by Eldar Mamedov
Does a resurgent Iran, freed from international sanctions following the implementation of the nuclear agreement, pose a security threat to the Gulf states? If so, how should the West reassure its Gulf allies against this threat? These issues were the focus of discussions at a “track II” dialogue meeting with scholars, experts, and policymakers from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, Yemen, Iran, and Europe last week in Brussels. The meeting, organized by the Berlin-based Centre for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO), was held under Chatham House rules.
The prevailing narrative in Washington and leading European capitals, including among the supporters of the nuclear deal, is that Iran’s regional policies, such as support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias, and Yemen’s Houthi rebels, are expansionist and destabilizing. Chiefly, two approaches have emerged from this narrative to deal with this challenge: increase Western diplomatic and military support for the GCC and put more pressure on Iran to drop its support for the allies and proxies the West and the GCC find objectionable.
These approaches are probably not going to work, because they reinforce the very policies that have driven Iran to defy the West and its allies in the first place.
From Tehran’s perspective, its actions in the region are fundamentally defensive. Although the GCC countries enjoy a de-facto military alliance with the US, Iran has no security guarantor but itself. Indeed, since the revolution of 1979, Iran is excluded from any regional security arrangements and is still subject to the UN Security Council-mandated conventional arms embargo. Hence, Iran´s need to rely on proxies in the region to deter a possible attack. An Iran expert at the Brussels meeting called it a forward-defense strategy.
Iranians are also skeptical of the claims, usually made by the neoconservatives and Saudis, that the “revolutionary nature” of their regime is at the root of their problem with the GCC. There are many sources indicating that Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was secular and pro-Western, was as acutely aware of Iran´s strategic loneliness as were the Islamic revolutionaries who toppled him.
Regional power politics, not ideological or sectarian differences, are thus at the root of Iran’s predicament. Nuclear deal opponents believe that Iran has gained strategic depth in the region at the expense of the United States, which also failed to act decisively against Assad. The prospect of Iran emerging from international isolation as a viable regional power is what really scares the Saudis and their allies.
To preclude such a development, Saudi Arabia seeks to reverse all the perceived gains Iran made in the last years and put it back in a box. And the decision to break diplomatic relations in the wake of Riyadh’s execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr shows that Saudi Arabia and its closest allies, such as Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, are in no mood to compromise with Iran.
The Saudi Strategy
Instead, Saudi Arabia is busy rearming itself. According to IHS Jane’s report, Riyadh is planning to increase military spending by almost a quarter over the next five years, boosting its arms budget to $60 billion by 2020 from the current level of $49 billion. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) notes that in 2014 Saudi Arabia increased its military spending by 17 percent, which is the highest increase among the top 15 military spenders. The Saudis and their allies see this as a deterrent against Iran. As another well-informed participant of the Brussels conference noted, Saudi and Gulf strategy seems to be to use the 10 years of the duration of the deal with Iran to build up their own capabilities to ensure a qualitative edge over Iran.
In this context, Western attempts to reassure the Gulf by offering more diplomatic and military support would be self-defeating. As long as the current security architecture persists, with the Gulf countries enjoying privileged access to the West and Iran still subject to various restrictive measures including the arms embargo, Iran will see such reassurances as hostile moves. This would jeopardize the budding Western détente with a key player with significant influence in all major Middle Eastern crises: Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. Iran would then double down on its efforts to shore up its defences by using all available assets. Thus, the concern that Iran might use its newfound resources to boost Hezbollah and its other allies and proxies would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
These costs would not be compensated by equally tangible benefits. Unconditional support for the traditional regional allies is becoming unsustainable for both practical and moral reasons.
Unlike Iran, none of the U.S. allies in the region shares the West’s main priority: the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and like-minded Wahhabi-inspired extremist organizations. Even the physical evisceration of IS will not spell the end of this threat. Decades of extremist indoctrination and funding for terrorism originating from within Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states ensure that this threat will remain present for a long time to come. Saudi Arabia has shown itself to be at best an unreliable ally to confront the jihadist threat.
The political costs have become ever higher for Western leaders to continue justifying massive arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other GCC states. The public, especially in Europe, is increasingly aware of the negative effects these sales have on the region’s peace and stability. The humanitarian catastrophe that the Saudi-led coalition has visited on Yemen in the name of countering “Iranian imperialism” is one tragic example of this. This is why during the debates in the European Parliament last month a number of MPs questioned the legality of the arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
This is not to say that the Saudis and other Gulf states should simply be abandoned to their own devices. A worthwhile idea offered at the Brussels conference, in line with the thinking of Stephen Walt, an American international relations scholar, would be for the US to play the role of an offshore-balancer, i.e. preventing either Iran or the GCC from dominating the region at the expense of other. Meanwhile, the US and EU should stop selling arms to the region and make it clear to the princes and emirs that unilateral anti-Iranian free-lancing is not going to be tolerated. There is no reason why the West should extend its security guarantees to whom Barry Posen, another scholar, calls “reckless drivers”.
So, the true question, perhaps, is not how to reassure the Gulf, but how to reassure both the Gulf and Iran in the post-Iran deal era. The Brussels “track II” meeting was a worthy part of an ongoing international effort to find ways to achieve it. It´s time for the “track I” involving decision-makers in Iran, GCC, Europe, America and elsewhere to catch up and join in these efforts.
Photo: Saudi army
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.