North Africa, West Asia

Establishing equilibrium in the Gulf: in search of a pragmatic agenda for stability and security

The Gulf countries and Iran need to address their mutually contentious foreign policy issues, such as Syria, Iran's nuclear programme, and their relationships with the US.

Robert Mason
7 May 2014

The current foreign policy tensions between Iran and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) pivot around Iran's nuclear programme, ideology (the relative balance between revolutionary/resistance ideology and pragmatism), sectarianism, territorial disputes (such as over the islands of Abu Musa, Greater and Lesser Tunb) and alliances with state and non-state actors. Iranian foreign policy is premised on negative historical events that have highlighted its insecurity, from the British and Soviet invasion in 1941 to uneven international support during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, and US containment policies imposed by the Clinton administration in the 1990s and extended by the UN Security Council.

To narrow the broad range of foreign policy challenges being faced by the Gulf states, it is necessary to focus on the most contentious issues: Syria, the nuclear tensions which heighten fears of unbridled Iranian support for an active "Shia Crescent" from the Levant through the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, and the impact of President Obama's support for more normalised relations with Iran on Saudi foreign policy calculations.

On Syria, Gulf states including Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been engaged in competing for influence over Syrian opposition groups. Saudi Arabia has been supporting the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – in stark contrast to Iran's support for the Assad regime – but is also attempting to buttress the Lebanese military with a $3 billion grant. By doing so, it reduces the likelihood of provoking another retaliation by the Israel Defence Force (IDF), like the invasion of southern Lebanon in 2006. It also provides some form of constraint to Hezbollah's actions in Syria, and more broadly constrains Iran's second-strike capability.

Only recently has King Abdullah attempted to rein in Saudi influence in Syria by preventing Saudi jihadists from fighting with groups such as the Al-Nusra Front (al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). However, this proscription simply reflects increasing concern that fighters return and destabilise the Kingdom, rather than any strategic concern over the form of interaction with Syrian opposition forces. Weapons and training are still flowing into Syria from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, soon to be joined by more support from western allies. However, more needs to be done to resolve the sectarian dimension of the conflict. Diplomats such as Ryan Crocker warn about supporting an exclusive Sunni opposition against al-Assad, pointing to concerns about extremists gaining power, and preferring containment instead.

The Iranian nuclear programme is a particularly important point of tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Riyadh seeks to ratchet up the pressure on Iran in an attempt to resolve the impasse one way or another. The Kingdom has used a range of rhetoric to highlight its position on this challenge and the Syrian conflict, ranging from Prince Turki Al Faisal outlining alternative options such as negotiating a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East (WMDFZME) – a plan which would also pressurize Israel to declare its nuclear programme and commit to arms control and reductions – to foregoing an offer for a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council. In May 2014, Saudi Arabia moved to illustrate its dissatisfaction in this area by carrying out its largest-ever military exercises, with the participation of Pakistan, a close ally and potential nuclear guarantor.

Some degree of triangulation is necessary to accurately contextualise GCC-Iranian relations, and to a great extent this is the USA. Not only is the US a local power in the Gulf region and largely depended on for Gulf security, but it is also the global actor that has impinged most on Iranian foreign policy. Should the Obama administration allow more normalised relations with Tehran to occur, through a broadened agenda for the nuclear negotiations currently led by the P5+1, the US-Iran relationship will be perceived by Riyadh not only to threaten its special relationship with the US government, but also to come at the cost of Saudi regional influence. 

By addressing these points, a re-conceptualisation of Gulf interests could contribute to efforts at conflict resolution, a reduction of anxiety over the rebalancing of regional power, and therefore the normalisation of regional policies beyond containment. It could also find ways to address sectarian issues in a period of turbulence and uncertainty. In summary, there are ways to reconcile apparently disparate and zero-sum GCC and Iranian foreign policy rationales in order to engage more constructively on regional and international issues. Some states such as Oman and the UAE are already making efforts in this regard, and with face-to-face meetings scheduled to take place between President Rouhani and King Abdullah, further progress in this area could soon be made. 

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