Washington’s relations with its Gulf Arab partners have been strained in recent years, particularly because of U.S. outreach to Iran and concerns that the United States may be seeking a broader rapprochement with Tehran, largely at Gulf Arab expense. In recent months, however, evidence has been mounting that these concerns, particularly regarding the impact of the nuclear agreement with Iran, may have been premature. Harsh rhetoric about Iran in general, and the nuclear deal in particular, by President-elect Donald Trump and some of his leading advisors has raised questions about the viability of the agreement. But no one really knows how a Trump foreign policy will look, especially given that many of his key appointments, including secretary of state, remain unresolved. But even without knowing what Trump’s precise plans will be, outgoing President Barack Obama and the lame-duck Congress have been expressing Washington’s growing unease with Iran’s persistence with, and in some cases expansion of, its provocative and destabilizing policies. These developments must be reassuring from the perspective of the Gulf Arab countries.
On December 1, the U.S. Senate voted 99-0 to extend U.S. non-nuclear sanctions against Iran despite the relatively successful implementation of the nuclear agreement with six major world powers led by the United States – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Two weeks earlier, the House of Representatives passed a similar bill by 419-1. In the nuclear deal, Iran agreed to mothball its nuclear weapons program in exchange for the easing of a range of sanctions. Nonetheless, Congress has overwhelmingly approved a 10-year extension of the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA), which was set to expire at the end of 2016. This law authorizes the U.S. government to penalize companies doing business with Iran. It was particularly intended to discourage investment in Iran’s energy sector, in response to Iran’s efforts to expand its influence in the Middle East.
Thus far, both sides appear to be living up to their core obligations under the JCPOA, but aren’t going any further. Iran accuses the United States of violating both the letter and the spirit of the agreement. For its part, Washington has lamented that Iran has squandered its promise through ongoing support for U.S.-designated terrorist groups like Hezbollah and sectarian militias in Iraq and elsewhere; its apparently increasing support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen; its participation in the brutal campaign to restore and extend the power of the Syrian dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad, particularly in eastern Aleppo; and its aggressive campaign to produce and acquire medium- and long-range ballistic missiles that can be used with conventional and, potentially, nuclear warheads. The reauthorization of the non-nuclear U.S. sanctions in the ISA has outraged Tehran, which has threatened a “strong reaction” to what it calls a “gross violation” of the nuclear deal. Yet the White House, which is strongly committed to protecting the agreement, confirmed that the congressional action did not violate the terms of the JCPOA, and has implied that Obama will sign the legislation.
In November, the House of Representatives voted to block a trade deal whereby Boeing was planning to sell, through third-party intermediaries, 109 aircraft to Iran for about $25 billion. The future of this potential sale remains unclear. A similar measure restricting the Export-Import Bank from providing financing for trade deals such as the Boeing airplane sale with Iran was introduced in the Senate by Marco Rubio of Florida. The White House criticized this proposed measure, calling it “sweeping and vague,” and saying that it would have a “chilling effect” on “permissible business with Iran.” Therefore, the Obama White House continues to push back against some measures in Congress that it regards as fundamentally incompatible with the JCPOA, but it doesn’t seem to view the extension of the ISA in that light. Indeed, the White House specifically said it would veto the bill if it believed it was incompatible with the nuclear agreement, but hasn’t reached that conclusion.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell specifically said the extension of the ISA is essential in giving the United States leverage to counter Iran’s “persistent efforts to expand its sphere of influence” in the broader Middle East. Such rhetoric will be very welcome in Gulf Arab capitals, given that it strongly echoes their own views about Iranian policies in the region. Moreover, while mistrust in the administration persists, that Obama seems unlikely to veto the measure adds to the sense that Washington in general, including the White House, is recognizing that Iran’s policies haven’t changed and, if anything, have grown more destabilizing since signing the nuclear agreement.
Saudi Arabia recently accused Iran of being responsible for a cyber warfare attack against six critical organizations in the country, including the country’s civil aviation administration and central bank. In addition, Iran recently reiterated its partnership with Russia in support of the Assad regime in Syria. Tehran says it seeks greater cooperation with Saudi Arabia, and a recent agreement by OPEC members, including the two oil exporting powerhouses, suggests that some mutual interests can be defined in certain cases. But given the overall context, Riyadh will be highly skeptical of these Iranian overtures. Along with several of Trump’s prospective appointees, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly also pressing the case that Iran has become a more aggressive regional power since the signing of the agreement, and that measures need to be taken to rein it in.
Yet the Gulf Arab states are not pressing the incoming administration to scrap the nuclear agreement when Trump takes office, as he said as a candidate he might if elected. Instead, they appear to view tough enforcement of the agreement as preferable to abrogating it. After all, an ideal scenario for Iranian hard-liners would be to reach the agreement and dismantle the international sanctions regime with Obama and then have Trump take the lead in scrapping the deal, freeing Iran to return to its nuclear project with little chance that the former comprehensive sanctions regime can be re-established. At the same time, some proposed Trump administration measures, such as the release of several categories of classified or “secret” documents related to the deal, would further signal a toughening of the U.S. line toward Tehran. Iran says it will walk away from the agreement if Trump tries to renegotiate its terms.
With both sides talking tough, Congress seeking to strengthen the U.S. position, and the new administration poised to take a harder line toward Iran, at least some aspects of U.S. policy in the Middle East seem to be moving in a direction compatible with the perspectives of most of the Gulf Arab countries. After several years of persistent doubts about U.S. intentions, a harder-nosed attitude toward Iran by Congress, as well as both the outgoing and incoming administrations, will be deeply welcomed by Washington’s Gulf Arab partners.