By Sean Nevins
WASHINGTON DC, United States (Inzuna) – Is it a revolutionary state that aims to spread its ideology throughout the region calling for the downfall of the Gulf’s monarchies? Is it an imperialist power, or simply a nation-state concerned about the security of its own borders?
These are the questions the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a loose political and economic union of Arab states in the Persian Gulf region, has been asking itself since Iran’s 1979 revolution, according to Abdullah Baabood, Director of the Gulf Studies Program at Qatar University in Doha. The GCC consists of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
For the last couple of weeks, the P5+1 countries (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) and Iran have been meeting in Vienna, Austria to finalize a deal about Iran’s nuclear program and the easing of US sanctions. The deadline for a deal looms at July 20th.
However, according to Baabood, the GCC wonders what a comprehensive deal might entail as the Council’s concerns with Iran far surpass the arms issue.
During a recent discussion at the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington DC, he said that the GCC is more concerned about the nuclear issue than any other states in the world as Iran, in their eyes, has already become too powerful and the possibility of the country weaponizing its nuclear program would present an existential threat to the GCC nations.
But he also said the GCC is worried about environmental concerns as Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor is located near a major geological fault line. “We don’t want to have another Chernobyl in the region,” said Baabood, which could, among other things, disrupt supply of water in the Persian Gulf that is desalinated for drinking in all of the GCC countries. In April of last year, Bushehr experienced a 6.3 magnitude earthquake, which killed 37 people, according to NBC News. EarthquakeTrack.com, which tracks all earthquake data reported by the United States Geological Survey, revealed that there has been 13 earthquakes in Bushehr province during 2014 alone.
The timing of the nuclear negotiations is another subject the GCC takes issue with. “It came at a time when there is a great upheaval in the region. The Arab Spring, or what was left of it, has created a great challenge to the status quo… The whole Arab regional system had collapsed. Countries, like Egypt, which is a major ally of the Gulf states, has not only changed and Mubarak was lost but it also went into the hands of the Brotherhood, which the Gulf states consider as a terrorist organization or an enemy,” said Baabood.
The GCC was also concerned about how the United States reacted during the time of upheaval. They “let an ally like Mubarak fall and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia”, he added.
Contention between the US and the Gulf was magnified when they heard about US plans to withdraw from the region and pivot towards Asia, amongst the backdrop of cuts to the US Department of Defense, Baabood explained. “When you consider how reluctant the United States were in terms of interfering in Syria, the bluff that was made and so-on,” it added to fears that the US is less concerned with the region, he said.
To provide further context, Baabood said that the “North American Shale Revolution” also spooked GCC countries as they became aware that Gulf oil would be less important to the US in the future. US net imports of crude oil and other petroleum products has halved in the last five years as a result of the shale revolution, which is “equivalent to the entire daily crude exports of Saudi Arabia,” according to a Reuters report.
GCC Leaders (from left to right): Emir Sabah IV Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah of Kuwait, Former Ruling Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani of Qatar, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said of Oman, King Abdullah ibn Abdilaziz of Saudi Arabia, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain, and President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates.
WHY FEAR IRAN? OR NOT?
In 1971, immediately following the withdrawal of British forces on the islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb, which were under the administration of the Emirate of Sharjah (later an UAE emirate), Iran invaded and took over the islands. Baabood said that this action has spooked the GCC since that time.
He also said that following the revolution in 1979, the GCC has been trying to figure out what kind of state Iran is as Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took over claiming the authority of the Wilayat al Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist), which maintains that Islamic clerical rule is needed in order for the state to abide by sharia(religious law). Khomeini was the first faqih (guardian), and Sayyed Ali Khamenei, Iran’s current Supreme Leader, is the second. Khomeini openly called for the overthrow of the Gulf monarchies after the revolution.
However, Barbara Slavin, a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, told Inzuna that “Khomeini said all these things back in ’79 but I don’t think Iran, now, has any kind of illusions that it’s going to be overthrowing regimes in the Gulf. It has good relations with several GCC members such as Qatar and Oman.”
Also, in 1987, over 400 pilgrims were killed in Mecca, Saudi Arabia during riots believed to have been orchestrated by Iran to show that the Kingdom could not protect the holy city, explained David Ottaway, a Senior Scholar at the Wilson Center. Following that incident, relations were cut off between the Kingdom and Iran from 1988 to 1991.
Slavin, however, said that she did not think the event was “terribly relevant now. That was when Iran truly was in a revolutionary state, and also Iran was fighting Iraq in an existential war, and the Saudis, of course, supported the Iraqis during that conflict. I think Iran has matured as a state and we’re far beyond that sort of behavior at this point.”
Ottaway added that the “Saudis blamed the Iranians for the bombing of the Khobar Towers in 1996… in which 19 Americans were killed and over 400 others were wounded, both Saudis and Americans.”
He said, “the Saudis had very good intelligence about who was involved.”
Slavin corroborated his report saying that “there is evidence that the attackers got some training in Lebanon from Hezbollah, and Iran uses Hezbollah in this way. So I’m prepared to believe that Iran was involved in that attack, and Iran has been involved in many acts of terrorism.” Although she added, “of course, the Saudis have supported many terrorist groups too. Let’s remember, wealthy Saudis gave us, helped give us, Al Qaeda, and the 9/11 bombings.”
Baabood said “the fact that Iran supports the Shia population on the other side of the Gulf creates a problem for… [the Gulf states], especially in Bahrain but also in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.” Shias make up about 70 percent of the population in Bahrain.
But Slavin told Inzuna “it’s pretty clear that the Arab Shia, who are the majority in Bahrain, have legitimate grievances against the Bahraini government.” She also said that she imagines the Houthis, in Yemen, who have also been accused of having connections to Iran, “have legitimate grievances against the Yemeni government. So I would not be so quick to point the finger at Iran.”
She said that the “Saudis are always quick to blame the Iranians of involvement.”
THE GCC & NUCLEAR NEGOTIATIONS
The GCC is not a unified entity though, explained Baabood. “We have 6 different states with almost 6 different foreign policies so to say that we have a GCC policy is an overstatement.” The disunity was magnified earlier this year when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates withdrew their ambassadors from Qatarover political tensions.
Qatar has a good economic relationship with Iran as they share the largest gas field in the world, the “South Pars / North Dome” field, and have cooperated over its development. Kuwait has also cozied up with Iran signing a number of agreements related to tourism, economic cooperation, and the environment. However, there have been zero rapprochements between Iran and Saudi Arabia as they are both vying for regional power, which, most violently, has translated into the conflict in Syria.
Meanwhile, Oman has been ostracized by Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries because of its involvement in orchestrating the initial stages of a deal between the P5+1 countries and Iran, which took place in secret in the Gulf state. Baabood said that the GCC countries felt as if they had been “slapped in the face.”
On May 13, Saudi Arabia invited Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to the Kingdom saying that “Iran is a neighbor, we have relations with them and we will negotiate with them, we will talk with them.”
However, Zarif said that he would not be able to make it to Saudi Arabia because the proposed dates of the visit clashed with talks in Vienna.
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