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GCC - Iran Relations and its Strategic Implications for the Region

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  • October 30, 2009
    Fellows' Seminar
    Only by Invitation
    1030 to 1300 hrs

    Chairperson: Saeed Naqvi
    Discussants: Gulshan Dietl and Anwar Alam

    The uneasy relationship between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Iran is one of the main reasons for the continuing conflict in the Persian Gulf region. Iran has difficult relations with both the GCC and its individual members. With the passage of time, several other contentious issues have emerged, including the Iranian nuclear programme, Iran’s island disputes with the UAE, Saudi-Iran tensions, ideological differences, and the strong military presence of the United States in the GCC countries. This paper examines the sources of conflict between the GCC and Iran and analyzes its strategic implications for the Gulf region.

    The presence of the United States in the region has been the primary source of tension between the GCC and Iran. Iran has been concerned about the presence of US forces in the region. Tehran accuses the GCC of allowing external powers like the US to maintain a military presence in the Persian Gulf. On the other hand, the GCC countries are dependent on the US for security. The ideological rivalry between the two and several clashes between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi security forces during the recent Hajj pilgrimage has added fuel to the conflict. That apart, Saudi support for Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, Iran’s nuclear programme, and regional competition have been major issues of conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia which has also affected the GCC-Iran relationship.

    GCC-Iran tensions are manifested in Iraq which is going through a major transition. Iran is seen as attempting to influence various sections of Iraqi society and polity to gain influence. In post-Saddam Iraq, Iran has moved from confrontation to cooperation. The GCC states are concerned that Sunni Arabs have been marginalized in the new Iraq and that Iran has come to exercise too much influence over the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. There is also a worry that Iranians in Iraq may engage in subversive activities against GCC countries and that the civil war may actually spill over into their territories.

    The friction in GCC-Iran relations is leading to nuclear competition. In 2006 GCC announced its intention to establish a joint nuclear research programme which is primarily driven by their concern over the expanding Iranian nuclear programme. They are also concerned about Iran’s aggressive foreign policy posture in the whole of the West Asian region that includes Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Territories. Individual countries of the GCC have also started their own nuclear programmes. This has led to big nuclear powers strengthening their foothold in the region. Apart from that the interests of the external powers also lie in securing energy supplies, selling their weapons to GCC countries and establishing military bases in the Gulf.

    There have been some efforts at reconciliation between Iran and GCC countries though without any tangible results. The issues of contention between the two are serious. This makes the possibility of rapprochement look bleak in the near future. The clash of interests, the scramble for influence in the region, and the lack of mutual trust and goodwill have not allowed them to look for an amicable solution.

    Points raised in the Discussion:

    • There is a need to go beyond the Shia-Sunni divide in the region. Alternative perceptions such as ‘Persians vs. Arabs’ or of conflicting ‘national interests’ need to be factored in and analysed to explain why old issues tend to trouble the relationship today.
    • The role of external powers in the region should be examined in greater detail. Iran is worried about the presence and influence of the United States in the region, because the GCC states are dependent on the US for security. On the other hand, Israel’s nuclear weapons are a threat for Iran while Iran’s nuclear programme is a threat to Israel.
    • The US-Iraq SOFA accord should not create problems for Iran. Under the terms of the agreement American forces cannot launch an attack on any other country from Iraqi territory.
    • The 10-point proposal made by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad needs to be analyzed in detail because these proposals give a clear indication of Iran’s policy and ambitions in the region.

    Prepared by Dr. M. Mahtab Alam Rizvi, Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.