On Iran, no easy answers for Mrs Clinton or the Gulf

Mrs Clinton helped put these matters in clear focus. But so far, there is no evidence that she could do much else.

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The US secretary of state Hillary Clinton certainly hoped to do better than her boss on her trip to Saudi Arabia. The US president Barack Obama landed in Riyadh in June of last year hoping that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia would extend diplomatic gestures to Israel to buttress the renewed US push for peace in the Levant. The Saudi monarch was unimpressed and unconvinced, and Mr Obama left empty-handed.

Coming on the heels of that effort and growing Arab disappointment with the Obama administration, Mrs Clinton's visit was cast differently. Though she was careful to reaffirm the US determination to reach peace and praise King Abdallah for putting forward the Arab Peace Initiative, her agenda was essentially Iran-centric. Mrs Clinton came to the Gulf to brief, and with the hope to enrol, America's Arab allies in what the US and its UN Security Council partners plan to do now that Iran has turned down even a reasonable proposal to build mutual confidence. Iran instead declared itself a nuclear state - a symbolic if dubious claim. Prospects for domestic change in Tehran have dimmed after the poor showing of the Green Movement last week.

Mrs Clinton sought two things. First, Gulf leverage to convince a reluctant China to come on board with sanctions at the UN. It is doubtful she made much headway here since the Gulf states see themselves as marginal players in the Chinese strategic thinking. Second, Mrs Clinton sought assurances that Gulf states will abide by a sanctions regime designed to complicate the operations of Iranian businesses linked to the Revolutionary Guard, which oversees Iran's nuclear programme. Gulf leaders must have certainly reiterated that they would implement whatever demand comes out of the UN Security Council, though they will remain silent on that matter until a resolution has been passed.

Mrs Clinton denied that the US was readying itself for war, emphasising that the much-publicised deployment of missile defences to the Gulf last week was a defensive measure. In reality, several Gulf states had demanded that these capabilities be deployed for fear that an accident or a miscalculation could escalate into an unwanted war. In comments that made headlines, Mrs Clinton warned of the growing hold of the Revolutionary Guard over Iranian politics. "We see that the government of Iran, the supreme leader, the president, the Parliament [are] being supplanted and that Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship," she said.

The Gulf states no doubt share that assessment. In truth, they think that Washington, in awe with the Green Movement, took too long to acknowledge that Iran's semblance of democracy blurred a more determined if insidious attempt by a neoconservative clique in Tehran to seize power. They blame this on a mix of political naiveties and misplaced attraction for Tehran. This is why Gulf leaders have been sceptical of Mr Obama's overtures to Iran, though there is certainly truth to the claim that his outreach, from the Nowrooz message to his private letters to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has helped clarify the stakes. The effort has shifted the blame from Washington to Tehran and made the fissures within Iranian society and politics more apparent. But until this delivers tangible results at the UN, it will remain a quixotic effort.

Ms Clinton may not have intended it this way, but there is an opportunity here. The less domestic and regional appeal that the Iranian regime has, the easier it becomes to enrol the Arab states in a containment strategy. Iran's stock in the Arab world has plummeted, though not irremediably. There is growing distrust of its nuclear ambitions and a sense that its domestic unrest has exposed fundamental truths about the state of Iran. Arab participation certainly does not guarantee the success of such a strategy, but the political cost of pressure has suddenly become more bearable with an Iran troubled at home and struggling to sustain its claim of having perfected Islamic democracy abroad.

The problem, of course, is that calling Iran an authoritarian state will not sway either Russia or China, both of which are just that. It will also not sway countries that will not let moral and political considerations determine their foreign policy interests. And without the legitimacy that comes with the UN stamp on sanctions, the US will not be able to secure unconditional adherence from the Gulf states.

Indeed, scepticism about the effectiveness of sanctions runs deep. Among the comments that stood out during Mrs Clinton's stay in Saudi Arabia were those of the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal. "Sanctions are a long-term solution," he said. "But we see the issue in the shorter term, maybe because we are closer to the threat. So we need an immediate resolution rather than a gradual resolution."

Such remarks are meant to convey the Arab sense of urgency and fear that talk of containment means that prevention is no longer in the cards. They also clearly show how little policy thinking the Gulf states can contribute: if war is unthinkable, engagement doomed to fail, a grand bargain is fundamentally a betrayal, and sanctions utterly inadequate, then what? But Prince Saud has a point. Sanctions require time, unanimity and compliance to have a substantive impact, and containment in itself is not a long-term solution. It is difficult to maintain over time: political and economic interests constantly evolve and sanctions fatigue often kicks in, as happened with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Containment is imperfect: the violators are many because demand for banned goods persists, making the premium to break sanctions high. Containment is difficult to sustain: US attention may be focused on Iran now, but what about in five or 10 years?

And as containment erodes, so will the credibility of its architect, the US. No one wants to see a repeat of Iraq, where that combination inexorably led to conflict. There is another danger that Prince Saud alluded too: a regional nuclear arms race, a risk that Mrs Clinton once again tried to dispel by stressing the efficacy of the US security umbrella. Mrs Clinton helped put these matters in clear focus. But so far, there is no evidence that she could do much else.