This week, President Obama will gather kings, emirs and sheiks from the oil-rich monarchies of the Persian Gulf at Camp David for a summit aimed at bolstering the U.S. alliance with their Sunni Muslim government.
It's an uncomfortable marriage of convenience, and both sides know it.
For decades, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Muslim sheikdoms made a rough bargain with the United States: They provided a reliable supply of oil, and we provided weapons and troops to defend them. More recently, once the monarchs realized that Islamist terrorism was a threat to them as well as us, we also collaborated against Al Qaeda.
But these alliances have been fraying, mostly because of diverging views on Iran, the Arab states' historic rival, ruled by Shiite Muslims.
To Saudi Arabia and most of the other Sunni monarchies, Iran is the root of all evil. Saudi Arabia's late King Abdullah urged both President George W. Bush and Obama to launch a military attack on Iran to “cut off the head of the snake,” the king said.
Abdullah thought Bush's invasion of Iraq was unwise because it replaced the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein with a Shiite government backed by Iran. Abdullah and his successor, King Salman, implored Obama to intervene in the civil war in Syria to topple the Iranian-backed regime of Bashar Assad; Obama, wary of entanglement, has resisted.
In recent months, as the Obama administration has neared an agreement to limit Iran's nuclear programs, the Saudis and their allies have reacted with near-panic at signs that the United States and Iran might move toward a more general rapprochement, or even a tacit alliance.
Fear of a U.S.-Iran alliance is misplaced, but fear of rapprochement is not. Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry have mused that U.S.-Iran relations could evolve from antagonism to peaceful coexistence and, on some issues, cooperation.
“If the nuclear issue has been put in a box … then it's possible that Iran, seeing the benefits of sanctions relief, starts focusing more on the economy and its people, and investment starts coming in, and the country starts opening up,” Obama told the New York Times last month. “If we've done a good job in bolstering the sense of security and defense cooperation between us and the Sunni states … then what's possible is you start seeing an equilibrium in the region — and Sunni and Shia, Saudi and Iran, start saying: ‘Maybe we should lower the tensions and focus on the extremists.'”
In Obama's hopeful formulation, “equilibrium” turns Middle East diplomacy into a positive-sum game: Everybody benefits. But the word makes Saudis and their allies wince. They don't want an equilibrium that grants Iran big-power status; they want Iran kept at bay. They think Iran is irrevocably bent on expanding its influence. And they aren't sure that the United States can be counted on to regulate the regional balance, given the uneven record of American diplomacy in the Middle East.
They don't think statecraft is a positive-sum game; their history tells them it's a zero-sum game. So what they want, instead, is a strategy that focuses on “containment”: keeping Iran in its place.
“If you talk to most of the [Persian Gulf] countries, they will tell you that they are more concerned about Iran's behavior than they are about whether it's 5,000 or 7,000 centrifuges,” Youssef al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates' ambassador in Washington, said last week.
Some of the conversation at Camp David is easy to predict. Obama will promise to maintain sanctions on Iran for its support of terrorist groups and condemn Iranian meddling in other countries. He'll offer U.S. help to knit the Arab states together in a joint missile defense system, something he's been pushing for since 2013. He'll reaffirm a general commitment to defend U.S. allies against external attack, although it will fall short of the NATO-style treaty commitment some Arab leaders would like.
“We are looking for a security guarantee,” Otaiba said at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “In the past, we have survived with a gentlemen's agreement with the United States about security. I think today we need something in writing.”
But even “something in writing” wouldn't address the Persian Gulf states' biggest problems. Iran isn't going to launch a conventional military attack; the mullahs in Tehran have never invaded any of their neighbors.
Instead, the real threats to their stability — and thus their ability to counter Iran — include their own sluggish economies; the recruitment of young gulf Arabs by terrorist groups such as Islamic State; and the spillover effects of nearby wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Those problems can't be solved with security guarantees, missile sales or tough statements.
There will be nice words all around at Camp David this week. Both sides want this marriage of convenience to last. In the short run, American officials will be happy if they can merely persuade Saudi Arabia and its allies to accept a nuclear agreement with Iran instead of campaigning against it.
But in the long run, the U.S. effort to reassure its Arab allies is likely to fall short. They're hard people to reassure. They live in a tough neighborhood, one in which "equilibrium" sounds like a dirty word.