Commentary

Will Trump Take Seriously the Arab Gulf States' Concerns about Iran?

Cinzia Bianco and Giorgio Cafiero

Cinzia Bianco is an analyst at Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical consultancy. Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.

As pundits begin assessing U.S. President Barack Obama’s lasting legacy in the Middle East, the historic Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iranian nuclear deal, will play a key role in defining it. The foreign-policy establishment in Washington and other Western capitals have hailed the watershed accord as a diplomatic breakthrough that spared the Middle East another potentially catastrophic war and ensured that, for at least 10 to 15 years, Iran will not have the means to develop a nuclear weapon.1 Most Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) officials’ support for the nuclear deal, however, was lukewarm. From the perspective of Saudi Arabia and other GCC states, the lifting of sanctions on Tehran has strategically and financially empowered Iran to further project and consolidate its influence across the region.

Throughout the JCPOA negotiations, Arab Gulf leaders certainly viewed the possibility of Iran one day acquiring a nuclear weapon as a major threat, but mostly in terms of the immense deterrent power that such an arsenal would have provided Tehran. Ultimately, the GCC states’ top concerns about Iran relate not to the country’s nuclear program, but to Tehran’s regional policy, in terms of both the goals and methods of the Islamic Republic. The UAE ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, articulated this viewpoint in the Wall Street Journal, writingthat President Obama was “perhaps” correct to say that the Iranian nuclear deal made “the world safer,” yet “only in the short term” because “behind all the talk of change, the Iran we have long known — hostile, expansionist, violent — is alive and well, and as dangerous as ever.” Pointing to Tehran’s testing of ballistic missiles, Otaiba concluded that, since the JCPOA’s passage, “Iran has only doubled down on its posturing and provocations.”2

 

Post-1979 “Iranian Threat” to Arab Gulf States

After the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and throughout the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), in which GCC countries largely supported Saddam Hussein, Iranian authorities used revolutionary narratives to inspire marginalized Shiite communities in the Arab Gulf states to revolt against their Sunni monarchs. Amid the 1979 Qatif uprising, the Islamic Revolution in the Arabian Peninsula (IRO) emerged as a dominant political group in the kingdom’s Shiite-majority Eastern Province. Founded by Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar, a prominent Saudi Shiite political activist from Qatif, the IRO was the Saudi branch of Iraqi cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Shirazi’s Organization of Islamic Action.3 The IRO called for ending sectarian discrimination in the kingdom, cutting off Saudi oil exports to the United States, and supporting Khomeini’s revolution. The kingdom’s authorities launched major crackdowns after Saudi Shiite activists staged their protests in Qatif, forcing many members of the IRO to flee to seek asylum in Iran.4

Iran sought to exploit such sectarian cleavages by launching Arab-language radio programs attacking the Al Saud rulers as a “corrupt, mercenary agent of the United States.”5 In Khomeini’s sermons, which Saudi Shiites listened to on cassette tapes distributed throughout the Eastern Province, the Iranian leader lashed out at Saudi Arabia’s royal family, attacking its religious legitimacy and close ties with Western powers. For Khomeini, Al Saud control of Mecca and Medina represented a major obstacle in his quest to become the leader of the Islamic world.6

Tensions between Riyadh and Tehran reached a new level in 1987 after over 400 pilgrims, mostly Iranians, taking part in anti-U.S./anti-Israel demonstrations in Mecca were killed in clashes with Saudi security forces.7 The bloodshed led Saudi Arabia and Iran to cut off official diplomatic ties from 1988 to 1991.8 During this time, with Iranian and Lebanese support, a number of radical Saudi Shiites formed Hezbollah al-Hejaz (a.k.a. Saudi Hezbollah).9 The group, which trained with Lebanese Hezbollah, was responsible of several acts of terrorism in Saudi Arabia, including an attack on a gas plant in 1987 and petrochemical installations the following year.10 Beyond Saudi Arabia, in 1981, Bahraini authorities foiled an Iranian-backed coup plot aimed at toppling the Al Khalifa family.11 In Kuwait, Shiite militants allegedly backed by the Islamic Republic were behind the bombings of six foreign and Kuwaiti installations, including a U.S. embassy compound, in 1983 and the attempted assassination of Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah in 1985.12, 13

Tensions eased following the first Gulf War (1990-91), in which Iran sided with Kuwait against Iraq and agreed to sever its support for subversive Shiite groups in Saudi Arabia. Throughout the 1990s, the GCC states continued to view Tehran with suspicion, yet many Arab Gulf officials saw the devastation from Iran’s brutal eight-year war with Iraq, as well as the passing of Ayatollah Khomeini as having assuaged the “Iranian threat.”

Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003, however, heralded an era of renewed tensions between Gulf Arabs and Iran. GCC officials became increasingly unnerved by Tehran’s expanded and consolidated influence in neighboring Iraq through the electoral success of the Shiite parties with a history of close relations with the Islamic Republic, including Dawa and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. The latter, originally known as the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), was founded in 1982 by Iraqi Shiites exiled in Iran with the Tehran regime’s backing. SCIRI, a Shiite Islamist faction, was committed to promoting its view of Iraqi Shiite interests. During the Iran-Iraq War these entailed backing Tehran; after 1988, they were focused on pushing for Saddam’s overthrow.14

 

Strategic Shifts Since 2011

The Arab world’s political turmoil throughout 2011 represented another watershed moment in GCC-Iran relations. The eruption of several conflicts exacerbated the Saudi-Iranian geopolitical rivalry, with Riyadh and Tehran in increased competition to define a new Middle Eastern landscape favorable to their respective strategic interests.

Throughout this last year, numerous developments across the greater Middle East have turned the tide in Tehran’s favor: the election of a Hezbollah-aligned president in Lebanon, the Syrian regime’s military gains on the ground, the strong resistance of the Houthi rebel movement in Yemen and its capacity to retaliate against the Saudis, and the tightening grip of Shiite political formations and militias such as Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq. Leaders of the Arab Gulf states maintain that, regardless of which government officials currently hold power in Tehran — whether “pragmatists” or “principalists” — the Islamic Republic’s institutional structure concedes immense unchecked power to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, whose founding objective is promoting Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution throughout the Islamic world.

Arab Gulf officials see Bahrain, the GCC’s only Shiite-majority country, as the council member that has always been most vulnerable to a Khomeini-inspired revolution aimed at installing a theocratic regime similar to Iran’s. In 2011, when the Saudis and Emiratis sent their forces into the island kingdom to help authorities in Manama quell the uprising, the narrative in the Arab Gulf states was that Iran was behind the demonstrations to wreak havoc and raise sectarian temperatures in the Gulf. GCC authorities also accuse Iran of sponsoring Hezbollah-affiliated cells in Kuwait and the UAE while maintaining a vast unofficial intelligence network thorough the region.15

 

Washington’s Role and the Trump Administration

Since the council’s establishment in 1981, the GCC countries have largely relied on the United States as their security guarantor, primarily against the Khomeinist threat. Rooted in a shared perception of the Islamic Republic as a regional and international menace, past U.S. administrations partnered closely with the GCC to counter Iran in the Gulf region and beyond. Yet since the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, the Arab Gulf states have grown increasingly wary of relying on Washington, given that the strategy of the United States has, whether intentionally or unintentionally, empowered Tehran at the GCC’s expense.

The Obama administration’s diplomatic overtures to Iran and its inaction against the Assad regime, according to Saudi and other Arab Gulf voices, have strengthened the Islamic Republic regionally. With Obama leaving the White House next month, GCC officials hope the incoming administration will approach Tehran with a strategy more in sync with that of Riyadh and other Gulf Arab capitals, which view Iran as a force to be countered.

Given Donald Trump’s lack of knowledge of the Middle East, as well as global affairs more broadly, GCC rulers will observe carefully who the president-elect appoints to his cabinet. The selection of anti-Iran hawks such as James “Mad Dog” Mattis, Michael Flynn, and James Pompeo highlights potential areas for the meeting of minds between Trump’s inner circle and GCC officials. Vital questions for the GCC pertain to how Trump will address Iran’s testing of ballistic missiles in the Gulf and sponsoring armed Shiite non-state actors. However, there is also much interest in Washington’s option of working with Iranian anti-regime groups such as the Mujaheddin-e-Khalq (MEK), an Islamo-Marxist group that was on the U.S. State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) until lobbying efforts by, among others, John Bolton, Trump’s expected pick for Deputy Secretary of State and a vigorous supporter of MEK-enacted regime change in Iran, led to its removal in 2012.16

On the other hand, GCC officials are wary of Trump’s rhetoric about the United States partnering with Russia (and by extension Iran) to counter the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). A common opinion in the GCC is that Iran has exploited the rise of ISIS to power in the Levant to further legitimize its activities in the region. For Saudi Arabia, Tehran has no role to play in the international struggle against ISIS. The kingdom views Iran’s support for the Damascus regime and various sectarian and heavily-armed Shiite non-state actors as a major impetus pushing Sunni Arabs to join ISIS.

Ultimately, many in the West have stopped seeing Iran as a revolutionary state and have come to view the Islamic Republic as a rational actor that can cooperate with the United States and the EU to pursue common security and economic interests. Nonetheless, the perception of Iran as a predatory state committed to spreading Khomeini’s anti-monarchical ideology remains firmly embedded in the minds of many Saudi and other Arab Gulf leaders. GCC officials remain fearful of the ways in which political/religious leaders in Iran have influence in parts of the Eastern Arabian Peninsula, where there is a history of Shiite marginalization. But is Tehran actually in the business of exporting the Khomeinist revolution, or is it just an ideological umbrella to advance Iran’s strategic interests?

It is important to recognize that Iran’s support for revolutions in the Arab world factors into Tehran’s shrewd strategic thinking, which is entirely pragmatic. Although back in 2011 Iran hailed the Shiite-led “Arab Spring” movement in Bahrain and the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, officials in Tehran are heavily involved in defending their allied regime in Syria against a Sunni-dominated “Arab Spring” movement challenging the rule of its ally in Damascus. Even in Yemen, where the Islamic Republic supports Ansar Allah (the dominant Zaidi Shiite Houthi militia), Iranian officials urged the group to not overthrow the government in Sanaa back in 2014, to no avail.17

Generally speaking, having been disappointed by Washington’s approach to Iran, particularly with respect to the content and management of the JCPOA and with the Obama administration’s passive approach to Syria, GCC officials have little expectations that the United States will see Iran as the Saudis and other Arab Gulf states do. Nonetheless, Trump’s selection of hawks for high-ranking positions is the source of cautious optimism: perhaps the incoming administration will take seriously the GCC’s concerns about Iran’s foreign policy and, even more important, Tehran’s future strategies in the Middle East.