By Khalaf Ahmad Al-Habtoor
At a passing glance, President Barack Obama’s meetings with the leaders of the Arab Gulf states have borne fruit in terms of furthering mutual respect and as a building block to closer cooperation. But when one digs beneath the flimflam and the verbal pledges – with the exception of a joint missile defence system and a promise that deliveries of US weapons would be fast-tracked – the recent Camp David Summit delivered few tangible benefits.
Indeed, more than a few commentators have described the meet as a US-hosted arms bazaar, one that will fill the coffers of American weapons manufacturers with billions of dollars. Plus the P5+1 – Iranian nuclear deal is set to enrich and empower Tehran once economic sanctions are lifted.
Obama says Iran’s newfound wealth will be used to improve lives rather than end up in the treasure chests of Hezbollah the Shi’a Yemeni Houthis or other troublemakers under the Iranian wing. Sorry, but to me that smacks of naivety at best, snake oil at worst.
According to a Daily Telegraph investigation, Iran’s Supreme Leader controls “a financial empire” estimated to be worth $95bn, more than even the grandiose Shah had managed to accumulate. That alone should tell Obama that Iran has no intention of prioritising the needs of its people over its regional mischief makers.
The question is whether the leaders of the GCC countries should rightly feel secure from Iranian aggression now that the US President has promised to come to their defence, militarily if deemed necessary. Naturally, that assessment would be made by the White House, not by the threatened states.
Without a signed and sealed security pact and in light of Obama’s track record of hesitancy in ending regional conflicts or eradicating terrorism, I don’t think so. Are we seriously to believe that the US would declare war on Iran were we to be menaced?
Obama’s rhetoric speaks otherwise when he told the New York Times that internal threats to Gulf States are “bigger than Iran” and, at Camp David, he warned his guests not to “marginalise” Tehran. And even if Obama’s undertaking was rock solid, his term expires in just over 18 months. What happens then?
In any case, while there is nothing wrong with cementing better relations with the US, we must not on any account rely on its protection or that of any other world power. Yemen proves that we are able and willing to protect ourselves and our allies and when the proposed Joint Arab Force comes into play, our capabilities will be strengthened. We have no need of guardians or bosses in foreign capitals. We have strong, well equipped armies and air forces. We are not helpless, underage youths pleading to be defended, as characterised by sectors of the media.
I would urge GCC heads of state to put Camp David under a microscope to ascertain whether it was a genuine attempt on Obama’s behalf to induce closer ties or merely a public relations exercise to bring Gulf States on board a bad deal rewarding Iran for its hostility, regional interference and its backing of terrorists.
In my opinion, trusting the Obama administration to rein in Iran would be a huge mistake. US engagement with Iran was exactly the legacy Obama was after even before he moved into the Oval Office. And to that end he surrounded himself with pro-Iranian officials, such as Vice-President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and Deputy Secretary-of-State Bill Burns, who have all been championing détente with Iran for many years.
Obama’s personal adviser and family friend, Valerie Jarrett grew up in Iran, speaks Farsi, and was a main player along with Bill Burns in US-Iranian secret talks to pave the way for official negotiations. The President’s National Security Council Director for Iran, Sahar Nowrouzzadeh is a former employee of the National-Iranian American Council, a pro-Iranian lobbying organisation.
The President’s own behaviour with regards to America’s long-time sworn enemy was suspect since the beginning. He has been sending the Iranians video Nawruz (New Year) messages and letters to Iran’s Supreme Leader. This year, Obama actually celebrated the Persian New Year at home with his wife and daughters!
Just as strange was Obama’s silence concerning Iran’s crackdown on street protests following elections. And if he condemns Tehran for its human rights abuses and lack of civil liberties, he must be whispering. Because all we hear from him is condemnation of predominately Sunni Arab states on those issues.
Stranger still, while Obama comes across as the ayatollahs’ new best friend, just days ago, the Ayatollah Khamenei attacked the US as “the greatest supporter and plotter of terrorism” and accuses Washington of pursuing its own interests making the region insecure, while branding America as the enemy of both Shi’a and Sunni Muslims. Far from committing to stay out of Arab affairs, Khamenei stressed that his country would continue supporting “the oppressed people of Yemen, Bahrain and Palestine in every way possible”.
Are we really going to place our trust in America’s Commander-in-Chief when he claims backing the Free Syrian Army against the Syrian regime partnered with Iran and Hezbollah, even as his Air Force provides air cover to Iran’s Quds Force and pro-Iranian Shi’a militias in Iraq’s Anbar province? This rabble with blood-stained hands – officially known as Popular Mobilisation Forces (Al-Shaabi) – has been deployed by Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi and is directed by the commander of Iran’s Quds Force Qassem Soleimani. What is worse is that Iran is poised to send in ground troops as soon as it receives the go ahead from the government.
And what does Obama say about the shocking news revealed by the Times and other papers to the effect that the government in Baghdad is turning away tens of thousands of desperate Sunni refugees fleeing the city of Ramadi, recaptured by the Islamic State? Nothing much as far as I can tell! Iraqi families with nowhere to go are being treated worse than foreign foes, barred entrance into their own capital city unless they happen to have a local “guarantor”. This is a plan to reduce the Sunni population by sending them into the fray to die; there is no other explanation.
In reality, Saudi Arabia’s towns bordering northern Yemen are under direct threat from Houthis, while Iran, close to being literally under the Iranian boot, constitutes a grave threat to Gulf States. Does the Obama administration plan to wait until the horse has bolted before acting? The Iranian plot to dominate the region is taking shape before our eyes. We are being surrounded. Yet the US President asks us to play nice with the plotters.
The bottom line is we did not get what we asked for. Obama’s commitment to intervene in Syria to stop the regime’s killing spree was off the table along with a joint defence pact on the lines of those the US has with Israel, Japan and South Korea. Moreover, he has turned down the Saudi request to purchase state-of-the-art F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge over its neighbours.
And we certainly did not get what we need. Most importantly, any final agreement with Iran should be negotiated with the participation of Gulf States and co-signed by our leaders. Such agreement should not be limited to nuclear issues, but should be conditional upon Tehran’s commitment to quit meddling in the affairs of Arab countries, notably Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain whether directly (in the case of Iraq and Syria) or via its armed proxies (Lebanon and Yemen).
We should not trust any other countries but our own. We must not await instructions from the White House on how to pursue our own interests, as it is well-known that US friendship is not proffered without strings. We must proceed with our mission to free Yemen of Houthi rabble, continue with our efforts to destroy the ‘Islamic State’ and lend every support to that sector of the Syrian opposition fighting for a democratic, inclusive state – as opposed to terrorist groups that seek to drag Syria back to the Middle Ages.
Lastly, we should insist upon the stringent terms outlined above. And if those terms are not put in writing, the GCC should work to weaken the Iranian regime once and for all, beginning with material support for the oppressed Ahwazi Arab citizens of Iranian-occupied Arabistan – a region Iran now calls Khuzestan, which supplies the country with most of its oil and gas.
I fear that Camp David was a well-timed bluff and its weapons bounty no more than candies to sweeten the pill. I trust and believe that our leaders understand the score and will maintain independent strategies to counteract threats to our very existence. We cannot gamble with tomorrow on the words of one man, even if that man is the President of the United States.
Our region has been burned many times before. If the past is a good predictor of the future, we should recognise that ultimately we must become the masters of our own destiny, which is far too precious to be handed to the safekeeping of fair-weather friends.
Khalaf Al Habtoor is a businessman and chairman of Al Habtoor Group. Al Habtoor Group is a Dubai based cooperation with extensive business interests in the region and worldwide, including: hospitality, education, automotive and real estate. For more information, please visit www.habtoor.com