Should the GCC still be concerned about Iran’s regional ambitions?

Will the GCC states’ approach towards Iran change if a nuclear deal is negotiated?

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
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A recent debate concentrated on the argument that the Gulf Cooperation Council should push for more efforts to ensure that a final nuclear deal is reached between Iran and the P5+1 (a group of six powers made up of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany).

The argument explained that if a permanent nuclear deal is achieved, and if the diplomatic thaw between Tehran and Washington continues, Iran’s foreign policies in the region will not turn more aggressive or interventionist regarding other Arab countries’ domestic affairs.


In other words, those who advocate for Rowhani’s government and the Islamic Republic point out that Iranian leaders will instead become more cooperative, conciliatory, and will decrease their hegemonic ambitions and policies in the region.

As a result, from their perspective, Gulf Cooperation Council states ought to welcome the diplomatic thaw between Washington and Tehran, and the achievement of final nuclear deal.

GCC states’ approach towards Iran’s nuclear program

This argument by scholars and policy analysts fails to take into consideration several crucial factors. First of all, GCC states have repeatedly expressed their endorsement for a peaceful resolution of Tehran’s nuclear file and have welcomed nuclear deals between Iran and the P5+1.

It is very unrealistic and naïve to argue that the Islamic Republic will temper its regional hegemonic ambitions even if a permanent nuclear deal is reached

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

The six members of the GCC; Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman, have issued statements similar to that of the emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, who pointed out that “the GCC states have expressed their comfort towards the preliminary Geneva agreement pertaining to the Iranian nuclear program, and we look forward to its success to lead to a permanent pact, that drives away the specter of tension from our region.”

The last outcome that GCC states would desire to see is another military confrontation in the Middle East, primarily between Iran and the United States due to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

A war, triggered by Iran’s nuclear defiance, will bring a considerable amount of instability to the region with an enormous impact on the economic developments of other countries and on the oil market in the region. GCC states have frequently expressed their stance for a peaceful resolution of Iran’s nuclear program, which has been going on for over a decade.

Iran’s ambitions for regional supremacy?

Secondly, the case that Iran’s desire for regional supremacy will be tempered if a permanent nuclear deal is sealed, and if the U.S. and Iran thawed diplomatic relations, does not take into account the underlying geopolitical and economic fundamentals, as well as historical context of the Islamic Republic.

When Iran’s nuclear program was not in the spotlight, for example in the 1980s and early 1990s, the Islamic Republic was at its peak in meddling in other Arab nations’ domestic affairs and showed no sign of tempering its aspiration for regional supremacy.

In fact, these were the times that Iran was notably and outstandingly attempting to alter the regional balance of power in its interest by intervening in Lebanon, giving birth to one of the most formidable Shiite non-state actors, Hezbollah, and forming one of the long-standing Middle Eastern alliances with the Syrian government, and continuing the war in Iraq for an extra six years despite the fact it was offered full compensation by other countries to cease the war.

More recently, even after reaching a preliminary nuclear deal, the Islamic Republic has shown no sign of tempering its foreign policies when it comes to affecting the domestic politics of other Arab states including in Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, and Lebanon. The Yemeni president pointed out in an interview, “unfortunately, Iran still meddles in Yemen whether by supporting the separatist [Southern] Movement or some religious groups in the north.” He asked the Shiite-dominated Iran to “keep its hands off Yemen” and to halt giving supports to “armed groups” in the country. Reportedly, the Houthis are receiving Iranian support, and have been capable of dominating the northern Yemeni province of Saada. Asir, the Saudi province, borders Yemeni Shiite rebel strongholds.

Nuclear capabilities and balance of power

The second part of the argument made by the proponents of Rowhani’s government and the Islamic Republic is simplified in a sense that it overlooks the sophistication and complexity of Iran’s politics in Middle East.

The reasons that GCC states should not be concerned about Iran’s foreign policies in the region in case a final nuclear deal is reached (as well as the case that Iran will temper its policies and regional geopolitical position), take no notice of the Middle Eastern political chessboard and the Islamic Republic’s establishment in this political jigsaw puzzle.

The issue is that Iran’s nuclear file has been filled up with frequent clandestine nuclear sites revealed by external governments and organizations, a robust determination to become a nuclear power, non-transparency, secrecy and a lack of clarity about Iran’s nuclear developments. How can GCC states accept these terms of security, geopolitical and strategic landscapes if another country in the region is on the verge of significantly tipping the balance of power in its favor through reaching a breakaway nuclear capacity?

If the permanent nuclear deal leaves the Islamic Republic with some breathing space to pursue its nuclear ambitions and achieve its objectives, the chessboard that is the Middle East will witness a critical reshaping in favor of the nuclear state. This will naturally be followed by a nuclear arms race and competition in the region, which will further destabilize the region and its security. In addition, the nuclear deterrence will boost and facilitate Tehran’s regional ambitions from economic, geopolitical, and strategic prisms.

Even if an efficient permanent nuclear deal is reached between the P5+1 and Iran, should the GCC states, as some policy analysts and proponents of Rowhani’s government argue, not be concerned about Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions? It is very unrealistic and naïve to argue that the Islamic Republic will temper its regional hegemonic ambitions even if a permanent nuclear deal is reached and even if Washington and Tehran mend diplomatic ties. Iran is strongly involved in influencing the domestic affairs of other Arab countries, through founding or backing some Shiite groups, which makes a shift in Tehran’s regional policies inconceivable. Furthermore, Tehran’s regional policies are not only aimed at achieving geopolitical and economic supremacy, but also founded on ideological landscapes, attempting to spread the Shiite version of Islam through either political movements or well-established religious seminary centers such as in the city of Qom.


Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar as Harvard University, is president of the International American Council and he serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. Rafizadeh is also a former senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC, Harvard scholar, and a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. He is originally from the Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at [email protected].

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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