Memo from Gulfistan

Martin Kramer made these remarks at the 8th Herzliya Conference on January 21.

Lately it has been said that the Arabs are in a panic over the growing power of Iran. We are told that Arab rulers so fear the rise of Iran that this fear has eclipsed all others it’s the sum of all fears. And it’s making a new Middle East

That is what David Brooks, New York Times columnist, wrote last November: “Iran has done what decades of peace proposals have not done brought Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the Palestinians and the U.S. together. You can go to Jerusalem or to some Arab capitals and the diagnosis of the situation is the same: Iran is gaining hegemonic strength over the region.” Martin Indyk of the Saban Center used the same language in a November interview. Iran, he said, was making “a bid for hegemony in the region.”

The Sunni Arab states, and… Israel, suddenly found that they were on the same side against the Iranians. And so that created a strategic opportunity which the [Bush] administration has finally come to recognize, and that’s, more than anything else, what’s fueling the move to Annapolis.

If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Just last month, Iran’s President Ahmadinejad was invited to attend the summit of Arab Gulf rulers (the Gulf Cooperation Council) in Qatar. That was the first time an Iranian president had ever attended a GCC summit. Two weeks later, Ahmadinejad arrived Mecca, for the haj pilgrimage, at the invitation of Saudi King Abdullah. It was the first pilgrimage by an Iranian president since Iran’s revolution. And as any travel log of Arab and Iranian ministers will show, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

What game are the Gulf Arabs playing? Pretend for a moment that you are ruler of a mythical state called Gulfistan, and I am your national security adviser. You have asked me to prepare a memo on our strategic situation. Page one:

  • Your Majesty, these are good times, thanks be to God. With oil at $100 a barrel, you are awash in cash. You have built mega-projects, you have bought new weapons, you have put us on the map. An American university and a French museum have opened branches here. Our skyline flashes glitz and prosperity. And there is no end in sight to the strong demand for our oil. The developed countries are addicted, and China and India need us more every day.
  • We are enjoying this boom under the protection of the greatest power on earth. The United States has built a front line of bases right through the Gulf, and not far from your palace. The Americans are here to protect the oil, and as long as we keep it flowing, we need not fear any enemy.
  • But Your Majesty doesn’t reward me with a mansion in Aspen to tell you only good news. True, it never rains in Gulfistan, but you wish to know if I see clouds on the horizon.
  • I see two clouds. There is President Bush, who thinks God has placed him on earth to make peace in the “Holy Land,” and bring so-called democracy to the Arabs; and there is President Ahmadinejad, who believes God has put him here to spread his Shiite perversion, and who wants nuclear weapons to turn Persia into a great power.
  • These are dangerous men who threaten our security. Your Majesty, wisdom dictates that we not chose sides in their quarrel. We need good relations with the Americans: they are our biggest customers, they will defend us against any foreign enemy, and the weapons they sell us make us look stronger than we are. But we need good relations with the Iranians too. Iran is so close, we can feel its breath on our faces, from OPEC to Iraq. Were Iran to subvert us, by inciting our Shiite minority or encouraging terror, it could burst our bubble.
  • Your Majesty, a nuclear Iran is undesirable. The Persians are pushy; nuclear weapons would only make them more arrogant. For a moment, we thought the Americans would bomb them to stop them. A few of us privately urged them to do that. But the Americans can’t make up their minds. Some think Iran should be bombed. Some think Iran has no weapons program. Others share the view of General Abizaid, the former U.S. commander here. “Iran is not a suicidal nation,” he’s said. “Nuclear deterrence would work with Iran.” The Americans would destroy Iran if it touched our oil, which is ultimately their oil. But if Iran is careful, it might get the bomb.
  • In this uncertain situation, we should balance America and Iran. On the one hand, let us reassure Iran that we are good neighbors. Tell the Iranians we will oppose aggression against them, and we won’t boycott their business or freeze their assets. On the other hand, let us reassure the Americans that we are good allies. Tell them we will stabilize oil prices and let them build their big bases off in the desert. We must keep Washington and Tehran equally close and equally distant.
  • Your Majesty, the Americans want you to shake the hands of Jews and give a hand to Palestinians, to support the so-called “peace process.” We are fortunate: God gave us all the oil and no Jews. He gave the Palestinians no oil and all the Jews. If you join the “peace process,” the Jew will be at your door, demanding “normalization,” and the Palestinian, as usual, will repay generosity with ingratitude. The wise course is to keep this an American problem. Say you will help, but set impossible conditions; come to their “peace conferences” but make no commitments. True, many of your people are moved by the plight of the Palestinians. But this won’t weigh on us, so long as they blame only the Jews and the Americans. If we avoid commitment, the blame will never fall on us.
  • If we are wise, we can keep up this game until Bush and Ahmadinejad fade into history. I, your humble servant, will continue to act as your adviser in these sensitive matters. Perhaps, then, I might be rewarded with that small estate outside London? My youngest wife very much fancies it…

Now obviously I’ve simplified things here. There is no typical Arab Gulf state like Gulfistan. Different Gulf states have different interests and different policies. That is why we have Gulf experts.

But this isn’t the place to explore what distinguishes, say, Kuwait from Saudi Arabia. The point I want to make is this:

We all know how little fuel there is right here to keep the Annapolis process going. At this point, Israelis and Palestinians are running on fumes. That’s why Martin Indyk said that most of the fuel for Annapolis would have to come from a grand anti-Iran coalition. But the reality is that the coalition never formed, and now even its premises have disintegrated. Assembling this coalition was bound to be difficult; after the NIE, it has become impossible.

We have been here before. Every few years, a prophet arises to proclaim a new Middle East, including Israel. In the 1990s, peace between Israel and the Palestinians was supposed to turn the Middle East into a zone of economic cooperation including Israel. Then we were told that Iraq’s liberation would turn the Middle East into a zone of democracy including Israel. A few months ago, we were told that the Iranian threat would turn the Middle East into a zone of political and military alliance including Israel.

This latest new Middle East has had the shortest life of them all. Apparently, new Middle Easts just aren’t what they used to be.