On October 19, 2018, the Sharmin and Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies hosted a roundtable discussion entitled “The Near East: Iran’s Interregional Dynamics.” The event brought together experts from the region and the United States to participate in three moderated panels convened for half a day at Princeton University. Experts presented papers on pre-selected topics, exchanged views, and responded to questions from invited guests at the roundtable.
Guests included Princeton University students, faculty, scholars, staff, and members of the Mossavar-Rahmani Center. Discussions focused on relations between Iran and the Gulf Arab States, Iran’s periphery relations with Turkey and Israel, and Iran’s involvement in Arab conflict zones in the Near East region. At the conclusion of the event, findings from the roundtable were collected and made available in the following analytical report, which has been truncated for the Pacific Council. Read the full report here.
There is a lack of consensus about Iran among its Gulf Arab neighbors. They agree that Iran’s desire to alter geopolitical calculations in the Arab world dampens the region's enthusiasm to work with Iran. Since the victory of the Islamic revolution in 1979, Iran has exported its Shia ideology across the region. As a result, segments of the population in the Gulf Arab states harbor sympathies for Iran’s revolution and its founder Ayatollah Rohullah Khomeni, who died in 1989.
Saudi Arabia is deeply concerned by Iran’s interventions in Arab affairs, given historic Iranian-Saudi regional rivalries. The smaller Gulf Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) (i.e. Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates) fear the destabilizing impact on the region of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
To an extent, they believe that these tensions may threaten regional stability more than Iran’s interventions in the Arab world. As a result, they aim to keep balanced relations with Iran or at least attempt to maintain cordial relations with it. They also view Iran as a power that is capable of standing up to Saudi Arabia’s dominant role in Gulf affairs.
Iran’s most contentious relationship with a neighboring Gulf country is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Iran’s most contentious relationship with a neighboring Gulf country is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The kingdom cut its diplomatic relations with Iran after a mob attack on its embassy in Tehran that was triggered by Riyadh’s decision to execute the Shia cleric Nimr Baqir al-Nimr in January 2016.
Other GCC states subsequently severed or downgraded their relations with Iran. Bahrain cut off its relations with Iran. But Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar have maintained an ongoing relationship with Iran. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), which often condemns Iran’s actions in the region, retained diplomatic representation in Tehran.
Kuwait’s previous experience with Iran had shown that it should not underestimate the destabilizing influence Tehran had over Gulf monarchies. Under the Pahlavis, the rise of political dissent in Iran had inspired Arab opposition groups. When Mohammed Reza Shah visited Kuwait in 1968, a Marxist group opposed to Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region known as the Revolutionary Popular Movement in Kuwait, or al-Ḥaraka al-Thawriyya al-Shaʿbiyya fī al- Kuwait, planted explosives to sabotage the Shah’s state visit.
As Iran’s Arab neighbors have become more adept at containing and managing local dissent, concerns about Iran have narrowed down to two main areas: charges that it sponsors terrorism, and that it harbors a nuclear program with the potential to have weapons components.
Arab leftist groups including Kuwaiti Marxists opposed Iran’s occupation of three Gulf islands in 1971. The occupation alarmed Kuwaiti society about Iran’s hegemonic ambitions. Iran had taken over the control of the three disputed islands of Abu Musa, the Greater Tunb and the Lesser Tunb by dispatching military forces to protect the islands. Iran would later disregard an agreement to hand over their administration to the UAE by 1991.
In more recent times, as Iran’s Arab neighbors have become more adept at containing and managing local dissent, concerns about Iran have narrowed down to two main areas: charges that it sponsors terrorism, and that it harbors a nuclear program with the potential to have weapons components. The Arab states of the Gulf region fear Iran’s ability to operate proxies, including Arab citizens, willing to engage in acts of terrorism.
This could lead to the creation of large numbers of armed recruits willing to act on Iran’s behalf to sabotage the governments in the region. Iran’s use of its diplomatic missions for diversion of financial and logistical support to various proxy groups in the Arab world means that its foreign policy is intertwined with its ideological and revolutionary goals.
Since Iran’s nuclear program predates the Islamic revolution, it implies to its Arab neighbors that its nuclear ambitions may persist.
Since Iran’s nuclear program predates the Islamic revolution, it implies to its Arab neighbors that its nuclear ambitions may persist. There is a fear among the Arab states that Tehran could develop nuclear weapons if given the opportunity. The international community’s apparent lack of proper monitoring and supervision mechanisms, and Iran’s past reported digressions means that its Arab neighbors must remain on the alert. Though the Gulf Arab States supported the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal, key countries of the Near East remain divided about how effective the deal was.
Opinions in the region vary about Iran’s real and potential nuclear capabilities, with Israel being strongly opposed to Iran possessing any weapons capability and know-how, Turkey and Saudi Arabia along with the UAE seeking a nuclear-free zone for the region, and Qatar remaining partly unconcerned about the Iranian nuclear program.
In general terms, the GCC agrees that it is best not to interfere in Iran’s nuclear program as long as its leaders assure the international community of the program’s peaceful intentions. Qatar’s stance defending Iran’s right to a peaceful nuclear program, however, has alarmed Saudi Arabia. Qatari overtures to Iran over its nuclear program could complicate the Saudi kingdom’s task of coordinating GCC policies on the issue especially as various members of the group try to develop independent nuclear programs of their own.
Saudi Arabia is particularly concerned by Iran’s ability to turn Arabs against Arabs by inciting political unrest in the Gulf region and in its Shia communities.
As a conservative Arab state, Saudi Arabia is also concerned by revolutionary Iran’s adherence to what is commonly labeled among Sunnis as rafd, in effect the rejection of the dominant Sunni faith. This implies that Iran is set on promoting and building its own vision of what the Muslim world should look like. It also means that Iran will insist on its Shia ideology as a self-serving tool to build influence across the Near East region. The spread of this ideology could work as a protective umbrella, shielding Iran to more easily advance its regional interests and ambitions.
As a result, the Saudi kingdom is guarded when Iran attempts to engage with the Gulf Arab States. Saudi Arabia is particularly concerned by Iran’s ability to turn Arabs against Arabs by inciting political unrest in the Gulf region and in its Shia communities. The better Iran gets in advancing these tactics, the easier it will be to divide the GCC on the question of how to deal with Tehran.
Iran’s ability to influence communities in the Gulf region has divided the Arab monarchies, and they disagree over how best to temper Iranian activities. Saudi Arabia has attempted to lead the group on this issue, but its role overshadows attempts by the smaller Gulf Arab States to operate independently. Saudi Arabia maintains that it cannot sit idle, but that it must push back against Iranian regional interventions, especially those that threaten the kingdom directly.
In the Near East region, Iran’s deliberate export of its revolutionary aspirations is a challenge. While this is a source of pride for revolutionary Iran, it comes at a huge disservice to those who observe Iran from afar.
This includes Iran’s desire to question Saudi Arabia’s ability to administer the hajj and the holy mosques in Makkah and Madinah, seen by the kingdom as a constant act of provocation. The kingdom views efforts by the Houthis in Yemen that are reportedly encouraged by the Iranians, at launching missiles in the direction of Riyadh and Makkah, as a deliberate act of violence against civilians and the millions of pilgrims who come to the holy city from around the world. The smaller Gulf States are keen to avoid directly confronting Iran over the issue, mindful of Tehran’s ability to provocatively project military power across the region.
They prefer instead to stay away from tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Though that is not always possible, these smaller Gulf States try to discourage Riyadh from imposing its policy choices on them when it comes to dealing with Tehran. This means that they try to avoid actions that might be construed by Iran as interfering in its foreign and security affairs.
In the Near East region, Iran’s deliberate export of its revolutionary aspirations is a challenge. Iran has made its neighbors anxious, through its repeated attempts to re-shape geopolitical and strategic calculations and realities in the region. While this is a source of pride for revolutionary Iran, it comes at a huge disservice to those who observe Iran from afar.
Iran appears to have expended considerable resources to secure its revolution and spread its influence in the region. Its support for the Shias across the region has increased tensions with Arab governments, and marginalized Arab Shias in their own societies. It refuses to halt intervening in the Arab world and in Arab conflict zones, and in so doing, widens the gap between itself and its neighbors.
Often, Iranian interventions end up hurting not just the credibility of the revolution but also the Arab people. Iran’s role in Yemen did not help the Yemeni people. It prolonged the conflict there by dividing the Yemenis faster and quicker than any other force could have. Iran rejects a major role for the United States and Israel in the region, and supports proxies to help it contain both.
In the absence of trust between Iran and its neighbors, rather than seeking solid answers from within the region, the countries in Iran’s neighborhood depend on great powers to help deal with the Iranian challenge.
This has led to an opening between the Arabs and Israel to contain the Iranian threat. When its neighbors turn assertive and try to stop Iran from triggering further imbalances in the region, Tehran faults them for not accepting Iran’s revolution. It even expects them to embrace the revolution despite Iran’s many foreign policy failures. It also tries to exploit the power imbalances between its Arab neighbors to its own advantage.
The strategy of balancing ties with Iran in the region persists, but with difficulty. In the absence of trust between Iran and its neighbors, rather than seeking solid answers from within the region, the countries in Iran’s neighborhood depend on great powers to help deal with the Iranian challenge. With Saudi Arabia rejecting options for talks with Iran, and pressuring other GCC states to comply with its desire to keep Iran contained, the political space for mediation with Iran within the region is fast shrinking.
Oman continues to play a critical role in trying to mediate with Iran. It also works with Tel Aviv and Washington to figure out how to manage the Iranian challenge. The former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ March 2018 visit to Oman, followed by a visit by Prime Minister Netanyahu in October 2018, may indicate that Muscat has revived its role in regional mediations with Iran. But it remains to be seen if it will succeed in reviving good relations with Iran or at least minimizing the regional tensions with it.
Banafsheh Keynoush is a Pacific Council member and president of Mideast Analysts.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and speakers and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.