When challenging Iran in Gulf, don’t ditch entire Obama playbook

Getty Images

Confronting the challenge posed by Iran appears high on the Trump administration’s list of Middle East priorities. While pledging to enforce the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the administration has aimed to put Iran “on notice” by imposing sanctions for its January ballistic missile test, weighing a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designation for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), adding Iran to its list of travel ban countries, and formulating a plan to drive a “wedge” between Iran and Russia in the Middle East.

The need for tougher action against Iran is premised on the Obama administration’s avoidance of direct confrontation with Iranian-backed forces, including the brutal Bashar Assad regime in Syria and Shiite militias in Iraq, with whom it has at times tacitly aligned against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Obama was coolly received by regional partners, notably those in Israel and the Gulf, for the perception that he was acting against their near-term security interests for the long-term gains of the JCPOA.

It did not help relations that he also openly criticized these partners in the press.

However, the Obama administration did develop an important and wide-ranging initiative for security cooperation with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait, to counter Iran’s immediate, non-nuclear threats.

{mosads}Obama convened two U.S.-GCC leadership summits at Camp David in 2015 and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in 2016, developing a framework of bilaterial and multilateral security deliverables to counter Iran’s missile, cyber, maritime and asymmetrical threats, among others. In working groups related to these focus areas, U.S. officials across different agencies and their GCC counterparts implemented the summit deliverables, holding ministerial meetings, training seminars, joint exercises and more.


While inroads have been made toward meeting the summit goals, the pace of progress has frustrated policymakers on both sides. If the Trump team is willing to adopt Obama’s framework, it can signal to Gulf partners that it takes seriously their core security concerns and the job of containing Iran.

Integrated missile defense is one of the foremost areas where the Trump administration could make early progress. Cultivating an integrated GCC missile defense capability, including a Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS), has long been a U.S. priority due to the nature of the Iranian threat. Iran views its ballistic missile program as a relatively inexpensive but important deterrent to the conventional superiority of the U.S. and its Gulf neighbors by threatening their bases and military assets; despite the Trump administration’s unilateral sanctions, it is highly unlikely to cease developing this program.

Iran appears particularly intent on improving the accuracy of its ballistic missiles, which would not only threaten U.S. and GCC forces, but could also raise political questions that increase friction between the U.S. and its partners.

What would be an appropriate response if Iran showcases its capabilities by purposely firing a missile into the Saudi desert, for example? U.S. and Saudi policymakers might disagree as to the rung of the escalatory ladder upon which the appropriate response would lie.

Although the U.S. has long pushed for a missile defense shield in the Gulf, the GCC states traditionally have been reticent to share the sensitive information on capabilities necessary for integrating system components across sovereign states. Nonetheless, the Obama team overcame some of the GCC’s historical inertia, conducting a ballistic missile defense architecture study, providing technical assistance for the development of a GCC-wide BMEWS and holding a senior leader tabletop exercise on missile defense.

Assuming it is willing and can staff the relevant agencies, the Trump administration has a major opportunity to maintain the momentum of the past two years toward achieving a longstanding U.S. goal.

Cybersecurity cooperation with the GCC is another area requiring further development. Cyberattacks that appear attributable to Iran constitute a significant threat to the Gulf states. In the past year alone, Saudi state news agencies reported cyberattacks on the kingdom’s Civil Aviation AuthorityLabor Ministry and other government agencies that resembled the highly destructive, Iranian-linked Shamoon attack on Saudi Aramco from 2012. Though not on the same scale, experts suspected the recent attacks were also tied to Iran.

Outside Saudi Arabia, Bahraini and Kuwaiti officials reported attacks against their own state agencies in 2016.

The Obama administration’s agenda for GCC cyber cooperation was ambitious, calling for military cybersecurity exercises, national policy workshops, increased information-sharing and regular consultations on best practices, strategy and incident response.

However, it is not clear that much progress was made, apart from preliminary working group meetings.

Fortunately for the Trump administration, recent attacks appear to have primed the GCC states to cooperate with one another. The administration should encourage this impulse and look to deeply involve itself in these efforts, both to improve GCC capabilities and best practices and to help prevent escalation in the cyber realm between the GCC and Iran.

Helping the Gulf states protect their energy and financial sectors from cyberattacks will be of paramount importance in the coming years as they embark on ambitious economic reform plans like Saudi Vision 2030.

Finally, a mundane but important aspect of the U.S.-GCC summit framework was its promotion of working-level contacts between U.S. interagency officials and their Gulf state counterparts.

The summits gave presidential impetus to the National Security Council to coordinate across the State, Treasury and Defense Departments, along with a slew of others, to help build GCC capacity in some of the critical areas mentioned above. Regular meetings promoted a useful bureaucratic network across governments.

While the Trump team’s vision for personnel and agencies is as yet unclear (in some cases, disconcertingly so), many of the Gulf and some of the U.S. officials who collaborated closely during the Obama years remain in place.

The muscle memory necessary for convening working groups and keeping open channels of communication with GCC states is strong at present; it must remain so, as clear, direct messaging and uninhibited flows of information will be vitally important during crises, especially those involving Iran.

When it comes to confronting Iran’s non-nuclear activities in the Middle East, the Trump administration will find there are few easy wins. The pace of current events has been unrelenting for a president slow to staff his administration and, recently, Tehran has not shied away from sparring with its neighbors.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster know Iran’s challenge well, and could be key drivers of the hard-nosed implementation necessary for building on Obama’s security engagement with the GCC states. The pace of U.S. and Gulf state bureaucracies are slow, and persistence will be key.

The Trump team has a chance to back up some of its tough talk on Iran without reinventing the wheel. But the administration, however, will have to move past its reflexive impulse to jettison the policies of its predecessor.

Owen Daniels is assistant director of the Middle East Peace and Security Initiative in the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video