The Gulf States and the Iran Nuclear Deal: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Leaders and representatives of the GCC states at a summit in Riyadh in December 2018. Courtesy of Tu Yifan / Alamy Stock Photo

While they fear what might come next, leaders across the Gulf are begrudgingly backing the resumption of talks on reviving the JCPOA.

Talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal are set to resume in Vienna this week after a six-month hiatus. Negotiating teams from Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1) are convening in the Austrian capital, but the decision of whether or not to reinstate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) will ultimately be made in Washington and Tehran. The other parties to the deal – the Europeans, China and Russia – have always remained committed to the 2015 agreement, but they know that its survival depends primarily on Iran’s compliance with restrictions on its nuclear programme, and US preparedness to lift sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

Meanwhile, the countries of the Middle East have even less influence on the matter. There is no unified regional position regarding Iran. Saudi Arabia and its fellow Gulf monarchies, as well as many of the other Arab states, see Iran as a threat to their national and wider regional security, but their specific concerns vary, and each of them has its own unique relationship with the Islamic Republic. Nevertheless, as the Vienna talks resume, the general mood in the region is probably best described as a combination of disillusionment, resignation and foreboding.

A Sense of Déjà Vu

The Gulf states have always insisted that any agreement with Iran must go beyond the nuclear issue and also deal with Tehran’s missile programme and destabilising activities across the region, namely its support for armed non-state actors like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. Their fears that Iran will use any benefits derived from sanctions relief as part of a nuclear agreement to fuel these other activities are as present today as they were before the JCPOA was signed.

In fact, when assessing Iran’s behaviour in the region since 2015, governments across the Gulf feel that their predictions in this regard have been proven right. From their perspective, Iran’s nefarious influence across the region – whether in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria or Yemen, or in the waters of the Gulf and the Arabian Sea – has only intensified over the past six years.

Yet, while Washington and the rest of the P5+1 recognise that these issues have to be dealt with eventually in order to stabilise the Middle East, they are again pursuing a sequential or parallel approach: deal with the Iranian nuclear programme first, without direct involvement of regional states, and then support and foster initiatives for regional dialogue. Striking some kind of grand bargain that encompasses both Iran’s nuclear programme and regional security is seen as too complex an undertaking.

When assessing Iran’s behaviour in the region since 2015, governments across the Gulf feel that their predictions have been proven right

This assessment may be correct, but that does little to reassure the states in the region that Iran will be any more open to constructively engaging with their concerns than in the past, or that the P5+1 will indeed push for follow-up agreements on regional security.

Gulf Monarchies Begrudgingly Back the JCPOA

Earlier this month, the six Gulf monarchies, as well as Egypt and Jordan, joined the US and the E3 (the UK, France and Germany) in calling for a ‘return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA.’ This echoed a similar statement released earlier by the US-GCC Working Group on Iran, which was first created in 2015 to reassure the Gulf states of Washington’s continued commitment to their security.

For some of the Gulf states, this position is nothing new. Oman, for example, played a key role in facilitating the negotiations that led to the JCPOA in the early 2010s, and Qatar and Kuwait have also generally been in favour of the agreement since it was signed in 2015. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, meanwhile, were among the most vocal supporters of the decision by former US President Donald Trump to rip up the deal and increase the pressure on Iran.

Nevertheless, that Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Manama are now calling for a return to the JCPOA should not be misinterpreted as denoting any substantial enthusiasm for the agreement. Instead, they have likely concluded that they are better off not looking like spoilers of nuclear diplomacy.

If the JCPOA is indeed revived, the Gulf states hope that Washington will appreciate their pro-agreement stance and consequently be more inclined to back them as they engage with Tehran to address their various concerns regarding regional security. What they dread even more than an Iran strengthened and emboldened by sanctions relief is being left alone to deal with Tehran’s regional ambitions.

In this context, the recent US withdrawal from Afghanistan exemplifies a nightmare scenario for the Gulf states: in their view, Washington first made a deal with the Taliban to secure its own interests, then insisted that it wanted to facilitate an agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, but ultimately withdrew without expending much effort in this direction, leaving the Taliban to take over the country.

In the Middle East version of this scenario, the Biden administration secures its nuclear deal with Iran, calls for follow-up agreements on regional security, but then turns its back on the region, giving Iran free reign to do what it wants. Although bilateral channels of communication between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf states have opened up over the past two years or so, there is little confidence in the Gulf that these will yield tangible results unless Iran knows that the US remains committed to its partners in the region.

What the Gulf states dread even more than an Iran strengthened and emboldened by sanctions relief is being left alone to deal with Tehran’s regional ambitions

In short, the Gulf states’ public backing for a return to the JCPOA is – for the most part – likely an attempt to secure the goodwill of the US and the rest of the P5+1 for what comes after a nuclear deal is struck.

Any Deal is Better than No Deal?

Furthermore, the Gulf states also now appear to see an outcome of the Vienna talks that at least reinstates the inspection regime on Iran’s nuclear programme as constituting the least bad option available. From their perspective, both a breakdown of nuclear diplomacy and a continued stalemate during which Iran can make further advances in its nuclear programme increases the likelihood of their other nightmare scenario becoming reality: regional military escalation precipitated by US and/or Israeli military action against Iranian nuclear facilities.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others have often complained that Washington has allowed Iran to feel too secure from the threat of US military strikes on its territory – at least as long as it upholds the semblance of a willingness to compromise, and maybe even if it does not. But while they want to see US military muscle in the Gulf to deter Iran, they do not actually want it to be used. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi – probably rightly – have fewer doubts about Israel’s resolve to use force if it sees no other way to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb.

The Gulf states take Iran’s threats that it would respond to any military action on its soil by retaliating against targets in Dubai or elsewhere in the Gulf very seriously. In this regard, the missile and drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities in September 2019 – widely attributed to Iran – served as a stark illustration of their vulnerability to Iran’s capabilities, and fuelled their fears that they cannot rely on US protection.

Saudi Arabia and its fellow Gulf monarchies are therefore united in having no interest whatsoever in another war in their immediate neighbourhood, particularly at a time when they are trying to direct all their resources towards the existential challenge of diversifying their economies away from their dependency on oil and gas. The setback to reform efforts caused by the economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic, paired with the growing momentum behind international efforts to decarbonise the world economy, means that governments in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and across the Gulf are under ever-growing pressure to secure their countries’ economic future.

In sum, when it comes down to it, the Gulf states do not currently see a viable alternative to a renewed nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1. They fear what might come next, but at least for the moment they accept – however begrudgingly – that a deal that takes the prospect of an Iranian nuclear bomb off the table without risking a disastrous military conflagration in the region may be all they can realistically hope for.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Tobias Borck

Senior Associate Fellow

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