For over 37 years, ever since the Islamic revolution in Iran which toppled the Shah and caused a major regional shift and realignment in the Gulf region, the Arabian and Iranian sides of the Gulf have been locked in bitter rivalry, distrust and lately, a cold war atmosphere that has fomented sectarian tensions and proxy wars that stretch from Yemen to Syria.
Over the past few years, I have penned numerous articles in Gulf News, in addition to delivering many lectures on the troubled GCC-Iran relations. I have described this relationship between the two sides as a cold war that keeps getting worse each passing year — with no inkling of a detente on the horizon.
Moreover, I have repeatedly warned of the repercussions of the continued flagrant interference of Iran and its meddling in the affairs of GCC states — which has metastasised to other Arab countries. This is weakening other Arab states, scuppering the chances of peace, as well as fomenting sectarian tensions and exacerbating the arc of the region’s crises.
While the GCC and the United States supported the nuclear deal with Iran, provided it ended its nuclear arms ambitions and stopped it interfering in the affairs of GCC states, we have discovered that we have been wrong-footed by the US and are confused by Washington’s reticence over Iran’s systematic and alarming behaviour. Now we view the nuclear deal with scepticism.
This is especially the case after what was revealed by the Washington-based ‘Institute of Science and International Security’ last week that “The United States and its negotiating partners have allowed Tehran to exceed agreed-upon caps for stockpiles of enriched uranium and other materials...” According to Reuters, which published a summary of the report, “Key exemptions to the deal’s limits were made.”
These decisions, which are written down, amount to additional confidential documents linked to the nuclear deal. Moreover, the Joint Commission’s secretive decision-making process risks granting Iran the advantage by systematically weakening the nuclear deal.
The point is, such concessions, which the Obama administration denies, nevertheless, seem to give Iran the green light it craves to continue its politics as usual with impunity in meddling in its neighbours’ affairs in the period after the nuclear deal and after the lifting of sanctions.
The GCC states were infuriated when US President Barack Obama described them as “free riders”, in his famous interview in The Atlantic. What was provocative was not only Obama’s advice for both Saudi Arabia and Iran to find a way to share the region but his accusations that both rivals were fomenting sectarianism and proxy wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen — accusations which the Saudis and other GCC states find offensive and condescending. To make matters worse, and in Iran’s favour, Obama’s rhetoric has not matched his deeds and behaviour — to reign down Iran’s destabilising activities. It seems there has been subordination of the GCC’s security and well-being, in favour of reaching a nuclear deal. This explains why the Obama administration tolerates Iran’s shenanigans and meddling in the GCC affairs, upping the ante in Syria, and not fulfilling Obama’s pledge at Camp David to “counter Iran’s destabilising behaviour.”
This hands-off strategy by the US seems to have convinced Iran to act with impunity to advance its hegemonic project under the guise of coordinating and cooperating with the US in the fight against Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and other terrorist organisations. As a result it comes as no surprise, to read the latest issue of the New Statesman, titled: ‘Syria’s World War: How the West allowed Russia and Iran to take control’.
From a GCC perspective, what exacerbates the GCC states’ security dilemma is the Obama administration’s obsession with the Iran nuclear deal, and its willingness to overlook Iran’s actions when it comes to the affairs of other Arab states, in addition to its preferring to maintain the nuclear deal at any cost. Moreover, America’s hands-off approach is undermining both GCC security, the strong and reliable GCC-US partnership, and as well US interests.
The ongoing cold war between Iran and the GCC states reached a tipping point after the attacks and burning of the Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran, which resulted in the severing of diplomatic and trade relations between the two countries. Then the poisonous atmosphere escalated following Iran’s decision to boycott this year’s Haj, with over half of Arab countries either severing or downgrading their diplomatic ties with Iran, or recalling their ambassadors from Tehran and kicking out the Islamic republic’s ambassadors.
GCC states and the Arab League then labelled Lebanon’s Hezbollah a terrorist organisation. Iran was stunned when the final communiqué of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation denounced Tehran’s intervention in Saudi Arabia’s affairs.
The Islamic republic has lost its stature even as it bills itself as a role model for other Muslim countries to emulate. In fact, it is bent on continuing its meddling in Arab world’s affairs. Take, for example, Iran’s boasts that it established a Shiite army in Iraq fashioned after the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and led by the infamous Qasim Sulaimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force. Iran’s continued alarming support of the Popular Mobilisation militias in Iraq continues to undermine the stability of Iraq.
One of the militia’s leaders boasted that they are now more powerful than the Iraqi army itself, thus keeping the Haidar Al Abadi government in Baghdad weak and subordinate.
Iran continues to be a destabilising force in Syria, supporting the thuggish regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. It continues to stonewall in Lebanon — through its ally Hezbollah — by preventing the election of a Lebanese president (it’s been 28 months and 44 unfruitful parliament sessions later).
Iran continues its support to Al Houthi rebels in Yemen who carried out a coup against an elected government two years ago, thus deliberately, prolonging fighting in impoverished Yemen and weakening any political or diplomatic solution to the standoff.
The Iran-Saudi cold war has reached a tipping point, clearly.Iran’s continued destabilising activities and interference, its fuelling of sectarian strife, as well as the training and arming of proxies in GCC states, and upping the ante in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and, through Hezbollah, in Lebanon, is alarming.Clearly, Tehran has not made the needed transformation from a revolution to a state. It is not acting as a responsible actor which could engage in constructive engagement and with confidence-building measures. Unfortunately, Iran continues to act as a revolutionary country with scant regard for the security and stability of our troubled region.
Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is a professor of Political Science and the former chairman of the Political Science Department, Kuwait University. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@docshayji.