The GCC and Iran’s Battles to Lose
The GCC’s divided outlook on Tehran’s future role in the Middle East will impact Iran’s ability to improve relations with its Sunni Arab neighbors—an ambitious agenda on Tehran’s part given the ongoing conflicts in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, which are largely fueled by Saudi Arabia and Iran’s geopolitical rivalry. The Iranian Supreme Leader’s remarks two days after the nuclear deal was signed that Iran would continue to back “the people of Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon” unsettled certain GCC officials who interpreted Ayatollah Khamenei’s words as confirmation that Tehran remains committed to backing certain Arab nonstate actors on hostile terms with Riyadh and other GCC members.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia does not appear to be softening its stance against Iran. To the contrary, since the agreement was signed, Riyadh has aggressively flexed its muscles against Tehran. The kingdom’s overtures to Hamas, the Egyptian and Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood branches (and even more extremist Sunni Islamist factions—such as Al Qaeda’s Syrian division, Jabhat al-Nusra) factor into King Salman’s strategy of shoring up Sunni Arab unity in order to counter Tehran’s influence. The Saudi-led coalition’s stepped-up attacks against its enemies in Yemen, and the kingdom’s increased support for hardline jihadist militias in Syria (which is said to be contributing significantly to the Syrian Army’s recent setbacks on the ground) indicate that the nuclear agreement has not altered Riyadh’s perception of Iran as a menace that must be confronted forcefully, not engaged diplomatically.
Israel, the only member of the international community to officially oppose the nuclear deal, also factors in the equation. Despite the ideological paradoxes of the Jewish State and Wahhabi kingdom’s tacit alliance, the two states’ shared concerns about expanded Iranian influence resulting from the nuclear agreement may further strengthen their bilateral cooperation. By launching strikes last month against fourteen Syrian military posts in the Golan Heights (which, according to the Israeli military, belonged to a “terror cell” responsible for an Iranian-orchestrated attack against Northern Israel), Tel Aviv sent a signal to Tehran about its ongoing efforts to counter Iran’s regional influence as U.S.-Iranian relations improve.
However, continuation of conflict in Syria and elsewhere comes at the expense of the GCC and Iran’s security. The regional powers with opposing stakes in these conflicts must accept that continued arming of their respective proxies is unlikely to produce total victory for either side. Such stalemates in regional crises create power vacuums that are most effectively exploited by extremist groups, which have their sights set on both the GCC and Iran.
The smaller GCC states will have to determine whether their long-term security strategies reside in uniting behind Saudi Arabia (and by extension, Israel) in fighting Iran through seemingly endless proxy wars, or in deeper engagement with Tehran. Oman’s recent hosting of a delegation sent by Damascus, Zarif’s “charm offensive” in the GCC, and meetings between Saudi Arabian and Russian officials about the Syrian crisis justify cautious optimism about regional actors exploring potential diplomatic openings following the Iranian nuclear agreement. Yet, as blood continues to spill on the Middle East’s battlefields, and as questions related to the future of Bashar al-Assad in Syria remain an unbridgeable gap between the powers involved in Syria, bridging the gulf between Riyadh and Tehran on such regional crises may appear to be more of a fantasy than a likely outcome of recent diplomatic initiatives on the part of Russia, Iran and the GCC.
In 1981, the six Arab monarchies of the Western Persian Gulf formed the GCC, ostensibly to pursue various objectives, such as adopting a common currency, promoting cultural exchange and growing each country’s tourism sector—even though the primary driving force behind the GCC’s creation was an interest in creating a united Gulf Arab front against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Thirty-four years later, suspicions of Iranian meddling in the GCC remain a unifying force among the six Council members. However, the six GCC states’ foreign policies vis-à-vis Tehran differ due to their divergent perceptions about the nature and magnitude of the alleged Iranian threat, as well as strategies for addressing it.
Many regional and Western businesses are waiting with great anticipation for the opportunity to do business with Iran. This is having an impact on current policy making for all the nations seeking commercial relations with Iran, and will likely do so for many years to come. Undoubtedly, the smaller Gulf Arab monarchies will face difficult questions as they weigh the pros and cons of exploring a more open relationship with Iran, particularly with respect to its effect on their alliances with Saudi Arabia.
If GCC officials slowly pivot toward the perception that their long-term interests reside in an improved relationship toward Iran, such a strategic shift would be seen in Riyadh as an erosion of GCC unity against an emboldened Iran. Yet, as Daesh’s sights remain set on the monarchies of the Western Persian Gulf, there is reason to expect this imminent threat to be the catalyst that further aligns the smaller GCC states with Iran, at the expense of the Council’s apparent unity against the Islamic Republic.
Giorgio Cafiero is Founder of Gulf State Analytics. Daniel Wagner is Founder and CEO of Country Risk Solutions.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/LConstantino