Gulf States Are Pawns in a New ‘Great Game’

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor

Guest Commentary

The pieces of the jigsaw are slowly coming together, and from the perspective of Gulf States and Arab Sunnis the emerging picture isn’t pretty. The Cold War between Russia and the West has been resurrected by President Vladimir Putin, who regrets the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia’s loss of superpower status and, in particular, his passive compliance with George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq that cost Moscow dearly from both economic and geostrategic standpoints. That war hit Russia’s pocket to the tune of $8 billion in unfulfilled deals and resulted in the mushrooming of US military bases throughout the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Driven also by the encroachment of the EU uncomfortably close to its territory, the Bear has not only broken out of his cage he’s on the rampage.

In his determination to muscle back into the region, Putin has few scruples about forging unholy alliances with anti-Western countries on the basis ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ as well as mutual interests and shared ambitions. Unlike most of the world, Moscow has little fear of a nuclear-armed Iran. Indeed, it is one of Tehran’s major weapons suppliers and over the years has provided Iran with nuclear and missile technology as well as hardware. Today, it actively supports Iran’s nuclear program with knowhow plus nuclear reactor components and benefits from trade deals amounting to more than $4 billion annually.

Russia constantly warns the West that striking Iranian nuclear sites would be disastrous. And, in August, the Russia Foreign Ministry warned the US not to impose unilateral sanctions against Iran with this message on its website, “Washington should understand that our bilateral relations will suffer considerably if the American restrictions affect Russian economic entities cooperating with partners in the Islamic Republic of Iran in strict compliance with our legislation and UN Security Council resolutions.”

Further, Moscow has set itself up as a buffer against any attempt by the international community to use UN sanctions or military intervention to halt the carnage in Syria and actively props-up Iran’s closest ally President Bashar Al-Assad, a genocidal monster, responsible for the deaths of over 30,000 of his own people and the destruction of huge swathes of Syrian towns and cities, leveled by Russian-made tanks and attack helicopters. Keeping Al-Assad in power is essential to Iran’s ambitions for regional dominance when pro-Shiite Syria acts as a supply route for Iranian proxies.

In this game of one-upmanship between Russia and the US, Putin can now add another notch to his belt — Iraq.  This supposed free and democratic nation has been gifted by Western allies to Iran — and, by extension, to Moscow. It’s no secret that the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government is made up of Iran’s puppets, men who make few decisions without a green light from Tehran or Qom, which is why Iraq is one of just three Arab League member nations that objected to the League’s appeal for the Assad regime to step-down.

America’s finest political and military minds would have been unbelievably naïve to expect gratitude from Iraqis. But I doubt they predicted that the Al-Maliki government would leap aboard Russia’s ship with such alacrity. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s recent visit to his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev was sealed with the restoration of bilateral cooperation in numerous fields, including diplomatic, military, aviation energy and trade.

October 9 signified an even higher watermark in the blossoming relations between Moscow and Baghdad. On that day, Russia announced the signing of a $4.2 billion arms contract to include MI-28 attack helicopters and Pantsir-21 surface-to-air missile systems. Since Iraq and Iran are virtually joined at the hip — I’ve long warned of the potential for an Iranian-Iraqi federation — this move is another nail in the coffin of Gulf States’ vulnerability. Mark my words! There will come a time when those weapons will be aimed at us. Together, Iran and Iraq could endanger our very shores.

Iran is becoming ever more belligerent. It’s revived an old, debunked territorial claim to Bahrain, has bullied airlines to use the term “Persian Gulf” rather than “Arabian Gulf” and made threats to Gulf oilfields and the Straits of Hormuz. So I wasn’t surprised at media reports, quoting an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, indicating Iran was mulling cutting diplomatic ties with the United Arab Emirates over the UAE’s legitimate demands for the return of three islands — Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunb — forcibly occupied by the Shah in 1971.

My initial thought was ‘What kind of joke is this? Does Iran expect the UAE to roll over and accept its stolen islands are gone forever in return for its ongoing ‘friendship’ and trade relations with Iran? In the first place, Iran is not our ally and never has been; secondly, with Iran’s economy and currency wilting under UN, US and EU sanctions, it needs us — one of its main trading partners — substantially more than we need it. Clearly, somebody high up in the Iranian government thought the same. A day later, the Iranian Foreign Ministry swiftly went into damage control mode by dismissing the reports as untrue.

True or untrue, it’s time that we proved to Iran that the days when it felt free to trample on our dignity are over. What are we waiting for? We should immediately close the embassies of GCC countries in Tehran, bar Iranian aircraft from entering our airspace, instruct our banks to freeze the accounts of Iranian officials and ban all forms of commerce and trade. We should also prevail on our friendly Arab neighbours to do the same.

Such steps would not only be in keeping with the sentiments of the majority of UN Security Council member nations towards Iran, anything that contributes towards Iran’s international isolation will assist in bringing about the Ayatollahs’ downfall from inside. Indeed, recent anti-government demonstrations, triggered by the dramatic currency slide, indicate Iran’s business community is already disillusioned with Ahmadinejad and his government.

Until the Iranian people decide to free themselves from the yoke of oppression and return their country to the community of freedom-loving nations, the GCC should have nothing more to do with this dangerous pariah state. As I’ve said time and time again, Gulf States must unify under a Gulf-wide federation, fortify their joint sea/air/land borders and create a single powerful military capability so we can stand up as main players instead of mere pawns.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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