14 May 2015
A broader diplomatic effort is needed to defuse tensions between Iran and its Gulf neighbours.

Jane Kinninmont

Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme


Barack Obama holds a bilateral meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia in the Oval Office on 13 May 2015. Photo by Getty Images.
Barack Obama holds a bilateral meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia in the Oval Office on 13 May 2015. Photo by Getty Images.


At Camp David this week, US President Barack Obama intends to reassure his Gulf allies about the planned nuclear deal with Iran. But the new Saudi king and his Bahraini counterpart have both declined his invitation. This is widely seen as another indication of Gulf Arab displeasure with the US, following extensive lobbying by some of the Gulf Arab states against Obama’s Iran policy.

The tensions between the Gulf monarchies and Iran are not just the US's problem. Key members of the international community have worked together to prepare the ground for this Iran deal. It has been a rare example of cooperation between the US and Europe on one hand, and Russia and China on the other.

But the regional political fallout of the talks has been badly managed and is now playing out violently. And further conflict around the Gulf region is bad news for the world economy and oil market, not just the US. Other powers need to work with the US to prevent the regional tensions escalating into further conflicts—or Yemen could be just the beginning.

Fallout of the Iran deal

At the Camp David summit, the US is expected to offer the Gulf states yet more advanced weaponry, defence and security cooperation, and assurances about its commitment to their security from military threats.

All the Gulf states rely on US arms and training for their militaries. However, what they want from the US is a far deeper political commitment to a regional order in which they and their allies remain the dominant powers in the Arab world. Ideally, from their perspective, this would mean Iran’s allies are weakened in or pushed out of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, while Egypt and the Arab monarchies offer authoritarian stability and counterterrorism cooperation, with no internal or external pressure to democratize or to accommodate Islamists.

By contrast, the US believes the region is changing: Obama recently said the Gulf’s main challenges were internal rather than stemming from Iran. But the US administration doesn’t want to implement a new vision of change to the region’s established political structures, having been burned by overambitious attempts to reshape the Middle East through the invasion of Iraq. By contrast, it has edged back from initially supporting regime change in Syria.

Instead, Obama has focused on efforts to reduce the US footprint in the region and end long-running conflicts that have kept drawing the US back into the Middle East—the enmity between the US and Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute—while engaging in counterterrorism. However, this minimal approach will not be enough to end the conflict with Iran. There is also a need to address Iran’s tensions and disputes with its neighbours.

The nuclear talks focus on one aspect of regional security, namely weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, questions about the broader regional security order remain unaddressed by international diplomacy.

Iran hopes that making peace with the US will end its international isolation and allow it to play the larger role it believes it deserves on the international stage. It portrays itself as a bulwark against Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, but to fight these movements in Iraq and Syria, it has expanded a network of allied militias that raises serious questions about the future sovereignty of these countries and alarms the Gulf monarchies (who see an Iranian hand in Yemen and ultimately fear Iran could influence their own internal opposition movements).

For the P5+1 (the US, UK, Germany, France, Russia and China), including divisive issues like Iran's role in Syria would over-complicate talks and split the international negotiators. But if these issues are not resolved diplomatically, the regional actors will seek to settle them through force.

This regional competition is already contributing to the conflicts in Syria and Yemen. Disappointed in international diplomacy, regional actors like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are taking matters into their own hands. They are using the airstrikes against the Houthi militia in Yemen as a show of force toward its ally, Iran. This is intended to warn Iran that even if it makes peace with the US, regional players will want to push back against it.

The Gulf states can't yet handle it alone 

In Yemen, the Gulf countries have demonstrated for the first time their willingness and ability to use their aerial power—the one area where they have military superiority over Iran, as sanctions have badly weakened its air force.

The airstrikes also have domestic political benefits: they are generating a new kind of nationalistic fervor in Saudi Arabia, where they are closely associated with both the new crown prince and the king’s most important son, the young defence minister, who is third in line to the throne.

However, Yemen is no closer to a political solution, and many reports from the ground suggest the airstrikes are backfiring politically—turning displaced and impoverished civilians against the Yemeni president the Gulf countries are supposed to be helping. The humanitarian impact of airstrikes on the Arab world’s poorest country is so bad that some Yemenis are trying to flee to Somalia. The Yemeni government—its leader, President Abed Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, is now in exile in Riyadh, the Saudi capital—has asked the UN to provide ground troops, underscoring the need for greater international involvement.

Resolving Gulf-Iran tensions should not be just a US issue 

For now, the Gulf countries are directing most of their complaints to the US. But this regional dispute represents a broader international problem.

Saudi Arabia has talked of diversifying its alliances away from the US, and has been 'looking east' for new partnerships for some years. However, no rising power has either the capacity or the will to take on the role of 'policeman' of the Gulf that the US has played in recent years.

And even if China or Pakistan or India wanted to play some kind of maritime security role in the future, there is no reason for them to take the anti-Iranian approach that the US has taken for the past 30 years. They prefer a non-aligned approach that allows them to trade with both sides of the Gulf. 

This has been emphasized by the fact that Pakistan, a key ally of Saudi Arabia and UAE, refused to send its ground troops to Yemen. China supported Pakistan's decision as well as a ceasefire in Yemen. Russia has also been calling for a ceasefire.

Rather than turning to Asia, the Gulf countries are increasingly relying on older European allies—the UK, which has just elected a Conservative government that favors expanding Britain's military footprint in the Gulf, and France, where the country's president has just secured a major defence deal with Qatar following a tour of the Gulf. But these countries also support the nuclear deal with Iran. And French and British companies are eyeing the possible lifting of sanctions on Iran with interest. 

Britain and the US may support the airstrikes publicly and remain willing to provide arms, while officials are privately calling for a ceasefire, knowing from their own experience the limits of airstrikes.

If the region is to become more stable and peaceful, the US, Europe, Russia and China need to support a diplomatic process to resolve the issues between Iran and its Gulf Arab neighbours. These powers have cooperated successfully in the progress made toward a nuclear deal with Iran.

Now they need to guard against the benefits of the deal being outweighed by its costs. Beyond Camp David, a much broader effort is needed to make the area that Iran shares with the Gulf monarchies more politically secure, not just well supplied with weapons.

This article was originally published in Newsweek.

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