The past week saw an historic agreement during the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on Syria and Iran.
The U.N. Security Council agreed to a chemical weapons plan without the threat of aerial punishment. In addition, Western powers met with Iranian counterparts in several meetings that opened new pathways to calming Western-Iranian relations surrounding Tehran’s nuclear program. U.S. President Barack Obama spoke with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani by phone breaking an impasse in communications between America and the Islamic Republic that has endured since 1979.
In addition, the 3rd U.S.-GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum met on the sidelines of the UNGA. What do all these fast-moving events mean for the immediate future of GCC security interests?
In the immediate future, the GCC states will likely recalculate how to position themselves in the changing regional strategic environment even if the fluctuations are temporary.Dr. Theodore Karasik
The endorsement by the U.N. Security Council to strip Syria of its chemical weapons is an important step. For the region, this action certainly hampers future use of chemical weapons in the Syrian battle space. Nevertheless, many issues remain, including the timing of the clean-up and protection of inspectors plus the destruction of the tons of materials under question.
For the GCC, the program certainly presents a unique opportunity to bring forward the idea of a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ) for the Middle East. Just two months ago such an idea remained far-fetched and highly unlikely. But now the door is open for supporting additional policy pursuits to target other countries in possession.
Israel of course come to mind first, and, pressure will likely grow against the Jewish state to “come clean” on its WMD arsenal. But other Middle Eastern countries reportedly possess WMD and/or precursors to WMD. A push by the GCC on the diplomatic front to host a conference on a WMDFZ would be a wise move at this juncture. Failure to act on this opening may quickly shut the door on getting to the bottom of WMD proliferation in the region.
The rapprochement between the United States and Iran is a positive step as well—for now. The declining tensions between the two countries clearly signals that a military strike against Iran is off the table and that diplomacy will be allowed to work.
Many would argue that diplomacy is better than seeing Iran’s military infrastructure destroyed by a Western and/or Israeli attack—plus the damage an Iranian counterstrike would do to key locations in the GCC.
Nevertheless, we are entering new territory for the GCC, where the states of the organization will likely want to see Iran “come clean” too, like Syria. The real test will be, and all GCC eyes will be watching carefully, three issues: dissent in Iran over Rowhani’s opening to the United States; opposition within Washington D.C.’s beltway concerning the level of trust towards Iran; and lastly, Israeli intransigence to follow suit. Just as with the chemical deal on Syria, the opening between Washington and Tehran may be just that, a moment in history. The GCC’s defense against Iran may start to be questioned and avenues of opening for settling Gulf littoral issues may be seen as possible.
Nevertheless, the GCC states are still wary of Iran’s agenda in the Levant and the impact on the GCC states; they may be less likely to support the U.S. and allied overtures to Iran. For President Obama, he is suddenly in a win-win situation whereas the GCC states are subject to whatever aftermath this opening portends.
Finally, the fact that the 3rd US-GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum met on the sidelines of the UNGA also held great significance. Unlike the joy expressed regarding the stripping of Syria of chemical weapons and the rapprochement between the United States and Iran, the statements from the Forum appeared to be more tepid.
According to the U.S. State Department press release, the Foreign Ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Secretary General of the GCC, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel all condemned, in the strongest possible terms, the horrific chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs inflicted by the Syrian regime on Aug. 21.
The Ministers reaffirmed their united position on holding the Syrian regime legally and morally accountable for this heinous crime, and expressed outrage concerning the violation of an international norm that has been developed over nearly a century against the use of these weapons. This above statement is indicative that the U.S and the GCC are likely to push for war crimes prosecution in the immediate future regardless of the current accolades of successfully calming the great power struggle (i.e. the U.S. and Russia) over the Syrian playing field.
The press release also stated that the Ministers followed with interest statements by President of Iran Hassan Rowhani, regarding Iran's interest in resolving its differences with its neighbors, and emphasized the need for Iran to translate that into concrete and practical steps.
The Ministers called on the Iranian government to honor its responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions. This is to ensure a diplomatic solution is reached and that it will address the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program as well as regional environmental concerns resulting from the implications of Iran’s nuclear program, particularly the Bushehr nuclear plant. They called upon Iran to base its relations with its neighbors according to the principles of good “neighborliness” and “non-interference.” This reference to “neighborliness” and “non-interference” is a clear signal that the U.S. and the GCC still see Iran as meddling in GCC affairs, possibly whipping up sectarian tensions in key states.
In other words, the 3rd US-GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum took the Syrian and Iranian issues with a pinch of pessimism and rightfully so. The Forum called for further work towards enhanced U.S.-GCC coordination on Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD), including the eventual development of a Gulf-wide coordinated missile defense architecture built around interoperable U.S. and GCC forces, which would serve as an integrated system to defend the territory and assets of the GCC states against the threat of ballistic missiles. This system has the threat of an Iranian ballistic and cruise missile saturation attack clearly in mind and it is remains a viable possibility. In addition, according to the press release, in light of the success of the second U.S.-GCC Counter Proliferation Workshop held in April 2013 in Riyadh, the Ministers encourage further progress in this area. That statement alone seems to endorse the idea that a GCC push on a WMDFZ may be a viable option in the near future.
In the immediate future, the GCC states will likely recalculate how to position themselves in the changing regional strategic environment even if the fluctuations are temporary. The GCC will assess supporting various Syrian opposition elements with the recent reorganization of the rebels and the merging of their forces: now that the U.S.-backed Syrian National Council is toothless. Specifically, Saudi Arabia seeks a full court press in support of the Syrian rebel factions. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal stated in New York that the Kingdom wants the “intensification of political, economic and military support to the Syrian opposition…. To change the balance of powers on the ground” in Syria.
Importantly, the GCC states still see Iran as meddling in their affairs, and causing problems in Syria by propping up President Assad in what appears to be clear violation of international legal norms regarding chemical weapons use—as well as a sizeable presence of IRGC personnel and materials. For all the hype and glory during the UNGA at the end of Sept. 2013, there are still vital concerns for GCC national security in the coming months that will need to be thought out by the appropriate authorities.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angles.