One may not realise it from the current heated rhetoric and geopolitical power play, but the long-term interests of the Gulf states may well be in a US-Iran detente that opens the way for their own rapprochement with Tehran.
The recent softening of US-Iran relations has stirred an acrimonious debate in the Gulf and fed a popular conspiracy theory, which holds that the US and Iran are plotting together to weaken the Arab Gulf states. Variations claim that the two countries have plans to divide these states and share the spoils or subordinate Arab interests to those of Iran.
Such notions are far-fetched given the US and Iran’s deep animosity and conflicting policies on numerous issues such as the Syria crisis and Iran’s nuclear file. Propagating this elaborate narrative allows regional governments to avoid addressing the core issues behind their own political turmoil. It may even very well be that Gulf governments genuinely believe that they will ultimately fall victim to this grand scheme.
The election of the comparatively pragmatic Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president did not diminish some Gulf states’ perception of threat emanating from Iran. In his first few months in office, Rouhani has tried to change his regime’s image abroad and adopt a more welcoming approach.
He recently described Saudi Arabia as a “friend and brother” of Iran and emphasised the need for increased cooperation with the kingdom. Nonetheless, Gulf states remain cautious and do not foresee any major change in Iran’s foreign policy. They vividly remember that Iran’s nuclear programme accelerated and its regional ambitions grew under Mohammad Khatami’s ostensibly reformist presidency.
Relations between the Gulf states and Iran have never been particularly strong; Iran’s revolutionary impulse in the 80’s has scarred its Arab neighbours. The mellowing of the Khomeinist zeal in the 90’s led to a rapprochement between the Gulf states and Iran that culminated in reciprocated high level visits and denser trade relations.
However, the coming to power of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, competition over Iraq and Iran’s nuclear drive have reversed the gains achieved under Rafsanjani and Khatami.
The Gulf states’ fears of being downgraded as US allies may not be completely unfounded. The strong pre-revolution US-Iran relations serve as a reminder that should the US soften its approach to Iran, it could come at the expense of the Gulf states. In 2007, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour interviewed an unnamed high-ranking Iranian government official who stated that Iran and the US are “natural allies” because “now the major threat for both Iran and the US is Al Qaida”. Last year, a Washington think-tank published a report in which it highlighted that “a post-Mullah” Iran should be considered “a potential natural partner in the region”, and that it can ultimately become “a net contributor to security”. It is this logic upon which this above-described theory is based. In an interview with a Kuwaiti newspaper, Bahrain’s Commander-in-Chief Marshal Khalifa Bin Ahmad Al Khalifa was quoted saying that the West has “no permanent friends” and that its interests often aligned with those of Iran.
That said, US-Gulf relations have endured setbacks even prior to the recent developments. While the Gulf states pushed for the US-led intervention in Libya in 2011, they remain at odds with Washington over regional matters and the wisdom of backing political change in the Arab world.
The cautious US approach to post-Mursi Egypt contrasts with the Gulf states’ (except Qatar) buoyant relief that the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from power. At the same time, the US-Russian deal over Syria’s chemical weapons undercut the Gulf states’ more hawkish approach.
More importantly, the Gulf states object to Washington’s attention to political reform and human rights in their countries, most noticeably in Bahrain. This rift culminated in Saudi Arabia’s recent decision to forego its seat in the UN Security Council, a gesture widely interpreted as signalling the kingdom’s dissatisfaction with US policies in the region.
Gulf-US relations are unlikely to change drastically in the short or the medium terms given the Gulf states’ dependency on US regional security guarantees. For decades, these states have preferred entering bilateral defence agreements with the US as opposed to developing a more coordinated, cooperative and integrated approach to security. For the time-being, finding alternatives to the US’ role is not only going to be a costly and prolonged process, but it is likely that it will not be sufficient.
The Gulf states’ hostility to Iran differs in tone and substance. If Saudi Arabia and the UAE remain ideologically and strategically at odds with Iran, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait have hedged, adopting more accommodating stances.
In particular, Oman’s special relationship with Iran has endured regional tensions as illustrated by the low-key mediation role of Sultan Qaboos who visited Tehran lately. Qatar’s independent foreign policy culminated in a strong relationship with Iran, which has only been tested recently over the Syrian crisis. Kuwait’s dealings with Iran can be rocky at times, but their diplomatic and economic ties remain one of the strongest among Gulf states.
In spite of the current tensions in US-Gulf relations, the Gulf states should not view changes in US policy in the region as a zero-sum game. A detente with Iran does not necessarily come at the expense of the Gulf states. In fact, if smartly approached, they may even benefit from such a development.
A diplomatic resolution of the Iran nuclear file will avert military action and save the region from further destabilisation. Additionally, the Gulf states should not hesitate to use their influence in Washington and articulate a clear and positive agenda that addresses key regional issues such as the three UAE disputed islands and the role of Iran’s proxies in the region. That is not to mention that fewer sanctions could ultimately revive and encourage business between some Gulf cities and Iran.
Of course, sobriety remains in order: This will be a bumpy process fraught with uncertainties. Mistrust and spoilers abound on all sides, and Iran maintains a capacity to harm and manipulate the Gulf states’ internal faultlines if need be. A relative detente in the Gulf may also not extend to the Levant. A partial accommodation is no panacea.
While the Gulf states can do little about several sources of angst, an outreach to Iran would demonstrate confidence and a sense that they can shape their fate instead of being just victims of geopolitical games.
Wafa Al Sayed is a research analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Bahrain. Her research focuses on Gulf politics and security. You can follow her on twitter on @WafaAlsayed.