John Kerry's visit to the Gulf this week is clearly aimed at trying to reassure key Arab states over U.S. policy toward Iran. But the secretary of state has a problem: If it has feathers, swims and quacks, then chances are it's a duck.
The reality is that no matter how much reassurance Kerry provides, there's no soothing away an emerging reality: The Obama administration's nuclear deal with Iran has begun to change a decadeslong patch of confrontation into the beginnings of an accommodation. And there's likely no going back. So while the Gulf states and Israel may see some advantage in delaying Iran's nuclear problem with this deal, it will not be enough to help them overcome their fears of Teheran's regional aspirations -- or America's seeming willingness to acquiesce to them.
Iran's lawyer: John Kerry has found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to defend an Iranian regime that may be abiding by the letter of the nuclear agreement, but which even in the President's own words has not kept the spirit of the accord. So Kerry is left to point out all of Iran's transgressions, but continues to make the argument that Iran without a nuke is less dangerous than Iran with the bomb.
That may be true enough. But the Gulf States, particularly the Saudis, only see Iranian regional behavior getting worse. The United Arab Emirates' ambassador to the United Statesargued just this week, for example, that while the UAE had a great deal to gain from normalized relations with Iran, that Teheran was "as dangerous as ever." Indeed, every time the United States fails to oppose Iran's actions in the region strongly enough, each time it promises to lift additional sanctions, or says it will facilitate Iran's access to dollar accounts, the Gulf states wonder what is it about Teheran behavior that Washington doesn't understand.
Iran's behavior: It was certainly no surprise that in the wake of the nuclear deal that Iran -- this time with more resources at its disposal -- was going to continue its regional aspirations for influence and power. Its ballistic missile tests run against the language in UNSC Resolution 2231, it has supplied weapons to the Houthis in Yemen and backs the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Meanwhile, it supports pro-Iranian Shia militias in Iraq.
Such moves prompted the Bahraini foreign minister to tell Kerry flat out that Iran's "hegemonic interventions are continuing unabated". Meanwhile, any notion that the so-called Iranian reformers or moderates have the power to influence the conservatives and national security establishment control over foreign policy was put to rest just last month when Iran's Supreme Leaderpublicly opposed former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's statement that the future belonged to a world of negotiations not missiles and instead backed the ballistic missile program.
Deep suspicions: Behind all the concern over Iran is a deeper fear on the part of America's traditional allies -- Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Israel -- that the United States no longer considers the Middle East a priority. From exhaustion from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the failure to use more force in Syria and the acquiescence to Russia's intervention there, to falling oil prices to a president who seems ready to reach out to adversaries and criticize old friends -- all have combined to create real suspicions of U.S. intentions. (President Obama's comment to The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg suggesting that some allies were "free riders" apparently stunned the Saudis and even some of Kerry's own staff).
But the Mister Rogers-like notion that Obama expressed in the Atlantic interview that the regional parties will have to learn to share their neighborhood is one that fundamentally contradicts the Arab states' and Israel's view of the Iranian threat -- and what they had believed was a strong U.S. commitment to blocking Iran's rise.
Of course, U.S. allies are far from perfect. The Saudis, for example, have been exporting a fundamentalist Wahhabist ideology for years, and have hardly helped moderate anti-Shia sentiment, nor the widespread anti-Semitic and anti-U.S. narratives that have been loosed in the Sunni world. And the administration's differences with the Israeli leadership are well known. But both are allies, and both are uncomfortable with the direction of U.S. policy on Iran.
Of course, if Teheran's behavior were actually moderating, the administration would have a stronger case to make. But it hasn't. And when Obama visits Saudi Arabia later this month, he's likely to find the Saudis and others as adamant as ever that Teheran is part of the problem not part of the solution. And they may well be thinking to themselves that the Obama administration itself is becoming part of the problem, too.
Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President. Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.