Arab Gulf states: the Iran complex

About the author
Emile El-Hokayem is a middle-east analyst at the Henry L Stimson Center in Washington. He is co-author (with Matteo Legrenzi) of The Arab Gulf States in the Shadow of the Iranian Nuclear Challenge (2006).

On 31 July 2006, the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 1696 giving Iran exactly one month – until 31 August – to stop its uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities. Iran has responded to the imminent deadline with a flurry of statements and proposals that have a single common theme: a determination to continue with its nuclear programme.

The fact that the resolution was passed by fourteen-to-one, and that the sole dissenting vote was that of the tiny state of Qatar, the only Arab member of the Security Council, has received less attention than it deserves. Qatar's vote sheds considerable light on the regional aspects of the evolving dispute between Iran and the "international community".

Qatar may have a peculiar foreign policy, one that both skilfully caters to the west (by, for example, hosting United States military bases) and accommodates Arab public opinion (think al-Jazeera), but in this case it could hardly have acted differently. After all, the vote took place in the third week of Israel's war in Lebanon, amid growing outrage in the Arab world at the destruction and at the UN's suspected double-standards (why, Arabs asked, could the Security Council pass a resolution on Iran but not act on Lebanon?).

It was a revealing moment. Qatar may occasionally have serious disputes with some of its Arab partners (including neighbours in the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC]), but it faces the same regional environment, deals with the same pan-Arab expectations and makes similar calculations as them. In his statement to the UN Security Council, Qatar's representative emphasised his concern over adding to an already "inflamed" region, Qatar's proximity to Iran and his country's belief that more time should be afforded to diplomacy. Thus, at one volatile moment in international relations, Qatar felt compelled to take a diplomatic position that was at odds with the western powers' expectation that Qatar - and other Arab states - have an interest in standing with them in criticising Iran's nuclear behaviour.

There is a mix of frustration, perplexity and resignation in the United States about the reluctance of the Arab Gulf states to take more decisive and concerted actions concerning Iran's nuclear programme. As Iran slowly emerges as the dominant power in the Persian Gulf, one would indeed expect its nearby Arab neighbours to join the international effort to curb its nuclear ambitions. After all, they will be the ones to live with the implications of a more confident Iran, especially if it succeeds at the same time in imposing itself as the foremost Islamic champion and in exploiting to its advantage the tensions between pro-western Arab governments and their staunchly anti-US populations.

Under these circumstances the uneasy restraint that characterises the attitude of the Arab Gulf states in dealing with Iran's nuclear challenge may seem puzzling.

Emile El-Hokayem is a middle-east analyst at the Henry L Stimson Center in Washington. He is co-author (with Matteo Legrenzi) of The Arab Gulf States in the Shadow of the Iranian Nuclear Challenge (Henry L Stimson Center, 2006)

Also in openDemocracy on Iran and its Arab neighbours:

Raymond Barrett, "Iran through Arab eyes" (10 May 2006)

Hazem Saghieh, "Iran's politics: constants and variables" (12 May 2006)

The view to Tehran

In reality, the position of these states reflects the strategic predicament they face. Iran, regardless of the nature of its regime, is there to stay, and alienating today this powerful neighbour would only guarantee more insecurity in the future. For countries obsessed with stability, a necessary condition of their economic development and hence survival, avoiding yet another major interstate war, is paramount. This is why one can sense deep anguish in the Gulf at the prospect of an American strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. A weakened Iran will become angry and lash out at those seen as having favoured a military solution.

Therefore, to placate Tehran and dissociate themselves from the United States, Arab Gulf states repeatedly make public statements supporting Iran's right to nuclear energy and criticising western attempts to impose sanctions on Iran. In Arab Gulf capitals, some make the grim judgment that diplomatic talks may amount to a losing battle and that Iran is set on its course, in which case the wisdom of joining these efforts at all is questionable.

It also stems from an acknowledgment that in this great-power game, they hold too few cards, and that those who have greater leverage (in particular the five permanent members of the Security Council) should be the prime players. What they have to offer Iran is too little - only the United States and the European Union can offer the kind of economic incentives needed - or too inconceivable; what Iran would want most from them is the withdrawal of all US troops from the region, a non-starter for countries that rely on the US umbrella for their external security.

This fundamental tension explains why so little progress has been made in building a security architecture in the region. Not only do the United States and Iran remain estranged, but the Gulf states themselves refuse to consider a regional arrangement to which the United States is not part.

Disputes between Iran and its Arab Gulf neighbours are numerous, many predating the Islamic revolution, but all exacerbated by Ayatollah Khomeini's activist foreign policy and Tehran-supported unrest and coups in the 1980s. The touchiest remains the territorial dispute between Iran and the United Arab Emirates over three strategically-important islands in the Persian Gulf (behind which also lies continued dispute over the very designation of this stretch of water). But serious differences over land and maritime borders, suspicions of Iranian interference in their domestic affairs and divergent energy policies also remain very much alive.

At a strategic level, the loss of Iraq as their bulwark against Iran and the growing assertiveness of Iran - there and in the Levant - accentuates their profound anxiety about Iranian intentions and potential. The particulars of Iran's daily interactions with the GCC states have not greatly changed (there is no evidence of extraordinary Iranian subversion or bullying at this point), but the Gulf states do observe with anxiety Iranian defiance vis-à-vis the west, activism in the east and extensive involvement in the region.

In this regard, the regular spats over the naming of the body of water that separates the two shores of the Gulf are very telling as a symptom of the enduring distrust and complex societal attitudes that define their relations. In May 2006, the emir of Qatar, after extending congratulations for the performance of Iran's soccer team, stood mortified as President Ahmadinejad of Iran publicly admonished him for referring to the "Arabic Persian Gulf" instead of "Persian Gulf."

Iran: threat or promise?

But the Arab Gulf states's ambiguous – critics would say duplicitous – position also reflects a fundamental difference with the United States over how they perceive Iran. For them, the crux of the problem goes beyond the nature or the behaviour of the regime in Tehran. Rather, it is an eternal, overbearing and nationalistic Iran that worries them. Moreover, their multidimensional relations with Iran – which encompass cultural as well as economic links - mean that they automatically equate "Iran" more with "complexity" and "opportunity" than (as Washington too often does) with "security threat".

While Iran has long been the key player and the only real nation-state in the region, the newer and less established small Arab Gulf states, helped by oil revenues and social and political turmoil in Iran, have made enormous strides in establishing themselves in the global arena, especially in the economic sphere. By meeting the Persian sense of cultural supremacy with their own logic of economic success, Arab Gulf states have gained self-assurance and influence and become key players in their own right.

True, the imbalance of power between Iran and its small Arab Gulf neighbours remains stark, and limits the latter's political options. Power cannot be defined only by GDP per capita or by military capabilities – but taken in its entirety, Iran has more attributes of power than the Gulf states. As a nation-state, Iran is more cohesive and more able, under the right conditions, to capitalise on the loyalty and dynamism of its people. The challenge is whether Tehran can leverage these strengths by reforming politically and economically. As rentier-states facing internal and supranational challenges to their legitimacy, Arab regimes operate on a more shaky ground and must continue to provide tangible economic and social benefits and alternate coercion and cooptation to ensure their grip on power.

Thanks to its own sheer size and considerable economic and soft power, Saudi Arabia is arguably an exception: Riyadh can afford to feel more confident because it has a wider array of instruments to cope with the Iranian challenge. After all, its GDP is more than twice that of Iran, and its centrality to the global economy guarantees lasting political influence and viable options. At the same time, bilateral talks have hitherto failed to alter Iran's nuclear calculations.

Iran signalled early its response to the UN Security Council challenge of 31 July by reiterating its commitment to pursue its nuclear researches, albeit in the context of guarantees to European states about their civilian nature. Alongside other declamatory gestures such as the offer of its president to engage in live debate with George W Bush, this bespeaks a confident resurgence that heralds a new political era in the region.

Arab Gulf states must adjust to Iran's ascendancy. They would be wrong, however, to perceive Iran only in negative terms, as some in the United States and elsewhere would want them to, when the country's promise is equally as great as any threat it might be thought to pose. At the same time, they must define for themselves what type of Iran is in their interest and start articulating a common vision for the region. If they fail to do so, they will remain vulnerable to regional dynamics that – as the embittering and still far from resolved crisis between Iran and the United States suggests – could yet pose real dangers to their security.