Competing Interests and Disparate Payoffs: GCC States Weigh Outcomes of Iran Unrest
The truth is that no GCC state, nor any of Iran’s neighbors, want it to collapse, even if it brings about the end of decades-old animosities with the government in Tehran.
The widespread upheaval in Iran following the killing of Mahsa Amini has shifted international attention away from talks to resurrect the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and back to the Islamic Republic’s record of human rights violations. Although Western powers have responded to Tehran’s repression with travel bans, asset freezes, and further sanctions, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have chosen not to interfere, generally viewing the protests as an internal Iranian issue.
To be sure, the Gulf Arab states have always held divergent perspectives on Iran-related issues. The ongoing demonstrations are a case in point. It is safe to say, however, that the hawkish anti-Iranian camp in the GCC—comprised of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—likely welcome the wave of unrest as the death knell for JCPOA revival efforts.
Riyadh, Manama, and Abu Dhabi have long opposed the 2015 nuclear deal. They persistently lobbied the Trump administration to withdraw from the deal and apply “maximum pressure” on Tehran through an extensive sanctions regime. Although the UAE has been highly strategic and pragmatic in its approach toward Iran, officials in Abu Dhabi, along with their counterparts in Riyadh and Manama, have expressed grave concerns about some of the details being negotiated between Iran and the P5+1 to revive the nuclear deal.
A Public Relations Opportunity
The Iranian government’s brutality helps the Saudis, Bahrainis, and Emiratis drive the message home to officials in Washington, particularly Democrats seeking to restore the JCPOA, that Iran’s regime is “medieval” and thus the U.S. “must not strike a deal with [Tehran] when it comes to the nuclear issue,” Dr Andreas Krieg, an associate professor at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London, told the Gulf International Forum.
The Saudis, Bahrainis, and Emiratis all stand to gain from the further deterioration of Iran’s image in the eyes of the West. The Saudis have an opportunity to further polish their image and present the Kingdom as more forward-thinking than the Islamic Republic. In April 2016, Saudi Arabia stripped its religious police of the power to arrest, and wearing the hijab is no longer mandatory. Meanwhile, Amini’s death following her arrest by Iran’s “morality police” has provoked significant backlash not only within Iran, but across the globe. Those in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s inner circle perceive an obvious contrast to exploit. “The crown prince’s lifting of a ban on women’s driving and enhancement of women’s rights and professional opportunities is what inspired women-led protests in Iran…as well as Iran’s recent relaxing of its prohibition on women attending men’s soccer matches,” noted Nanyang Technological University’s Dr. James Dorsey.
Yet, some experts dismiss this claim that Iranian women take inspiration from the Kingdom’s reforms. Azadeh Moaveni, an associate professor of Journalism at New York University told the Gulf International Forum that “Iranian women have always sought and achieved reforms from the bottom-up, and that’s why their gains have been more durable.”
A Wounded Animal?
From the standpoint of regional security, the picture is more complicated. On one hand, the GCC’s anti-Iran hawks remain cautiously optimistic about the potential for instability in Iran to shift Tehran’s attention inward, away from its intervention in several Arab countries. Saudi analyst Ali Shihabi told the Gulf International Forum that Saudi leaders hope that “a more moderate regime focused on improving the lot of the Iranian people, rather than on power projection beyond their borders,” emerges in Tehran because of the protests.
On the other hand, there is also reason for the Gulf Arab monarchies to worry about an assertive Iranian response to deflect from the upheaval at home. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ missile and drone strikes in northern Iraq last month suggest that Tehran has the capabilities and the willingness to pursue this strategy. “There is a threat that the Iranians could use this opportunity to escalate externally to distract from internal issues,” pointed out Dr. Krieg. Tehran could use domestic instability as a rallying point.
Yet, a forceful response could endanger the Gulf’s tenuous diplomatic thaw. The UAE and Saudi Arabia began serious efforts to hold talks with the Iranians in 2019 and 2021, respectively. The UAE recently re-established its ambassador to Tehran, highlighting just how far the Emiratis and Iranians have come in their efforts to improve bilateral ties. Iran’s current turmoil, however, could impact GCC states’ diplomatic engagement with Iran. Whether Iran will become more disposed to diplomacy during this period of unrest is of great importance to Riyadh. “It all depends on Iran’s behavior,” said Shihabi. “In a weakened state its government might be more flexible or more dangerous, so [it is] difficult to tell.”
The so-called “doves” in the GCC—Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar, all of which want the JCPOA revived—may regret that domestic turmoil in Iran could render the JCPOA nonviable. In particular, the Qataris and Omanis remain hesitant to condemn Tehran’s repression, lest they endanger their countries’ relations with the Islamic Republic. Doha may assume that the situation in Iran is set to lead to greater instability, albeit short of the government falling. Given Qatar’s vested interests in reconstituting the JCPOA, Doha likely expects that the authorities in Tehran will be the Iranians with whom they must negotiate if they want to reinstate and uphold the nuclear deal. For this reason, it is unlikely that Qatari authorities will seek to align themselves with the regime’s internal resistance. “The Qataris are pushing back and saying, ‘We are on the side of the people, but at the same time we also need to maintain a neutral position’ because of the ongoing mediation that the Qataris are doing when it comes to the prisoner release and the wider JCPOA mediation that the Qataris are engaged in,” explained Dr Krieg. “The Qataris [may] say, ‘We stand with the people, and we are against oppression.’ But that’s as far as it would go.”
Oman adheres to the principle of non-interference and has elected to stay out of Iran’s internal affairs. Having previously served as a diplomatic broker between the United States and Iran on nuclear and non-nuclear issues, the Sultanate probably prioritizes reviving the JCPOA. From Muscat’s standpoint, a failure to restore the JCPOA could prove disastrous. Like Qatar, Oman’s position is that the nuclear accord is the only viable option for peacefully resolving the nuclear brinkmanship between Tehran and Washington.
Iran’s government, while under growing domestic pressure, has an even stronger incentive to access to foreign funds to please its restless citizenry. Therefore, Iran’s opposition to Washington’s JCPOA demands are probably less rigid now than they were two months ago. This means that Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait could stand to gain if Iran accepts the West’s terms for a restored nuclear deal. Nonetheless, the current unrest in Iran significantly dims the prospects for the Biden administration agreeing to a JCPOA revival.
Stability Over All
Regardless of how the ongoing unrest in Iran ultimately impacts Tehran’s domestic political and social arenas or its relations with the United States, all countries in the Gulf region will monitor how developments progress. The GCC states must react to the upheaval based on their national interests, recognizing both the potential benefits and pitfalls of the protest movements.
There may exist some optimism among Gulf Arab officials about the possibility for unrest to transform Iran and its regional policy in ways that suit their interests. But it is reasonable to assume that regime change in Iran is highly unlikely to be a swift, bloodless, or smooth occurrence, if it happens at all. The truth is that no GCC state, nor any of Iran’s neighbors, want it to collapse, even if it brings about the end of decades-old animosities with the government in Tehran. “If Iran’s situation deteriorates into a civil war where potentially the security sector would move away from supporting the regime and switch sides to the people,” explains Dr. Krieg, “that would obviously be the sort of destabilization that pretty much everyone in the Gulf is concerned about, even if the Saudis and Bahrainis might be wishing for it.”
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.