U.S. to stop the Iranian nuclear program by force?” Here is how Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba responded:

Absolutely, absolutely. I think we are at risk of an Iranian nuclear program far more than you are at risk. At 7,000 miles away, and with two oceans bordering you, an Iranian nuclear threat does not threaten the continental United States. It may threaten your assets in the region, it will threaten the peace process, it will threaten balance of power, it will threaten everything else, but it will not threaten you… I am suggesting that I think out of every country in the region, the U.A.E. is most vulnerable to Iran. Our military, who has existed for the past 40 years, wake up, dream, breathe, eat, sleep the Iranian threat. It’s the only conventional military threat our military plans for, trains for, equips for, that’s it, there’s no other threat, there’s no country in the region that is a threat to the U.A.E., it’s only Iran. So yes, it’s very much in our interest that Iran does not gain nuclear technology.

Later in the interview, al-Otaiba stated:

Countries in the region view the Iran threat very differently, I can only speak for the U.A.E., but talk of containment and deterrence really concerns me and makes me very nervous. Why should I be led to believe that deterrence or containment will work? Iran doesn’t have a nuclear power now, but we’re unable to contain them and their behavior in the region. What makes me think that once they have a nuclear program, we’re going to be able to be more successful in containing them?

Al-Otaiba’s candor reflects the somber reality of Iran’s growing economic, military, and cultural power in the Persian Gulf. If the US values its economic relationship with the oil-rich Gulf sheikdoms, the Obama administration must think long and hard about tangible ways to keep these nations in the US’ orbit. The US has played balance-of-power politics with Iran before. During the bloody decade of war between Iran and Iraq after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Uncle Sam gambled that Saddam Hussein was the West’s best bet at containing Iran. Little did we know that the more immediate problem would come after the war from a dictator whom we had spent so much time, energy, and money to promote.

This time the strategic calculus is just as messy. The US already enjoys a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia and the neighboring Gulf sheikdoms due to their massive reserves of petroleum and natural gas. While the royal family in Riyadh is not as brutal as the former Baathist dictatorship in Iraq, they do turn a blind eye to terrorist financing (as does the UAE with the financial capital of Dubai) and have increased their prime intellectual export — virulent Wahhabi Islam.

The Obama administration is in a difficult position, because if it resumes building diplomatic ties with Arab nations in the Gulf, the administration will appear to be following the same strategy the US has relied on for the past 50 years in the Middle East, that is, coddling autocratic regimes that promise to protect US interests (wasn’t it FDR who said of a similar autocratic ruler: “He may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard?”). And if Obama chooses the military option, proponents of the “Israel Lobby” argument will gain further credibility.

As James Phillips once told me: “The Middle East is a place where a lot happens, but seldom ever changes.”

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