The Manama Dialogue and US Policy in the Arabian Gulf
From the side-lines of the 2013 Manama Dialogue, US Secretary of Defence, Chuck Hagel, sounded remarkably like Chamberlain as the latter returned from Munich, treaty in hand, and declared ‘peace in our time.’ The Islamic Republic of Iran may not be Nazi Germany, a point largely due to its lack of capabilities and not, necessarily, its intentions—not the intentions of its people, but of its near-fascist theocratic regime; a regime that brutally suppresses dissent and national minorities, claims large swaths of the region – Bahrain, the UAE, Kuwait, parts of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Syria – and has actively supported major asymmetric operatives (notably Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels). So, when Hagel spoke of ‘no retreat’ and restated American interests in the Gulf without reiterating the deep sense of friendship between the US and its regional allies, particularly Bahrain which is dependent on US alliance, few were moved. His goodwill mission did not address the real concerns of the GCC states related to the so-called 5+1 Geneva Interim Agreement and the emboldening of Iran likely to follow.
Yet, unlike Senator Tim Kaine, who did not mention Iran by name a single time during his speech on Syria, Hagel addressed the challenge posed by Islamic Republic; his voice rose slightly as he noted that ‘questions have been raised about America’s intentions, America’s strategy, and America’s commitment to this region.’ He then tailed off his verse in a near thundering bellow that the US remains ‘fully committed to the security of our allies and our partners.’ But Hagel did not address US intentions, gave only the slightest indication of its strategy and certainly fell short of demonstrating a functioning commitment to all its nerve-wracked allies, including those of his host, Bahrain.
Despite the constructive atmosphere and the legions of informed personalities, more questions remain as to the apparent US about-face in its Iran policy. Sure, the US had always argued for a negotiated settlement with the Islamic Republic over the latter's nuclear weapons programme, but the timing of conciliatory moves is puzzling. With Iran knee-deep in the atrocities unfolding in Syria, the guiding hand in Bahrain’s political violence and partially responsible for Yemen’s civil war, it is difficult to understand how the US managed to split the question and end some of the more crippling sanctions imposed on Iran—empowering the Islamic Republic so that it may redouble its regional aspirations of hegemony with a heavier purse and less international scrutiny.
So, how has more than three decades of animosity – mutual animosity, as it were – given way to reconciliation? Answering this question has more to do with assessing whether or not such fig-leaf diplomacy is genuine than publicising the process of getting discussions off the ground since it is likely that Secretary John Kerry's daughter Vanessa and recent son-in-law Brian Nehad (a.k.a. Beyruz Nehadi) were instrumental; the latter was deployed to Iran as an unofficial channel of communication between the US and Iran even before the Geneva talks began.
The question is, therefore, who is manipulating who? There are three main answers.
First, there is the very real possibility that Iran is manipulating the US. It would not be the first time; since 1979 such behaviour has become commonplace. Of course, Iran is not the only country to manipulate the US, but this time it is different; this time Iran’s manipulation is further eroding the US’s already tenuous position and its wavering influence in the region. As part of official Iranian policy making stands khode, which is the deliberate hiding of the country’s intentions. In this case, the Geneva Agreement may be a ploy for Iran to buy more time to complete its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes, to increase financial flows for its international adventurism all-the-while duping the international community into a false sense of security.
Alternatively, perhaps it is the US which is manipulating Iran. With its armed forces nervously eyeing the logistical nightmare that awaits their redeployments out of Afghanistan through Pakistan, and given that US-Russian relations are stuck in a form of suspended animation, it may be that recent US overtures are intended to buy an Iranian route in the likely case that the Pakistan route proves too problematic and costly. In this case, while the US may not be reducing its military presence in the Gulf – a point confirmed by Hagel – it is inadvertently empowering Iran through negotiations and while Iran may not be the initiator of this relationship, it is a net-benefactor and the GCC states net-losers.
Finally, perhaps the US and the Islamic Republic are genuinely seeking reconciliation. It was odd that neither Hagel nor Kaine discussed Hezbollah, the deployments of the Al Quds and Revolutionary Guards Corps or the asymmetrical capabilities Iran is developing. There was no message of support for Bahrain's leadership and people as they face continued violence at the hands of Iranian instigators and both US representatives were mute on the political cover Iran offers the al-Assad regime as it steadily ethnically cleanses Syria using grotesque tactics—chemical weapons and raw butchery. If the US and Iran are plotting a reconciled path, then it is based on the manipulation of the other Gulf states which are forced to bear a heavy burden of the toxic brew of Iranian revisionism and US complacency at a time when the Gulf is settled, secure and increasingly progressive.
Whatever the case may be, Hagel, like Chamberlain before him, belongs to a government that places too high a value on agreements made with dictatorships and until Ayatollah Khamenei himself steps into direct negotiations with all concerned parties, congratulations need to be put on ice.