Gulf States Should Push Iran to Get Serious About Lowering Tensions
Two days after the Hamas attack on Israel last weekend, a top Iranian official said that “Arab states willing to normalize relations with Israel [should] give up the process and learn a lesson from the latest developments in Palestine.” The comment makes one thing clear: Like Hamas, Tehran wants to stop Arab diplomatic normalization with Israel. This sort of warning from Tehran to the Gulf states also reflects a grand strategy of evicting Israel but also the United States from the Middle East. Iran wants to be a regional leader. However, the complex set of ties that exist between the Gulf states, Israel, and the United States will make that Iranian quest impossible in the short term.
The broader impact of the war between Hamas and Israel that began on Oct. 7, 2023, will take time to unfold. But already the warring sides and their supporters are vowing that the Middle East cannot go back to business as usual. As Iran maintains its commitment to Hamas, Israel will explore ways to limit Tehran’s regional influence. This Iranian-Israeli escalation, and possibly U.S.-Iranian escalation in turn, will be a test for ongoing Iranian efforts aimed at détente with the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf. The Gulf states, sensitive to Arab public opinion, will sit tight as regards Israel to see in which direction this latest round of hostilities will go. But the Gulf states invested in ties with Washington should not indulge Tehran’s aspirations to undercut U.S.-Gulf relations as the Middle East, in all likelihood, is entering a new era.
In fact, now is the time for Arab states in the Persian Gulf to act in unison towards Tehran. Rather than simply use defensive diplomacy to shield themselves from getting stuck in a conflict between the United States and Iran, they should think bigger. They should make clear to Tehran that de-escalation cannot come at the expense of their ties with Washington. This, in turn, could lead to a fresh attempt at a Gulf security dialogue. Iran might be forced to accept if it is serious about détente. After all, Tehran is not blind to the fact that its repeated attempts since the 1990s at introducing a regional security forum have failed, including the HOPE regional initiative most recently launched by Tehran at the United Nations in 2019.
In pursuing this goal, the Gulf states hold real leverage. The United Arab Emirates, for example, is not only one of Iran’s largest trading partners but a critical conduit for Tehran to international markets. Oman is increasingly playing a similar role, while Iran has big hopes for economic ties with Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Tehran’s much publicized “Neighborhood Policy” was born out of a desire to save Iran’s economy from American sanctions by strengthening economic ties with the Gulf states.
If the Gulf states launch a new approach to Iran, Washington should not expect to be in the driver’s seat. But the United States should encourage it, particularly as China is already experimenting with the role of peace-maker in the Persian Gulf.
The Gulf and Iran’s Illusions
For 44 years, the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council have been at the front lines of the U.S.-Iranian conflict. They have repeatedly negotiated hostage releases, facilitated nuclear talks, and in general provided venues for U.S.-Iranian secret diplomacy. The importance of their role to this relationship was demonstrated, once again, on Sept. 18, 2023, when Qatar and Oman helped facilitate the release of five Americans from Iranian captivity. Most recently, Oman and Qatar have pushed for direct nuclear talks between Tehran and Washington, which the Omani foreign minister called the “basis for regional peace.” These states have worked to tame Iran’s actions while also maintaining their long-time security ties with the United States.
As the six Gulf Cooperation Council states each evaluate how best to avoid becoming victims in the coming U.S.-Iranian conflict, two points should not be lost on them. First, the Gulf states have, historically, failed to be united in dealing with Tehran. Yes, there are many examples of the Gulf Cooperation Council secretariat issuing joint statements against Iran, but such rebukes are more symbolic than anything. Ironically, the birth of the Islamic Republic in 1979 and the Iran-Iraq war that began the next year were the two main catalysts for the Gulf states to establish the Cooperation Council in 1981. But, with a handful of exceptions, the Gulf states have since 1981 never seriously approached Iran as a united bloc. Tehran — and this is hardly surprising — prefers division among its southern Arab neighbors.
This takes us to the second point. One-off or transactional mediation efforts, such as the recent hostage release or even more systematic attempts at resolving the U.S.-Iranian nuclear standoff, are, however well intentioned, inadequate for the principal challenge at hand. If the Gulf Arab states want to pursue sustainable de-escalation between Tehran and Washington, they will have to do more. At this tender diplomatic moment, when Tehran is investing heavily in détente with its Gulf neighbors, responding plainly — and as a united front — should be their priority.
The Gulf states should start by making clear that they oppose Iran’s demand for the U.S. military to withdraw from the Gulf region. Washington does not intend to do so and Tehran knows this full well. Getting Iran to openly admit to this reality is a task that the Gulf states are best placed to achieve. This will save Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei the effort of delivering speeches — like the one he gave in early October to Muslim ambassadors — where he insists that the U.S. presence is the one stumbling block to regional peace. Once this is out of the way, the Gulf States — backed by the United States — and Iran can shift focus to more practical negotiations.
Washington’s ongoing security partnership with the Gulf states — like the U.S.-Bahrain strategic agreement signed in September — should clearly demonstrate to Tehran that the United States is not going to wash its hands of the region. Yes, the six Gulf states are each wrestling with the question of the future of their relations with Washington. But none of them are ready to accept the Iranian call for them to drop America as their ultimate security partner in the foreseeable future. Likewise, China is not about to displace the United States as the single most important security provider for the Gulf states. China’s security presence in the Gulf region is growing but even if China pushes hard to dislodge the United States and Washington opts not to push back, the process would take years. Therefore, the faster that Tehran can accept that the United States is unlikely to fully leave the Gulf, the faster the Gulf states and Tehran can move their collective security dialogue forward.
Iran’s Non-Starter Demand of the Gulf States
At the 2023 U.N. General Assembly, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi made an offer to the Gulf states. Raisi spoke of a “new chapter of friendship and mutual trust” before proceeding to demand that “security of the region must be provided endogenously and without external interference.”
This anti-American Raisi talking-point, which had no doubt been pre-approved by Khamenei, will once again fall on deaf ears across the Gulf states. For nearly half a century, this thinking has pushed Tehran to pair up with an assortment of regimes that shared its anti-Americanism — including Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, Venezuela under Hugo Chavez, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia — while squandering the opportunities that a more balanced foreign policy could have brought. Iran, as a result, has been left isolated and economically vulnerable.
This Iranian track record has been instructive to its Arab Gulf neighbors. They have successfully moved in the opposite direction, opting to strengthen their foreign policy by building ties with the United States, as well as with China, India, and even Israel. The Gulf states have managed to balance these sometimes opposing alliances and maintain their close ties to Washington while managing the occasional disagreements that arise. This is how, for example, Riyadh can engage Washington in discussions on a defense pact shortly after Saudi Arabia (and the United Arab Emirates) were offered membership into BRICS bloc, an ostensible counterweight to the United States.
Tehran’s repeated calls on the Gulf states to abandon the Americans runs counter to not only the security calculations of Gulf capitals but also their long-term economic plans. The Gulf states are each earnestly pursuing agendas for the post-hydrocarbon world, and at the heart of that is the need to remain fully integrated into the global economy. Key to that integration will be positive relations with the United States, which still plays an enormous global economic role.
Where Iran chose to make its economy a hostage of its revolutionary foreign policy, the Gulf States have made their economies a second pillar in relations with Washington. In a speech at the United Nations, Raisi proudly declared that after 1979, Iran expelled foreigners — meaning Americans and other Westerners — from the country while warning the Gulf states not to put their security in the hands of Washington. It is bewildering that Raisi would think this message would be compelling Gulf leaders. They have since 1979 achieved massive economic developments with Washington as their security underwriter. In the meantime, Iran’s economy is at the mercy of a handful of willing trading partners who happily buy Iranian oil at a steep discount.
Grab This Bull By the Horns
The Gulf states are serious about de-escalation with Iran. At a very minimum, they cannot comfortably pursue their economic agendas under the threat of Iranian missiles and drones. However, there is no sign that these states are ready to give up on the Americans as their ultimate protector. To make that abundantly obvious — both publicly and in private discussions with Tehran — could enable Iran to be more realistic.
During the Iran-Iraq war of 1980–88, the favorite slogan of Tehran’s ruling class was “War, war until victory.” It became a very costly mantra. Today, they would be better served to pursue détente with Gulf states not by demanding what Iran wants, and fighting until they get it, but by accepting what is on the table.
The Gulf states also need to prove that they can speak with one voice in terms of their basic demands from Tehran. Their record on collective security cooperation is, to put it mildly, checkered. There was the hugely damaging Gulf spat of 2017–2021 and reports of ongoing Emirati-Saudi tensions in Yemen, not to mention disagreements over the Sudanese civil war. One of the stated reasons why Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain cut ties with Qatar was due to Doha’s working relations with Tehran and Hamas.
The skeptics, therefore, should be forgiven if the idea of a collective approach by the Gulf states toward Iran seems fanciful. But that is to miss the point. What is pressing is not the formation of a unified and comprehensive policy by the Gulf states toward Iran. That requires the sort of political unity that does not exist at the moment among the Gulf states. But the low-hanging fruit is for the Gulf states to together ask for Tehran’s acceptance of American military-security presence as a fundamental pre-requisite for any sustainable détente between Iran and any one of the six Gulf states.
If Tehran drops the demand that U.S. forces pull out from the Gulf states before serious dialogue and cooperation can begin, then the process might have a chance to succeed. Tangible steps that Iran and the Gulf states could then take are not hard to imagine. For example, there is today no proper collective mechanism for the littoral states of the Persian Gulf to deal with such matters as shipping and environmental security. Nor do these states have formal channels of communication to enable early warning, prevention, and resolution of conflict, as Iran’s 2019 HOPE initiative had called for.
Perhaps most urgently, the littoral Gulf States today do not have a forum that can enable crisis management in the event of escalation in territorial and resources disputes. The potential for such crises is significant, whether around the Iranian-Emirati dispute over three islands in the Gulf or the Iranian claim on the Dorra gas field that Kuwait and Saudi Arabia claim to be in their territorial waters. The stakes are high, and the Middle East would surely benefit from a more sober Iranian-Gulf dialogue.
Alex Vatanka is the director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. His most recent book is The Battle of the Ayatollahs in Iran: The United States, Foreign Policy, and Political Rivalry Since 1979. @AlexVatanka