There have been divergent views between the GCC states and their strategic partner the US, regarding how to deal with Iran’s hegemonic drive to be the dominant regional power. US President Barack Obama was personally motivated by his desire to leave a lasting legacy as the president who stopped the Iran nuclear programme in its tracks, thus proving worthy of the Nobel peace prize he won in 2009.
The Obama administration pulled all the stops to seal the nuclear deal between the P5+1 major powers and Iran, even paroling Jonathan Pollard, the spy who worked and passed on secret military information 30 years ago for Israel after he was sentenced to life in prison, to offset Netanyahu’s vociferous opposition to the nuclear deal. The US also sent US Secretary of State John Kerry and US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter to reassure its worried allies that the nuclear deal was not a sellout. But the fact remains: the nuclear deal leaves Iran a threshold nuclear state.
Obama personally maintains the nuclear deal will act as a prelude for a realignment and Iran’s cooperation over other regional issues mainly to combat extremism and terrorism in the region led by Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). Iran’s help in the American perspective was needed and sought after. The Iranians with their shrewd bargaining exploited this need and extracted concessions as much as they caved in in the process of bringing the nuclear deal to fruition. Both the Obama administration and Iran have argued that the nuclear deal will open new horizons of cooperation over mutual issues. Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif maintained: “Good nuke deal could lead to cooperation in fight against extremism.” And I add, sedition! He repeated the same line during his visit to Kuwait and Qatar at the end of July, calling for cooperation in common interests to fight extremism, terrorism and sectarianism and thwart threats and challenges.
The GCC states fear the Iran nuclear deal will give Iran the legitimacy, the cash and relieve Iran from the clutches of sanctions thus transforming it from a pariah state to an emboldened actor with an unchecked and free hand to expand its ongoing project to aid its proxies with impunity and to menace its neighbours.
This is evident in Iran’s post-nuclear deal behaviour, its bellicose statements and actions of defiance. The Supreme leader Ali Khamenei lashed out: “The US president has said he could knock out Iran’s military...We welcome no war, nor do we initiate any war, but if any war happens, the one who will emerge loser will be the aggressive and criminal US.”
Iran’s post-nuclear deal behaviour was evident in Bahrain, two weeks after the nuclear accord was signed. The Bahraini interior Ministry announced the uncovering of a Bahraini cell that was trained and armed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to carry out terrorist acts in Bahrain. Few days after the Bahraini Foreign Ministry summoned the Iranian Charge D’affaires to protest Iran’s Supreme leader’s provocative statement describing the Bahraini people as “oppressed”; a terrorist explosive killed two Bahraini policemen. A day later a Saudi policeman was killed in majority Shiite Al Qatif governorate in eastern Saudi Arabia.
These attacks in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, coupled with Khamenei’s stance that Iran won’t change its narrative and policy in the region post-Iran nuclear deal, and Zarif’s blunt argument in Kuwait, that Iran does not have to change its foreign policy, instead arguing “change should come from those countries that seek conflict and wars in the region!” have much to say about Tehran’s attitude. Enough of the wishful thinking by Obama that the nuclear deal will moderate Iran’s behaviour, soften its rhetoric and stop its violent intervention and sectarian agenda in the region.
Iran’s behaviour, its top officials arrogant and provocative statements, confirm the GCC’s leadership, and its intellectuals and academics fear, as this writer has argued for too long — that the Iran deal will throw up stances contrary to what the Obama administration maintains will happen.
The US argument is that as Iran will have a stake and is part of the solution to regional crises and conflict it will stop being part of the problem. But is this a realistic conclusion? There is little confidence that Iran which is engaged in a cold war with its GCC neighbours, will use its leverage and influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen to bring its proxies to their senses and stop undermining the stability of those states and societies. The GCC states have welcomed the nuclear deal if it moderates and rationalises Iran’s behaviour and, imposes ironclad commitments and guarantees that the deal will put an end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But have little confidence that this will be the outcome.
On the other hand, the GCC states’ narrative, is diametrically opposite to that of the US. We have maintained the nuclear deal will embolden Iran, will give Iran international legitimacy, rehabilitation, opportunities by dangling the carrots of close to $200 billion (Dh734 billion) in investments and privatisation projects, especially in its much needed oil sector. This will inject will in Iran’s leadership psyche and cash in its coffers that will be translated into bold and provocative statements of policy and action, to stand up to its foes in the region, especially Saudi Arabia. We have been proven right. If anyone tracks Iran’s statements, actions and narrative since the nuclear deal was signed, he can’t miss the euphoric, emboldened and defiant Iran.
From the GCC perspective, the nuclear deal has ended Iran’s status as a pariah state, has put to rest the notion of regime change, and has overlooked Iran’s infamous role as the leading state sponsor of terrorism, and brushed aside Iran’s abysmal human rights record. What irks the GCC states is how the nuclear deal has overlooked Iran’s proxy’s role of fomenting sectarianism from Afghanistan to Lebanon and in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. It has also downplayed Iran’s shenanigans and meddling in GCC and Arab affairs.
At the strategic level, the Iran deal is ushering in a new Middle East, with shifting alliances. A new Gulf security architecture could emerge, in which Iran has all the tools and means to be the region’s hegemon, elevating its stature and upgrading its status, at the expense of downgrading the GCC states strategic value. Therefore, the GCC states fear the nuclear deal will cement the US realignment away from its steady partners in the region and move it closer to Iran.
But what are the realistic options that the GCC states have to deal with in this game-changing development? That will be discussed in my next column.
Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is A Professor of Political Science at Kuwait University. He was the former chairman of the Political Science Department, Kuwait University. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@docshayji