Gulf security, which has been a constant concern for regional and global powers for the past 40 years, is now facing imminent threats stemming from Iran’s newly hegemonic appetite, interventionist policies and its ceaseless attempts to militarise and nuclearise Gulf security.
The Gulf region is now the epicentre of growing Sunni-Shiite conflict and is becoming the immediate battleground for fierce Saudi-Iran political rivalry which might dominate the geopolitics of Gulf security for years to come. The oil- and gas-rich Gulf is once again drifting towards a state of high uncertainty and heading for a turbulent time with profound consequences for regional and global stability.
During the second half of the 20th century, the imminent strategic threat to Gulf security was global and mostly came from the Soviet Union and the spread of communism. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of the so-called global threat, Gulf security had to confront a deadly regional threat emanating from the 1979 revolution in Iran. The rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran introduced a huge dose of instability throughout the region and ignited among other things an eight-year Iran-Iraq war which was dubbed the longest and costliest war of the 20th century.
Yet as soon as the world managed to contain the destabilising revolutionary force, global terrorism represented by Al Qaida emerged as the new threat to Gulf security. Al Qaida and global terrorism were considered the paramount danger to the Gulf states and to oil-and-gas installations for nearly two decades. The war on terror is still on full scale but terrorism no longer dominates the current thinking on Gulf security.
Nowadays Iran is emerging as the most dangerous state around and the number one state sponsor of terror in the world. The threat of Iran to Gulf security has many manifestations, one of which is the escalating tension between Riyadh and Tehran. The growing political and ideological rivalry between the top two Gulf oil giants dominates the current phase of Gulf security and most likely will stay for years to come.
Radical Iran and Khomeinism has been around for the past three decades but there is a new awareness that Iran is becoming more threatening than it was at its inception in 1979. Time and again Iran has threatened to turn the Gulf into hell and keeps repeating it will close the Strait of Hormuz. Lately, Iranian speedboats have made aggressive and dangerous manoeuvres in Gulf waters. 2016 has seen the worst of these naval escalations.
Iran has also actively engaged in spreading sectarianism in the neighbourhood. It regularly intervenes in the internal affairs of its immediate Gulf neighbours. It now openly proclaims itself the de facto policeman of the Gulf. Indeed these days there is more Iran and less America in the Gulf waters. None of this is reassuring to Arab Gulf states and it should not be taken lightly by global powers with vast interests in energy resources.
Iran’s aggressive behaviour in the security-sensitive Gulf inflates further instability in one of the most fragile regions in the world. Viewed from the perspective of the six Arab Gulf states, Iran poses an existential threat to them. It is considered threat number one, two, three and more to Gulf security.
Since the signing of the nuclear deal, Iran has taken its appetite for regional expansionism to a new height. It has unleashed numerous non-state Shiite actors that are playing havoc in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.
They are mostly in revengeful mode against Sunni communities, committing atrocities wherever they land. These non-state Shiite actors are the new beast in town and are no different from the extremist Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).
But unlike Daesh they have a direct link to Tehran and act as agents for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
The new Iran threat to Gulf security is much more potent than previous threats of the past 50 years. Saudi Arabia has vowed to stand up to expansionist, sectarian, and anti-status quo Iran. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir, in his Wall Street Journal article, made it clear that Khomeinism is the danger that needs to be confronted and defeated collectively. The fight against Iran’s expansionism and the spread of Khomeinism is becoming a matter of life and death to Riyadh as well as to the other Gulf capitals.
US turns its back on its allies
It is a pity that the US, which once proclaimed the Gulf as vital, is turning its back on the region. Other global capitals with heavy reliance on Gulf energy show little concern for Iran’s growing threat to Gulf security and the danger it represents to the delicate balance in a region that holds an estimated 66 per cent of the world’s proven oil reserves and 35 per cent of its natural gas reserves.
The new threat to Gulf security is no longer global or regional. It is Iran centred. Persianisation of the Arab Gulf, Shiitisation of Sunni Muslims and the Iranisation of Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria are all part of Iran’s long-term objectives. These are the new threats to Gulf security.
If the international community keeps underestimating the threat Iran poses and remains reluctant to stand up to its visible hegemonic posture, dark days are looming large on the horizon when it comes to Gulf security.
Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla is professor of Political Science, chairman of the Arab Council for Social Sciences, theacss.org and a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Abdulkhaleq_UAE.