Iran and the GCC

The withdrawal of the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has renewed international attention on Iran’s interventions in the Middle East. While much of the Middle East leadership sees Iran as an adept foreign policy actor, which has successfully increased its influence and leverage in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, the country has few meaningful, conventional bilateral relationships. Iran’s relations with the Gulf states are guided by opportunism rather than an overarching strategy. Traditionally, Tehran has focused on Israeli and US threats in the Middle East rather than relations with its southern Gulf neighbours. Over the years, instead of dealing with the GCC as a bloc, Tehran has pursued bilateral relations with Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, capitalizing on internal GCC tensions, which have escalated since the 2017 Qatar crisis. These ties have enabled Tehran to protect itself from past US-led isolation and containment efforts, but have not graduated beyond reactionary, pragmatic engagement. Gulf states, being cognizant of their geography and proximity to Iran and Saudi Arabia, have engaged with Tehran as part of a hedging strategy to balance against pressure from Riyadh. As seen by the Qatar crisis, this hedging policy has exposed deep divisions among the Arab Gulf states. Without accommodation and resolution of the Qatar crisis, relations among the Gulf countries will remain fragmented and encourage further regional instability. Saudi–Iranian relations have dramatically deteriorated, despite a short period of rapprochement. Riyadh sees Iran as the principal regional threat and is cooperating with Washington to pressure and weaken Tehran. Conversely, for decades, Tehran has not considered Riyadh to be a serious regional challenge. It is only in the wake of forthcoming sanctions and Saudi cooperation with the Trump administration that Iran realizes the destabilizing effect of its tensions with Saudi Arabia. This prompted the Rouhani administration to call for dialogue between the two countries. Increased pressure from Washington and from within the region has led Tehran to slowly acknowledge that resolving regional tensions is a necessary ingredient for its domestic and regional stability. Iran’s solution to this is the creation of a new regional security framework. While Saudi Arabia will oppose this, the GCC states with a history of pragmatically dealing with Iran have the potential to facilitate such an outcome and, in the absence of a functioning GCC, can benefit from a new regional security framework that acknowledges the concerns of all states. Ultimately, to be successful and durable, regional de-escalation will require recognition and compromise on the major security issues before addressing the economic and humanitarian portfolios. This will also require the smaller Gulf states, as well as extra-regional actors, to encourage Iran and Saudi Arabia to recognize the exigencies of the changing regional geostrategic landscape and to move beyond short-term calculations and one-upmanship in favour of long-term stability.

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