At the summit with GCC states, U.S. President Barack Obama will try to assuage Gulf misgivings about U.S.-Iranian rapprochement and broader U.S. designs for regional order. He will try to undo the disenchantment that has defined the U.S.-GCC relationship for some time by, reportedly, offering joint missile defense cooperation.

But there are doubts about whether such external assistance is really the right counterweight to the perceived threat from Iran—a threat that has always been more asymmetric and ideological. In the case of the Gulf, the sources of anxiety toward Iran are much closer to home. Domestic reform is a prerequisite for building more sustainable and stable futures in the Gulf and for blocking Iranian influence.

Frederic Wehrey
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research deals with armed conflict, security sectors, and identity politics, with a focus on Libya, North Africa, and the Gulf.
More >

The Obama administration feels compelled to accommodate Gulf anxieties. It wants to bolster Gulf confidence in the Iran deal, rein in the Gulf’s increasingly worrisome habit of risky military adventures, and send a strong signal to Iran that the United States is not bolting from the region.

This is a tall order. To accomplish it, there is the very real danger that the United States will resort to the timeworn habit of high-value arms transfers. The sheer momentum of past policies may constrain Washington’s ability to think creatively about how to incentivize the Gulf states to more effectively and cohesively handle their own defense. In a perverse way, the U.S. policy of massive arms transfers has fostered an entitlement mentality, creating disincentives for the Gulf to actually earn this assistance.

Meanwhile, Gulf states have been fixated on external threats, like Iran. But Gulf states’ views toward Iran are so alarmist because Gulf regimes tend to conflate domestic and external security.

To be sure, the Gulf monarchies have a very real fear about Iran’s military capability, particularly its ballistic missile arsenal and navy. And across the region, the Gulf states see meddling by Iran’s Quds Force in Arab conflict zones as unacceptable losses in a zero-sum game for influence.

Gulf commentators have long complained that Iran has upstaged Arab regimes on so-called pan-Arab portfolios like Palestine and is stirring up dangerous sectarianism, particularly in the Levant. On the Arabian Peninsula itself, Gulf rulers continue to believe that Iran is bent on subverting their domestic politics by inciting marginalized segments of their citizenries.

This is an ideological, asymmetric, and amorphous threat that cannot be countered through the provision of more precision-guided munitions, integrated air defenses, or advanced fighter jets like the F-35.

Instead, countering the Iranian threat requires the patient work of domestic reform to complement military measures. Where Iran does have influence, both in the Gulf and in the broader Arab world, is among citizens who feel disenfranchised by their governments and who are looking outward for external inspiration and support. Historically, this appeal has not been confined to Iran’s Shia co-religionists: recall the acclaim that Iran garnered among Sunni Arab audiences in 2006 because of its support for the Lebanese Hezbollah against Israel, which contrasted with the apparent impotence of Gulf Arab states.

The Gulf regimes have in part played up the Iran threat to distract both Gulf citizens and the United States from the deeper roots of dissent and radicalization—the failings in monarchical governance. The era of Iran backing revolutionary Shia groups in the Gulf has long been over; those Shia dissidents that do receive support are a tiny minority and receive it out of expedience and desperation. Even in Yemen, often cited by the Sunni monarchies as a frontline state in the war on Iranian encroachment, the span of Iranian control over the Houthi rebels is not as great as Saudi Arabia claims. Indeed, Iran had tried vainly to dissuade the Houthis from toppling the central government.

Exhibit A for the domestic-reform imperative is Bahrain. The political impasse in Bahrain in which pro-democracy activists, many of them from the Shia majority, are pitted against a kleptocratic Sunni monarchy is a festering wound in the Gulf, the Achilles’ heel of a region that has tried to insulate itself from the forces of change buffeting the rest of the Middle East. If left unaddressed it will eventually threaten U.S. assets and people—particularly the sprawling headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

The urgency of fixing Bahrain, then, is about staving off an increasingly violent opposition and, potentially, more malign Iranian interference that seeks to exploit the grievances of restless Shia youth. To fix Bahrain, more substantive reforms are needed to bolster the authority of the country’s elected legislature, end police and judiciary abuses, and expand the participation of the Shia majority in government, particularly in the armed forces.

Obama has already famously made domestic reform one of his priorities in a much-quoted interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. His argument, obliquely stated, is that it is the internal threats arising from Gulf repression, censorship, and growing economic problems that present the more dire challenge to monarchical survival—and U.S. interests—over the long term than Iranian power projection.

It is likely that such appeals will fall on deaf ears at the summit, but the United States should make them anyway. Washington should stick to this theme and find ways to operationalize it. It should explore avenues to attach conditionality to certain forms of assistance, contingent on Gulf regimes meeting certain benchmarks in political and security sector reform. The message to Gulf leaders should be: if you really want to insulate your populations from and inoculate them against Iran’s siren song, undertake far-reaching reforms that make aggrieved citizens less likely to look outward for inspiration and support.

For the Gulf allies, doubts about American reliability have been etched into the DNA of their bilateral relations with Washington. As junior partners dependent on a more powerful ally for protection, they have always feared abandonment or entrapment by the United States. And confronted with what they perceive as U.S. capriciousness and flakiness, they have continually tried to hedge their bets by pursuing “polygamous” security relations with other powers, whether Russian, European, or Asian.

Such displeasure was present well before the Iranian Revolution. For instance, Riyadh fretted about the Kennedy administration’s commitment to rolling back Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism and sought the assistance of the British to balance U.S. fickleness. King Salman’s decision not to attend the GCC summit is only the latest expression of this perennial frustration with U.S reliability.

But at the end of the day, the United States was and remains the Gulf’s last and best hope. The other potential patrons—China, Russia, India, and Europe—lack either the capacity or the will to replace the United States. The best they can do is supplement rather than supplant Washington. The United States, then, has a strong hand to play. And it should play it.

Dealing with these domestic issues will not only foster the long-term domestic stability of the Gulf monarchies but also build a more sustainable regional order. The tenor and tone of foreign policy can never be quarantined from a country’s domestic climate. If Gulf regimes had greater legitimacy and consensus at home, they might gain the confidence to engage in more transformational diplomacy abroad, to include attempts to improve relations with Iran.