The Gulf and Iran: New realities, new strategies

Arab Gulf countries should have a common regional strategy to deal with Iran’s rising power.

Recent tensions between the GCC countries have loosened the cohesiveness of the Council [EPA]

An Iranian nuclear deal is likely to put an end to the status quo between the Gulf and Iran. While the US withdrawal from Iraq shook the balances, a nuclear deal would mean an unprecedented rise in Iran’s power in the region. This development has put a political distance between the countries in the Gulf region.

But not all members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are on the same wavelength. Oman has adopted a neutral approach, while playing the role of facilitator in US-Iran relations when it hosted preparatory diplomacy for the nuclear deal. Qatar is vying to position itself as a key regional and international playerThe UAE is confused and has sided with Saudi Arabia, while also attempting to ease its own tensions with Iran. Saudi Arabia has intensified its proxy wars against Iran, feeling both threatened and betrayed by the recent US-Iran rapprochement.

Meanwhile, the Arab Spring uprisings are continuing and have major implications for the region. A new collective consciousness for change has resulted in a strong societal will for the transformation of autocratic ruling systems. It has also empowered non-state actors and intensified transnational interaction. The wider international picture is in no better shape. At the same time, on the international arena, the search for a balance of power in the post-Cold War era persists and has left considerable power vacuums and room for manoeuvring for global players.

Turkey can help the GCC deal with Iran’s regional influence.

Iran’s increasing regional power and divergent foreign policies are not a desirable development for the Gulf countries. These difficulties require thinking outside the box, leaving behind the burden of the past and looking forward.

The shifting regional order presents Gulf countries with three challenges. The first one is overcoming their differences in order to embrace a new idea of collective power which would mobilise political efforts to restructure the political landscape in the region.

GCC countries are immune, to a considerable extent, to the Arab Spring spirit because of their small populations and rich economies. However, the demands for good governance, universal rights and freedoms are not likely to disappear. There is an urgent need to take societal demands into serious consideration, engage in constructive dialogue with citizens and put domestic issues in order. Once there is progress on this front, then GCC involvement in other countries facing similar challenges would be more uniform and constructive.

Diminish differences

The second challenge is to work on strengthening the GCC structure and diminishing differences on regional issues. No one expects a total consensus on every issue. However, the new regional setup necessitates thinking beyond immediate interests and setting an agenda to deal with the situation in the medium-to-long term. However, the aftermath of the nuclear deal would mean a tectonic shift in the regional balance of power and no country can handle this change on its own. There is an urgent need for a new initiative of collective action within the GCC if countries want to prevent the Council from becoming a dysfunctional organisation.

The third challenge is developing a common strategy to deal with Iran. The Iran nuclear deal would result in a certain degree of moderation in Iranian foreign policy. It will also have an impact on its domestic arena, especially in terms of potential economic opening. However, the impact of the deal will not majorly affect the structure of the Iranian regime. Therefore, potential moderation of Iranian foreign policy is not likely to completely alleviate tensions in the region.

In their efforts to regain regional cohesion, Gulf states will have to take decisive measures on three key issues. The first one is minimising sectarian tension. There is a potential danger of the spread of sectarian conflict at the societal level throughout the region. One way to prevent this is to nip it in the bud, by containing it at the state level.

The second issue is selective engagement with Iran to create channels for moderation in regional politics. This engagement should be undertaken collectively with great coordination.

The third one is to strengthen the partnership with Turkey, which can balance out Iran’s power and at the same time maintain economic and political ties with it. Turkish foreign policy toward Egypt created friction with some GCC countries, but the issues at stake are too high to keep a distance. Turkey can help the GCC deal with Iran’s regional influence.

The status quo in the Gulf region is not sustainable. A new spirit of regional cooperation with careful risk assessment and future-oriented planning would help to restructure regional order. The alternative risks bringing about a collapse of regional structrure, which cannot be repaired at a later stage even at a high cost. 

Bulent Aras is a Global Fellow at Wilson Center, Washington DC and professor of International Relations at Sabanci University, Istanbul.

Follow him on Twitter: @arasbulent