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The Gulf States and a fourth Gulf War

Commentary, 2 September 2009
Americas, Global Security Issues, Middle East and North Africa
Internal upheaval has delayed Iran’s response, due this month (September), to the US offer of nuclear talks. The response of the international community to Iran's ongoing nuclear programme will be observed with keen interest by Gulf Arab neighbours whose attitude is governed by the overriding desire to constrain Iran’s regional role. This raises questions as to what options are open to them, including what part they would play in increased US economic or military pressure on Iran.

Internal upheaval has delayed Iran’s response, due this month (September), to the US offer of nuclear talks. The response of the international community to Iran's ongoing nuclear programme will be observed with keen interest by Gulf Arab neighbours whose attitude is governed by the overriding desire to constrain Iran’s regional role. This raises questions as to what options are open to them, including what part they would play in increased US economic or military pressure on Iran.

By Dr Neil Partrick, Associate Fellow RUSI

Arguably the first modern Gulf war began with Iraq and Iran in 1980, and there is still unfinished business from that conflict for both Iran and Saudi Arabia. The eight year war effectively pitted the Gulf Arabs, with the partial exceptions of Oman and Dubai, against the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Gulf states funded the Iraqi war effort, and Kuwait provided, or at least conceded, territory to Iraq’s military. In the first Gulf War, Kuwait, with Saudi Arabian backing, also gave the US a direct military role in the Gulf (defending Gulf Arab oil tankers from Iranian attack) that they have not relinquished since.

Toward the end of the 1980s Gulf War, Iranian linked unrest during the haj soured Saudi diplomacy with Iran and a Saudi pilot downed an Iranian fighter over the Gulf. However, by 1996, reasons of state did not prevent the then crown prince, Abdullah, providing an official welcome in the Kingdom to the then Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani. The visit, highly controversial among the Saudi ulema (clerics), followed a series of mutual steps designed to engineer a Saudi-Iranian détente after the second Gulf War (1990-91) had effectively placed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Iran on the same side against Iraq. However, there were mutual suspicions on the part of both KSA and Iran and these very much remain today. An easing of Iranian hostility during the Khatami presidency is acknowledged in senior Saudi circles. The former Iranian leader, however, is perceived as having been largely ineffectual in substantive terms, a judgment that relates to how the Saudis and other states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) view current events in the Islamic Republic.

Gulf Arab states see the locus of Iranian power as residing with Ali Khamanei. The nuances of how the supreme leader has at various times over or underplayed his hand do not trouble the Saudis or the other GCC states. Saudi Arabia’s understandings with Iran in recent years have occasionally brought tactical concessions on both sides, reducing the risk of renewed civil war in Lebanon for example. However, most Gulf Arab leaders view Gulf hegemony as an Iranian national objective whether under a republic or a monarchy.

US Policy

The increasing factionalisation of the Iranian polity following the June election has contributed to the Iranian silence on US-proposed talks on the suspension of uranium enrichment. US-Iranian talks about temporary enrichment freezes may eventually take place, but verifiable enrichment suspension, always contestable, will be all the harder given that Iranian regime cleavages have deepened since the contested election. President Obama’s earlier warm words toward Iran made the Gulf Arab states nervous that the US might work with, rather than challenge, Iranian regional dominance – just as feverish Gulf speculation had accompanied the declaration by George W Bush’s administration in November 2007 that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons programme. The GCC states would prefer a robust US policy toward Iran that hopefully falls short of a fourth Gulf War. Like the first Gulf War, they would in some way be dragged into the next conflict, but possibly to far more devastating effect than thirty years earlier. US-Iranian engagement, the Gulf states argue, should not allow Iran to maintain aspects of uranium enrichment in exchange for supposed Iranian co-operation in Iraq or toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If however US-Iran nuclear talks cannot get started or stall, then the Gulf states’ fear of a US-Iranian détente will be eased, and, conceivably, US determination to constrain Iran would increase.

The US State Department, officially at least, thinks that Iranian nuclear weaponisation is not possible before 2013. If true there is time for the US to prepare the diplomatic, economic and military means to counter this prospect. It can seek to build support for US military action should the soft power options fail, or choose to deepen the practical and psychological security props of its Gulf allies. Practical props could include a long-mooted US-backed missile defence shield for and within the Gulf, but possibly extending to Jordan, Egypt and, effectively therefore, Israel.

For their part, the Gulf states are certainly not inclined to learn to love, or to even accept, the Iranian bomb. Some Gulf Arab leaders have in the past told influential US visitors that US air strikes on the Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz, sooner rather than later, would be welcome. An Israeli strike is something else, however. In 1991 Saddam fired scuds on Tel Aviv. The US and its Gulf allies feared then that if Israel responded the Gulf regimes would effectively be in an alliance with Israel, a likely scenario in the event of a future Israeli attack on Iran. Gulf leaders understand that a successful outcome to the peace process would weaken Iran’s allies in Palestine and Lebanon. However, simply renewing a political process would not produce even modest Saudi political concessions toward Israel. While one or two of the smaller Gulf states might trade limited recognition of Israel for perceptible progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, there is unlikely to be a quid pro quo that would include a tighter economic squeeze on Iran.

Preparing options

Getting the GCC on board for military as well as economic pressure on Iran remains important to the US, as and when increased pressure is needed. The potential territorial scope of the next Gulf war, and the US desire for diplomatic cover this time around, makes clear GCC backing extremely important. Washington will want to be confident that Gulf states would, from the outset, both back the US politically and place no limitation on it using their land as well as air space in what, after all, could be their own defence. Exhausting the non-military options with Iran – in contrast to US Iraq policy prior to the third Gulf War - is also an important part of that preparation as far as many of the GCC states are concerned. The Gulf states, however, will not want such steps to be at the expense of their own, US-backed, security, nor, in the specific case of Qatar, to threaten their maintenance of good links with Iran and Iranian-backed Arab radical groups; nor are the Gulf states likely to accept being in the forefront of a possible US build up of economic pressure on Iran.

Containing Iran

The fringes of the UN General Assembly in September will see moves to extend Security Council financial and military sanctions on Iran. However US government efforts to stop Iranian dollars washing around Dubai’s banks and its real estate market, for example, or even to stop the sale to Iran of refined oil products from Abu Dhabi, are something else. For several years it has been getting progressively harder for Iranians to conduct business in the UAE, but that has not prevented Dubai remaining an Iranian business hub – a factor that economic recession makes more attractive all around, and which Iran’s election fallout seems unlikely to hinder and may even assist.

Increased US Congressional pressure on the Obama Administration to contain Iran economically, however, followed Hilary Clinton’s comment in April 2009 that ‘crippling sanctions’ could be adopted against a recalcitrant Iran. Proposals from the US Congress would specifically target oil exports to the Islamic Republic. Constraining oil imports from the Gulf and Europe, if they could be comprehensively agreed, would push up the economic costs for the Islamic Republic, literally and potentially, on the Iranian streets.

Tough economic sanctions enforced by a US-led ‘coalition of the willing’, and a US nuclear umbrella for Gulf allies, are part of an emergent policy package – whether uranium enrichment freezes are (once again) agreed or not. For the US to put the squeeze on ordinary Iranians, however, and to expose the US’ Gulf allies economically and politically by obliging them to stop exporting refined oil products to Iran, would not make good sense for the Obama Administration. Yet it is a road that may be taken, short of other desirable options at present. Iraqi sanctions created an energy black market with business opportunities for Iraqi regime cronies and for the Gulf states. It also created unwelcome political heat throughout the Gulf.

GCC options

With the US committed to massive troop reductions in Iraq from 2012, the GCC states’ options, in this frontline of Iranian regional influence, are important. The need for the Arabs to up their diplomatic game in Iraq is acknowledged by well-placed Gulf nationals, who have welcomed the engagement by some GCC states over the last year. However, full Gulf engagement with Baghdad remains problematic when the KSA is absent from the diplomatic party. Saudi Arabia believes that Iraqi premier Nouri al-Maliki is essentially Iran’s man. Should the newly formed Iraqi Shia alliance remove him as prime minister either side of the 2010 Iraqi election, his likely successor seems no more likely to impress Riyadh.

In the past Saudi Arabia issued threats to Iran to keep out of ‘Arab Iraq’, warning of Riyadh’s Arab options inside the Islamic Republic. That rhetoric has been toned down, even as Saudi-Iranian hostilities at the clerical level have been stepped up over the last year or so. Recently improved Saudi-Syrian relations do not present opportunities for Saudi leverage with Iraq either. Syria’s ability to use its porous Iraqi border as a lever with Baghdad and Washington is not something that Riyadh can exploit. KSA shares with the US a desire to crush Sunni jihadi fighters in Iraq, given its own internal security concerns. Iraqi accusations to the contrary in the wake of increased violence in Iraq appear to be playing to a well-rehearsed Iraqi gallery, and venting anger as Saudi Arabia keeps its distance from Baghdad. The KSA’s Iraqi political links are broad, and have long been so. However a concerted Saudi policy of funding Sunni Jihadis across its northern border, while hardly alien to past Saudi policy practice in parts of the Islamic world, would set Riyadh on a collision course with Washington before the US has even significantly redeployed within Iraq. Were the US to genuinely pullout – a scenario questionable in light of the recent US agreement with Iraq to militarily stabilise Mosul and Kirkuk – then all bets are probably off in Saudi Arabia’s competition with Iran.

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies see that Iran’s power projection includes the soft power of religious and political propaganda among the Gulf Shia and wider Arab opinion, and armed intervention via perceived proxies in Lebanon, Gaza, and even to some extent in Egypt and Yemen. Saudi Arabia is determined to ensure that its southern neighbour is neither an Al-Qa’ida nor an Iranian base for the destabilisation of the Arabian Peninsula. It remains to be seen whether Saudi intervention in Yemen is stepped up from current efforts on the ground to use money to influence local tribal allies, to a more robust stance. The latter is unlikely to see a significant direct Saudi military role, a posture alien to its traditional foreign policy.

Defend us but don’t involve us

Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC are, as usual, unwilling to be in the frontline of US regional policy, but nonetheless cannot avoid it. They want Iran to be tackled, even militarily if this is the only way to deny it nuclear weapons power status, but they will as usual seek to minimise the risks that would be caused by a perceptibly anti-Iranian stance. Countering Iran may see more of the small diplomatic steps undertaken by some smaller Gulf states toward Iraq (and even toward Israel). However a combative Gulf posture economically, even militarily, toward Iran is unlikely without overt UN approval, and even then any attempted Iranian containment would probably prove leaky due to local Gulf political and economic interests. It will be for the US to decide whether containment plus military pressure is the way forward on Iran, mirroring the Iraq policy deemed appropriate during the 1990s. However, although Saudi and other GCC states’ assistance with such a policy is liable to be modest, it will be key to US efforts to build a political alliance against Iran and to the possible fighting of a fourth Gulf War.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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