Who’s afraid of Iran?

Gulf countries find Iran’s nuclear programme a disturbing development, analysts say.

Ahmadinejad iwth Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashed al-Maktoum

Concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme dominated Bush’s discussions with leaders of the UAE and other Gulf Arab countries in January [EPA]

Iran’s purported threat to Israel is well-known, but US and EU officials have also been quietly discussing Iran’s nuclear programme with other regional leaders.

So who else is worried about Iran’s position in the Middle East?

Iran’s refusal to halt its nuclear programme despite US, Israeli and EU pressures is increasing tensions in the region, Middle East analysts have told Al Jazeera.

For many in the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), the regional bloc comprising of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Iran’s position over the nuclear issue is a disturbing development.

“Iran for us is a threat by its very own size,” says Sami Al Faraj, a consultant on national security and strategic planning to the Gulf Co-operation Council and the president of the Kuwait Centre for Strategic Studies.

“As with all Arab conflicts in history, the battle is always about the terrain. We do not fear them on air, nor politically.

“We fear them on land.

“When we look at Iran, we see a big nation with 2,000km of access to the Strait of Hormuz with thorough access to one-third of the world’s oil passages.”

Squandering assets

Al Faraj points out that the Strait’s strategic importance is due to its proximity to the former Soviet Union and that it lies along a vital trade route to China.

The entire Gulf area is also a massive market for Iran and the Iranian population is young, populous and well-educated, he says.

Sami Al Faraj says Iran is ‘a threat by its very own size’

“All of these are assets. And they are squandering all of these assets for one or more nuclear weapons.”

Iran’s nuclear programme, says Al Faraj says, is not “a strategic plan”.

He said Iran wants to feel protected and secure but its leaders are instead following a route that will lead to a foreign invasion.

But Al Faraj says it would not be in the GCC’s interests to see Iran attacked.

“There are many other approaches that haven’t been used to a full extent yet. We have to pursue that path – we shouldn’t speak in a military language yet.

“But they are creating a frame of mind today that is pushing the people in the area to that last resort,” he says.

Persia versus Arabia

While Iran’s size and population are probably the biggest factors contributing to the Gulf’s fears, centuries-old history also plays a role, Riad Kahwaji, the director of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, says.

The long-standing Arab-Persian conflict in the Gulf began as early as the Arab conquest of Mesopotamia when the Persian Empire effectively came to an end. Its lands were then fought over by Arabs, Persians, Turks, and western Europeans.

In modern times, the desire of Iran’s neighbouring states for control of large oil reserves, has led to international boundary disputes.

In 1970, the Shah of Iran claimed the State of Bahrain as part of Iran and a year later Iran seized control of three small islands in the Persian Gulf that were claimed by the UAE.

In 1979, the Iranian revolution compounded Arab fears, with its enigmatic leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, calling on Shia populations in the Gulf countries for an overthrow of the region’s Arab monarchies.

“Now, with Iran being an Islamic republic – and being Shia among predominantly Sunni Gulf states, you have primary differences between the two countries that leaves good room for suspicion and lack of trust,” Kahwaji says.


Nevertheless, there continues to be a long history of commercial, population and trade exchange with the Persian side of the Gulf, he adds.

“Gulf countries realise that Iran is a neighbour that they have to co-exist with, that they have long historic trade relations with that are becoming stronger with the economic boom in the Gulf region.

“They also realise that any military confrontation will have an adverse consequence on the whole region,” he said.

“One of the main issues is that these countries feel Iran looks down at them as their inferiors – and all indications point towards that. The Iranians want to have the power in the region.”

Major player

Kahwaji says it is clear that Iran wants to play a major role in the Middle East when it comes to Iraq, Lebanon, and the occupied Palestinian territories.

Iran regarded the 2006 Lebanon war as a victory for ally Hezbollah [EPA]

“The Gulf states see this as a direct intervention in Arab affairs, especially when they help the Shia populations in these countries,” he told Al Jazeera.

“All these factors make Arab countries feel threatened. Some even feel that if Iran becomes a nuclear power, it would be more self-confident and feel even more superior against the Arabs.”

Could an attack on Iran, then, ever be seen as a positive move for the GCC?

“If you can have a war where Iran is not going to hit back and thus destabilise the whole region, then yes, it’s possible,” Kahwaji says.

“But that won’t happen. So they don’t see it in their interests. It would of course destroy the oil fields and everything in their region.”

Balancing act

Iran, meanwhile, must play a delicate balancing act between its aspiration to become a nuclear power and its wish to continue the mutually beneficial relationship it holds with its GCC partners.

Mohammad Shakeel, an Iran analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit, believes there is a level of trepidation in the region.

“But it has more to do with the fact that Iran may actually be attacked – rather than [the fear] that Iran might go after them.”

There are several US bases in the Gulf, including the US Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain and others in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Yemen.

In an interview with Al Jazeera last February, General Mohammad Ali Jaafari, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, declared that it was Iran’s “natural right to respond” if attacked by land or air [by the US].

However, he also reassured Gulf countries that it would not strike civilian targets if it retaliated against US military bases in the region.

“The region is volatile enough as it is, and the worry is that Iran would retaliate against them for having US bases in their countries. Any American base in the region would be fair game,” Shakeel said.

Iranian influence

The Gulf countries have already expressed quiet concern over how much influence Iran is gaining in the region over certain groups, the London-based analyst added.

There is also a perception that Iran has now become much more influential in the region than Saudi Arabia.

General Jaafari said Iran would target US bases in Gulf states if attacked 

“It’s a legitimate concern to be afraid of Iran’s power. But from an Iranian perspective – [Tehran] also knows the limit of their power,” Shakeel said.

“Despite the perception within the wider Arab world that the Iranians are very proud and stubborn, and because of that they are not open to negotiations – on the most fundamental things, the Iranians will negotiate with anyone.

“On the nuclear issue, they say it’s a national right. They are not going to compromise on that. But they are diplomatic and will weigh up their options,” Shakeel said.

“Iranians are intelligent enough to think ‘we may be in bad relationship with the US but we don’t want to ruin the relationship with our neighbours’. Improved relations are in their interest as well.”

Source: Al Jazeera