The Israeli government has made its feelings about the nascent U.S./Iranian rapprochement abundantly clear in recent days. Quieter but no less wary are the Gulf Arab states which are uneasily regarding the thaw in relations between Washington and Tehran with an eye towards the future of their regional clout.
Gulf monarchs like Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah are not accustomed to having to compete for Washington’s ear in shaping U.S. policies in the Middle East — the prospect of having to do so is surely an unwelcome one. Almost as unwelcome as the prospect of Iran emerging from its marginalized position as an international pariah state. As much antagonism as former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inspired in the Gulf, his belligerent stance served a useful purpose in facilitating the isolation of the Shiite state which has used its proxies to fend off Gulf Arab influence in the region.
While there is no sign that Gulf/U.S. ties will be shaken by this developing dynamic any time soon, there is still no doubt that Gulf states feel threatened by Iran’s tentatively reciprocated flirtation Washington. Though they haven’t been as vocal as the Netanyahu government, diplomatic grumblings reveal the depth of their displeasure. According to an AP report, “A former U.S. diplomat in the region said that a senior Saudi official grumbled to him recently: I wish the Americans stood by us like the Russians stand by Assad.” Comments like these get at the sense of betrayal held by the Saudis and their neighbors — evincing more than simple pragmatic concern over a shift in the U.S.’s strategic priorities.
For the Gulf Arab states, this development may be confirming a deeply-held fear first sparked by the Obama administration’s decision to back away from its support of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the start of the Arab Spring. The fickle nature of American support was clearly already a concern before this seismic turnabout in international relations. In a region that has turned U.S. favor into a point of condemnation, it is ironic that the Gulf states nonetheless care so deeply about maintaining the appearance of their privileged status with Washington. (Though it might explain the discrepancy between their response and that of the Israelis.) How far the key Gulf players are willing to go for the sake of that appearance will be a crucial question in any U.S.-Iran thaw.