A window for Iranian-Gulf relations?

Abdullah Hamidaddin

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What if Washington and Tehran became closer? How will that influence the security of the Gulf nations?

This question could be considered of timely importance due to the various positive communiques between President Obama and his Iranian counterpart Rowhani that have been taking place since the election of the latter. But even without those communiques going back and forth, Gulf citizens should be seriously engaging in public discussion about the meaning of normalization of relations between Tehran and Washington. All signs point to the inevitability of such an outcome. America knows that – in Reagan’s words - “without Iran’s concurrence, there can be no enduring peace in the Middle East.” And he was not only speaking of the Iran-Iraq war. Also, as China seeks to find a place in the Gulf, its only access will be through an alliance with Iran. Something the Americans - and Russians – may not welcome. Thus, one may expect America to make efforts and pull Iran back from getting too close to China than it already is. Iran also knows that its strategic interests – economic and security – are with better relations with America.

So it is only a matter of time, the main question here would be: Is this a threat for us?

Iran and Gulf security

In principle one can say that the security of the Gulf States, the stability of the region, oil flows and economic development are much better served by normal relations with Iran. But the Gulf states know that they cannot fully normalize with Iran, unless the United States also takes steps towards such normalization. Thus, such news should sound favorable to Gulf ears and they should welcome such a step and not consider it a threat, rather a condition for more stability and security. I need to add here that the six Gulf states perceive the security threat from Iran differently, thus the response to a potential normalization of relations between Iran and the U.S. would also be different in each Gulf state; and I think the difference is mainly related to the degree a Gulf state has security interests in the region.

Since his election, Rowhani has insisted on the need for improving relations with all the Gulf states

Abdullah Hamidaddin

The more a country’s security can be threatened by interventions in other countries, the more Iran poses a threat. Thus, it will assess U.S.-Iranian relations differently. When we consider a country as Oman, we see that it will be the least influenced by U.S.-Iranian rapprochement because of the limited spread of Oman’s security interests. On the other hand, a country like Saudi Arabia that has security interests in different countries of the region would be more influenced. Even Bahrain, whose foreign policy is almost focused on keeping Iran away, would be less influenced than the Saudis precisely because Bahrain has no security interests in other countries the way the Saudis have. Qatar had relatively good relations with Iran and only soured when they clashed in Syria. The UAE has excellent economic relations with Iran despite the territorial dispute between them. In other words, Gulf states do not worry about Iran in their one-on-one security issues. The security agreements with the United States deter Iran in that regard. The main issue between Gulf states and Iran are mainly issues that exist outside their borders.

Since his election, Rowhani has insisted on the need for improving relations with all the Gulf states. And he mentioned them separately and collectively in various occasions. The Gulf states have, for their part, echoed this desire explicitly. That this happens at a time when the Americans are also seeking normal relations is significant. What makes it even more significant is that the power structure of the region permits such an outcome. Skeptics are quick to point out that such statements are mere courtesy and that Iran is controlled by radicals who still believe in exporting the revolution in one form or another. Skeptics also remind us of the Khatami era and how his moderate stances were made obsolete due to the control of the radials on Iranian foreign policy. But I think that this way of approaching the matter over simplifies the way Iran acts in the international arena. It also overlooks important events indicative of possibilities for the future. So let’s go back to the 1990s for a moment; and to simplify the matter let’s focus on Saudi Arabia and Iran. But it is not only a matter of simplification. I said above that Saudi Arabia is the country with most security interests in other countries, making its clash with Iran more frequent. Thus if I can show that Saudi Arabia can benefit from U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, then this can apply to all of the other Gulf states.

From opposition without polarization to opposition with polarization

When I look at the improvement of relations between the Saudis and the Iranians, starting from the early 1990s, I see two countries which were almost waging a war against each other during the 1980s, yet were able to overlook that and start a steady process of trust building culminating in the domestic security agreement of the late 1990s. This proves beyond doubt the possibility and desirability of positive relations despite recent animosity between the two countries. This also tells us that sectarianism is not a factor in the relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But most importantly, this tells us that radical elements in the Iranian government do not shape its foreign policy; rather they are brought forward or withdrawn depending on the regional situation. The radicals were present and powerful during the 1990s, but the regional politics demanded a more conciliatory approach to foreign relations so they stepped back.

In the 1990s, the regional balance of power and network of alliances was shaken due to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. This allowed the Saudis and the Iranians to initiate good relations. But there was a limit to where they could reach due to two barriers: the United States and Iranian regional interference. The United States is pivotal to Saudi security and thus the Saudis cannot go too far with a country that is hostile to the United States. They can however create amiable relations as long as the opposition to the United States is not polarizing. On the other side Iranian security vis-à-vis the United States depends on its control of pockets of influence in the weak countries of the region such as Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen; which in turn has been a threat to regional stability and Saudi security. In other words Iran’s quest for security depended on activities which threatened the security of Saudi Arabia creating a second barrier for Saudi-Iranian normalization.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 the balance of power of the 1990s - which allowed for relatively better Saudi-Iranian relations - radically changed leading to worsening relations. Some analysts say that it was mainly due to the competition between the Saudis and the Iranians in Iraq. While I agree with that; I think that the American invasion of Iraq was more fundamental. It created an American military presence in the Gulf, leading to a severe polarization of positions. It was no longer possible for an ally of the United States to be close to its rivals. Here we had a situation of opposition with polarization. It was even expected that allies of the United States go against Iran and actively seek to damage its interests regionally and globally. For example the U.S. had demanded that the Saudis use their leverage to disrupt relations between China and Iran. Iran subsequently increased its regional activity, which consequently threatened Saudi security, creating a vicious circle.

Road map to regional peace

So, if the antagonism between the U.S. and Iran had created conditions for a certain kind of Iranian security policy which was not in the interest of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, then positive steps between the U.S. and Iran will create new conditions leading towards a different sort of Iranian behavior. It may even be inducive to an Arab-Israeli peace treaty, something all the Gulf states want to see happening.

Today, we are back in a situation which resembles the 1990s. There is readiness on all sides for better relations. This does not mean that it will happen quickly. There are too many issues that need to be solved: too much insecurity to be managed, a lot of mistrust to be tackled and many potential risks that need to be understood. In 1998, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called on Iran “to join the United States in drawing up a road map leading to normal relations,” that call wasn’t heeded then, maybe now, 15 years later, the call should also include the Gulf states. The call should be for a road map leading to regional stability, drawn by the United States, the Gulf states and Iran. I would also suggest Israel, but that may be too farfetched for now.


Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1

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