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Gulf states and Iran: don't moan, act

The international deal over Iran reveals the weakness of Arab Gulf diplomacy. It's time for a new approach, says Khaled Hroub.

Khaled Hroub
29 November 2013

Many politicians in the Arab Gulf countries have a straightforward view of the famous (or notorious) phone-call between Barack Obama and Hassan Rowhani in late September 2013, and the ensuing American-Iranian rapprochement that on 24 November produced a landmark agreement on Iran's nuclear programme and the sanctions regime. They regard it all as a "stab in the back" - a betrayal by their United States ally. Their governments may feel obliged to offer lukewarm support, but privately the same judgment can be heard.

All Gulf governments see the United States as the main guarantor of their survival, against what is perceived to be the main threat to their national security: Iran. Their fear, not without reason, is that any "grand bargain" between Washington and Tehran could be at their expense.

The Gulf’s dismay at the turning of a new page between the US and Iran is widely understood, even by those who take a more positive view of the diplomatic process between these bitter adversaries. Where there is less sympathy is the Gulf states' combination of moaning and inaction. True, Saudi Arabia's refusal to take up its long-sought seat on the United Nations Security Council is a form of negative action, but it is also part of a pattern of endless, random, angry statements which amount to no more than a venting of frustration.

If Washington's "turn" over signals a shift in its policy in the region, there is a need for careful consideration of what actually can be done to offset it. But what could and should the Gulf states do regarding potential US-Iran reconciliation, beyond complaining? Here are four suggestions.

Two steps...

The first step is for Gulf states to stop issuing empty and unrealistic threats that they will downgrade links with the US and steer toward the east - China, and maybe Russia - for strategic alliances and security guarantees. This is pointless, as everyone knows it is not going to happen. Instead, their strategy should be focused on forceful engagement with both the US and Iran. A new, assertive Gulf strategy should abandon perch-on-the fence-and-hope-for-the-best as an approach; anchor itself on the notion of "accepted differences within the alliance"; and take a much firmer approach toward foreign-policy disagreements, even with the US, where necessary.

The second step follows: that the Gulf states should be an integral part of any international bargain with Iran (exactly as Iran demands to be part of any solution of the Syrian crisis). If Gulf states continue to accept a mere observer role, leaving Washington effectively in charge of their destinies, they will be perpetuating a deep strategic mistake. Both recent and longer-term events in the region show that the Gulf states' carte blanche (perhaps unwitting) to the US over regional issues has proven disastrous.

These states did nothing to prevent military intervention in Iraq in 2003 or to correct the mismanagement of the country in the aftermath, believing that the US administration knew what it was doing. The result was in practice to hand Iraq strategically to Iran. More recently, the same timid approach has repeated the error in Syria. The Gulf states first rallied behind the US’s non-strategy there, thus wasting opportunities during the non-violent phase of the revolution when effective intervention could have been justified. Then they stood meekly behind the US's "red lines" over military support to the Syrian rebels, thus allowing Iranian influence in Syria to grow further. 

Indeed, the rising influence of Iran is at the top of the Gulf states' strategic concerns. The Gulf policymakers, mindful that it is their region and Iran is their neighbour, should have stood firm and pursued their own interest over Syria, even if it meant disagreeing with the US. The problem was compounded when the Gulf countries (Qatar excepted) wasted their time, effort and money by getting involved in the wrong fight at the wrong time in Egypt.

...and two more

The third step in a new approach by the Gulf states follows: to rebuild the region's former "moderate camp" alongside Egypt and Turkey. This has suffered a deep fracturing, in large part because the short-sighted Gulf politics regarding Egypt. Over nearly two years, a concerted Gulf effort was mobilised pre-emptively to quash the Muslim Brotherhood in post-revolution Egypt. This angered Turkey’s Islamist-leaning government, which was much closer to the Brotherhood. Turkish-Gulf relations froze, taking with them the Egypt-Gulf-Turkey triangular alliance - perhaps the only strategic alliance capable of stopping Iranian expansion.

While the Gulf states were wasting time in Egypt, alienating Turkey along the way, Iran and Hizbollah were strengthening their position in Syria, shoring up the regime, and cementing a new balance of power under the Russian umbrella. A reversal of this damage would require the Gulf states recognising the damage a weakened and polarised Egypt represents, and encouraging Egypt's military regime to adopt inclusive policies and reconcile with the Brotherhood.

The fourth step is to reclaim the Palestinian issue and put it at the head of the regional agenda. This would involve a twofold effort by the Gulf governments: stay very close to and be supportive of the Palestinians in the peace talks and beyond (particularly to counter Iranian rhetoric that it is they who "defend" the Palestinians), and embrace a disarrayed Hamas. The movement's support for the Brotherhood regime in Cairo was at the cost of its close relationship with Iran and Syria. The movement has been one of the greatest losers of the "Arab spring".

Many voices within Hamas, now exposed and under no regional umbrella, press for a return to Iran. This would add yet another card to Iran's hand, and reinforce Tehran's boast that it is the ultimate beacon of resistance. Here as elsewhere, moaning alone is never going to prevent negative outcomes. The Gulf states need to get real.

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