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Allies in the Persian Gulf pushed the U.S. to confront Iran. Now they’re not sure what they want.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says goodbye to Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on June 24, 2019, after meeting with Saudi leaders as part of an effort to build a “global coalition” against Iran. (Jacquelyn Martin/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

DUBAI — For years, U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf have pushed Washington to get tough on Iran. But now, with the prospect of war on the rise, they’re not so clear about what they want.

Many Arab officials and analysts in the gulf are looking to the United States to be even more forceful in deterring Iran — and also more careful about provoking it. Given mixed signals from the Trump administration, some in the region are a little nervous and are sending conflicting signals of their own.

The escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf have exposed differences between the United States and its regional allies, in part over how aggressively the Trump administration should confront Iran.

 Washington and its allies in the gulf, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, see Iran and its network of proxy forces as the primary threat in the region and have worked together to cripple its economy through sanctions and to isolate its leadership. 

 But at the same time, the United States and these Arab allies differ over the usefulness of negotiations in resolving the crisis and the role these nations should play in ensuring their own security, diplomats say.

Even among the U.S.-allied gulf countries, there is little consensus on how best to confront Iran. With these countries likely to find themselves on the front lines of any military conflict with Iran, some of the smaller states are hesitant to support the more combative stance of the United States and regional heavyweights Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

 The result has been conflicting public and private statements from both U.S. and regional diplomats. The remarks, analysts say, are evidence of a deeper struggle among allies over the contours of a U.S.-led policy that many officials and analysts here think could lead to war. 

Iran shot down a U.S. drone near the Strait of Hormuz on June 20, escalating tensions. Each country has different accounts about the location of the incident. (Video: Joyce Lee, William Neff/The Washington Post)

Still, some believe there is room for diplomacy. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, has backed an Iraqi proposal to mediate between Iran and the United States to try to lower the risk of “dangerous consequences” for the region.

In response to recent attacks on commercial tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, the United States squarely blamed Iran. Most gulf countries, however, have refrained from publicly saying Iran is the culprit and instead have called for dialogue and restraint. 

 “Honestly, we can’t point the blame at any country because we don’t have evidence,” the UAE’s foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, said last month of attacks on four tankers off the UAE port city of Fujairah. 

“If there is a country that has the evidence, then I’m convinced that the international community will listen to it,” he said. “But we need to make sure the evidence is precise and convincing.” 

Nahyan’s remarks confused and alarmed U.S. diplomats in the region.

Tensions have risen sharply after the Trump administration withdrew last year from the landmark nuclear deal with Iran and reimposed economic sanctions. In response, Iran has announced in recent weeks that it is breaching a pair of limits on enriched uranium.

Some officials and analysts in the region worry that the U.S. strategy of “maximum pressure” on Iran — which the administration says is intended to force Iran to negotiate a new nuclear deal and give up its ballistic missile program — exposes Persian Gulf nations to the risk of a conflict but without solid security guarantees.

In recent weeks, President Trump has asked publicly why the United States should be responsible for securing the Persian Gulf shipping lanes, noting on Twitter last month that other countries are far more dependent on oil from the region. He has urged allies to take a larger role in safeguarding maritime assets. 

“Trump is again questioning the U.S. role as security guarantor in their region. The gulf countries are in a tight spot,” said Henry Rome, a Middle East analyst at the New York-based Eurasia Group, a political risk firm. He suggested that the doubts Trump has raised about protecting Saudi Arabia and the UAE are similar to the questions previously raised about U.S. security guarantees for Japan, South Korea and European allies.

“On the one hand, they want to demonstrate that the billions of dollars of military purchases have not gone to waste — that they can help defend themselves,” Rome said. “But they don’t want to give the impression they can defend themselves by themselves, lest they tempt Trump to pack up and go home.”

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In Saudi Arabia and the UAE, some commentators criticized Trump’s reluctance to carry out a military strike against Iran after it shot down a U.S. Navy spy drone over the Strait of Hormuz last month. Trump’s subsequent call for negotiations with Iran without preconditions was also a source of frustration for some in the region, because Iran could see the abrupt reversal as a sign of weakness, diplomats and analysts said.

In a column published by Arab News, a daily newspaper linked to the Saudi government, analyst Mohammed al-Sulami called on the United States to “avoid the middle ground on Iran.” 

Saudi Arabia and Iran have long been adversaries in the region, and their rivalry has often played out with devastating consequences in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. 

 When the United States and other world powers negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, curbing its atomic energy activities in exchange for major sanctions relief, gulf states “felt abandoned” by the Obama administration, said Sanam Vakil, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. 

 For gulf nations such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, “the advent of a new, hawkish U.S. administration has provided a welcome opportunity to contain Iran in a way that was impossible under the previous president,” the European Council on Foreign Relations said in a recent policy note.

 But Sulami, who heads the International Institute for Iranian Studies in Riyadh, said in his column that the absence of a consistent, forceful response by the United States has contributed “to Iran continuing its operations.” One option for dealing with Tehran, he wrote, would be “to wage an attack beyond the Iranian regime’s expectation through a preemptive military operation.” 

 “Such an attack would paralyze all the Iranian regime’s military capabilities and ensure that it could not retaliate with its full might,” Sulami wrote.

Though Saudi officials have not openly called for a military campaign against Iran, the kingdom’s leaders have been the most forceful in condemning what they say are Iran’s “aggressive policies.”

 In a recent interview with the Paris-based France 24 news network, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir refused to rule out a military response to what he said were Iranian provocations, among which he included recent drone and missile attacks on Saudi infrastructure by Iranian-allied rebels in Yemen.

“I believe that anything that can be done to increase the pressure on Iran to change its policies should be done,” Jubeir said. “The escalation has always come from the Iranian side.”

The signals coming from the UAE, which has strong commercial ties with Iran, have been more mixed, though there is clear concern about U.S. resolve.

“Time has come for The Arab Gulf States not to put their eggs in one wobbly American basket” when it comes to Iran and the region’s security, Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent Emirati political analyst, wrote on Twitter. 

The more assertive approach championed by Saudi Arabia — and in particular by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — puts the kingdom at odds with some of the smaller U.S. allies in the region, which want to see the crisis settled through negotiations. Kuwait and Oman, which have pursued bilateral relations with Iran, have long resented Saudi attempts to pressure them to adopt a more confrontational foreign policy, analysts say. 

 “The situation is very dangerous and critical. Kuwait’s position is clear and aims toward self-restraint on the part of all parties and to avoid escalation in the region,” said a senior Kuwaiti diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. 

Two years ago, Kuwait’s foreign minister made a rare visit to Tehran, seeking dialogue, but the effort stalled. Kuwait is now urging the U.N. Security Council to take the lead in ending the crisis.

 “Gulf states, being cognizant of their geography and proximity to Iran and Saudi Arabia, have engaged with Tehran as part of a hedging strategy to balance against pressure from Riyadh,” Vakil, the research fellow, wrote in a Chatham House policy note. This “hedging policy has exposed deep divisions among the Arab Gulf states.”

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