Here’s a worrying counterpoint to the progress in US-Iran talks: the United States is seeking a major buildup of its armed presence in the Persian Gulf, including stepped-up arms sales to the countries of the Saudi Arabia–led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The GCC is essentially an anti-Iran alliance of the Arab kleptocracies of the gulf, including the flashpoint nation of Bahrain, where a Shiite majority population has been challenging the ruling Sunni monarchy—and where the US fleet in the Persian Gulf is based.
The American strategy might not work too well, however, if Iran continues to reach out to the Sunni Arab states of the gulf seeking détente. Recently, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif toured several of those countries—but not Saudi Arabia, still sullenly hostile to Iran—seeking to improve relation with Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. (Iran already has good ties to Oman, another GCC member, and in fact Oman happily hosted secret talks between Iran and the United States in the period before the interim accord was reached in November between Iran and the P5+1.) In an important sign that Iran is genuinely seeking to better relations with the Arab states of the gulf, according to Defense News Iran has moved a squadron of air force and Revolutionary Guard warplanes off the disputed island of Abu Musa in the middle of the Persian Gulf. The island, occupied by Iran since the Shah seized it in 1971, has long been a point of contention between Iran and the UAE, and during his swing through the gulf recently Zarif told the UAE that Iran was willing to talk about resolving the standoff.
Also touring the Gulf, this weekend, however, is US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who seemed intent on bolstering the American military role in Iran’s backyard. Reported The Washington Post:
Speaking to American sailors standing at attention on the deck of the USS Ponce, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel vowed on Friday that the United States would keep a robust military presence in the Persian Gulf and build stronger ties with the region’s Arab states, even as it pursues negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.
Hagel visited Bahrain, where Saudi Arabia’s armed forces violently suppressed a pro-democracy movement in 2011, and as the Post noted without irony: “Hagel appeared more interested in mollifying the monarchs than the protesters.”
In a speech that provided a detailed summary of the American military footprint in the all-important region, Hagel told the assembly of GCC defense poohbahs in what’s called the Manama Dialogue—Manama is the capital of the island nation of Bahrain—that the United States upping the ante: