Iran is one of the principal security concerns of the Gulf States

At the beginning of May an alleged Iranian spy cell was broken up in Kuwait. But perhaps Iran needs GCC states more than they need Iran.


1. After a one-day summit of Gulf Cooperation Council secretary general Abdulrahman al-Attiyah said: “The security of the Gulf region is a red line. The security of the Gulf cannot be divided.” What are the main security concerns of the Gulf States? Are they any reasons to think Iran is one of them and even on top of the list?

2. What are the main political and security interests of Iran in the region?


Bernd Kaussler, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, James Madison University

1. Rather than changing course and making concessions vis-à-vis the West on its nuclear programm, for the last 5 years Iran has again structural and tactical moves, which were designed to control the damage and demonstrate its assertive defense posture vis-à-vis the US and its allies in the Persian Gulf. Far from than addressing the core issues and western grievances as well as coming clear with its own security concerns, the Iranian leadership defied UN Security Council resolutions and continued with its “policy of ambiguity”: as such, it engaged in a policy of détente vis-à-vis its Persian Gulf neighbors, attempting to secure economic cooperation and to cause them to bandwagon with its growing weight in the region, whilst at the same time continued to use deterrence by means of military interventions, maneuvers and ambiguous government polemic.

Note: It remains to be seen whether the latest deal brokered by Turkey and Brazil will materialize but, the above characterization has been Iran’s regional diplomacy for the last couple of years. It’s too early to tell, whether Iran stopped negotiating in bad faith.

As far as the ‘red line” is concerned with the GCC Secretary-General mentioned, it essentially caused a quandary in which the US rallies Arab states against Iran whilst Tehran continues to engage in rhetoric and policies designed to intimidate, co-opt and dominate the Arab Gulf states. Whilst America’s Arab allies have always found themselves in this dilemma – caught between their strategic commitments to Washington whilst trying to accommodate themselves with Iran as the emerging regional hegemon – the failure to solve the nuclear issue by diplomatic means and the subsequent sanctions regime has only exacerbated these regional tensions. Iran tries to split the GCC (divide et impera) if you like, wooing some whilst lashing out against others.

By and large, Iran entered numerous economic agreements with various GCC states (particular Bahrain and Oman) but continued with a language of ambiguity, reminding Arab states of Iran’s military dominance in the region. Coupled with large scale military maneuvers, government officials continued with polemic statements.

For example, in an editorial in July of 2007, Hossein Shariatmadari, an adviser to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, alarmed Arab Gulf states when he suggested that Bahrain should, after almost five centuries of separation, fall back under Iranian sovereignty. (He is largely considered to be the mouthpiece of the Supreme Leader)

Also this February, the Speaker of the Iranian Parliament Ali Larijani warned the GCC during his visit in Kuwait. “Iran does not want to inflict any harm on the GCC states,” but “I believe that for the sake of having new military bases in the region … and control over its resources, the Americans and Zionists are trying to scare [countries in] the region [into distancing themselves] from Iran. We feel that certain regional groups, in addition to America and the Zionists, are trying to create disputes between Iran and the states in the region. We will not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.” (Gulf News, February 2010)

2. In the absence of an indigenous Middle Eastern or even only Persian Gulf security regime, neither Iran nor the GCC will be able to trust one another completely. The U.S. is both the security guarantor for the Arab Gulf states, and the reason for instability in the eyes for the Iranians. It truly is a Cold War scenario in which both countries view themselves with great suspicion and mistrust about each others’ intention and capabilities. Iran sees itself as the regional hegemon (which it is)- thanks to the US, Iraq is now the world’s first Shi’a Arab government and largely friendly to Tehran. This is what the Iranian Foreign Ministry called “Iran’s soft power” in the region. Almost the entire Iraqi political establishment (Iraq’s Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution) as well as grassroots organization (Mahdi Army under Sadr) are more linked to Iran than any other state in the region – be it education on Shi’a jurisprudence, exile in Iran during Saddam’s reign or political links to Tehran. Iran is by no means calling the shots in Baghdad, but its clout is extensive – more than the Americans like it.

Arab states are also vary of Iran championing the Palestinian cause at their expenses – in the absence of popular legitimacy and democracy, the rallying call for Palestine has always been a token for Arab/Muslim unity by Arab Gulf States. (it really has always been lip service and Petrol dollars).

Iran has certainly been meddling in GCC countries and established an intelligence network. Former Iranian Ambassador to Dubai (Assadi) claims that there is a an extensive spy – ring by the IRGC.

Kristian Ulrichsen, Research Fellow, Centre for the Study of Global Governance, London School of Economics and Political Science

1. The primary short-term danger to Saudi Arabia is from the threat of overspill from Yemen. This is a physical threat that already has proven its trans-national reach – the attempted assassination of Prince Mohamed bin Nayef in August 2009 and the three-month long military campaign undertaken by Saudi forces against the Houthi from November 2009 to February 2010 are evidence of this. The resurgence of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, following its tactical and operational rollback in Saudi Arabia from 2004-6, is another dimension of this immediate threat. Compared to this, Iran presents an ideational threat more than a physical threat, although the GCC states do have reason to worry about the blowback from any US or Israeli strike against Iran. In addition, Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons poses a longer-term possibility of a regional nuclear cascade, and some of the smaller GCC states worry about Saudi Arabia acquiring nuclear weapons in response, thereby furthering their perceptions of Saudi hegemony in the Arabian Peninsula. But Yemen is very much the primary risk and Iran is at most secondary and latent, at this moment in time.

2. Iran has always desired to become the major player in the Gulf and exert a degree of regional hegemony. However its foreign policy has shown itself to be more pragmatic than revolutionary, at least since the early 1980s. It has benefited substantially from US-led mis-steps in Iraq and acquired a degree of strategic depth there that has worried the GCC states a good deal. The occupied UAE islands notwithstanding (and occasional references to Iranian claims on Bahrain), Iran has not pursued an overtly expansionist policy in the Gulf but it has rather cleverly leveraged its ideational/political power in order to create an air of uncertainty and apprehension in the GCC states at the prospect of siding too closely with the US against it. Hence, aside from veiled (and not so veiled) threats that Iran would target the GCC states first in retaliation for any military strikes against it, Iran has begun to expand its economic and commercial ties with individual GCC states, notably Qatar and Oman, both in an effort to prevent a coherent GCC policy developing over Iran, and also to draw these states closer so that the risk of disruption becomes too great to be acceptable. Iran needs the GCC states more than they need Iran, as evidenced by the role of Dubai as one of the primary loopholes in evading the international sanctions regime, and this has led to its engagement with individual GCC states in areas where there clearly is room for cooperation, for example over joint energy projects.

J.E. Peterson, Historian and Political Analyst, Contemporary Arabian Peninsula and Gulf

1. In answer to your first question, I think that the GCC does regard Iran as a principal security concern.  It was not that long ago, after all, that Iran was punishing the GCC states for their support of Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War (attacking Kuwaiti tankers, the single combat aircraft attack on Saudi Arabia, Iranian naval threats to Omani territorial waters, the clashes during successive hajjs) and memories live a long time.  There has always been this age-old suspicion of Iran.  That said, I don’t think the GCC states really share the perception of the US and European countries that Iran is a rogue state that will threaten them with nuclear weapons.  I suspect that they believe that Western pressure on Iran will drive Tehran to actually develop nuclear weapons and that unsettles them.

2. A lot has happened in Iran since the 1979 revolution and generally speaking there seems to be a greater realization that Iran has to live in correct relations if not harmony with all its neighbors. Thus there is considerable cooperation with individual GCC members on many matters.  At the same time, however, a quick look at the map shows that Iran is surrounded by American forces and real or potential instability in the Central Asian republics to the north and in Pakistan to the southwest.  This pushes it to be more defiant in its approach to the US, the West, and the West’s GCC allies.

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