The tension in the Gulf region related to Iran is increasing. At the same time, though, we are anticipating the implementation of a new U.S. policy towards Iran, mainly with the start of the U.S.-Iran negotiations. President Biden and his team have made it clear that they are seeking de-escalation with Iran, in preparation for U.S. withdrawal from the region to focus on other international priorities such as Russia and China.
With U.S. withdrawal on the horizon, it will fall to the other Arab states—and particularly the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—to play the central role in maintaining peace and security in the Gulf region. Since 1979, the major threat to peace in the Gulf has been the animosity between the Islamic Republic of Iran and some Gulf states. Tensions in the Gulf region have escalated dramatically in recent years, and spillover has been seen in Syria and Yemen. However, though its foreign policy is often criticized, the Iranian regime cannot be dislodged from the region by force; it is here to stay, and it will eventually be necessary for the Gulf countries to start a dialogue with it. Fortunately, the conditions laid out by the Biden Administration will likely provide the GCC states with a unique opportunity to mend fences with Iran.
Negotiating With Iran
The suggestion that a truce will push Iran to further extremism is probably inaccurate. Iran today is not the Iran of 1980; the Islamic Republic has transformed from a fundamentalist “revolutionary” state to a stable country whose decision-making process is fundamentally based on rational objectives. Right now, the most important of those objectives is to fix Iran’s disastrous global and financial status, both of which have been hollowed out after years of punitive sanctions.
Seeking dialogue may also open specific opportunities with the country for Washington. President Nixon’s successful visit to China in the early 1970s opened the door to positive changes in the Sino-American relationship, despite the stark ideological differences between both countries. American openness to China changed many Chinese political trends; it probably also led to internal reforms of the Chinese Communist Party, albeit without changing the core of the CCP’s ideology.
What Sanctions Have Not Achieved
America’s traditional policy of boycotting and blockading Iran and sanctioning the country has cost Tehran billions of dollars in lost revenue and undoubtedly constrained some of its regional influence. However, in the sense that the sanctions were aimed to correct Iran’s malign behavior, they have not been successful. Instead, the sanctions’ main victims have been the Iranian people, rather than the ruling class which dictates Tehran’s policies. The sanctions have also failed to change the regime, a furtive objective of many hawks in Washington. Moreover, the Iranian regime has managed to find loopholes in the sanctions and has continued to import and export and evade sanctions.
On the other hand, due to its increasing domestic production of oil and the decline of fossil fuels in favor of renewables, America’s new policy is less concerned with protecting energy sources as it was in previous decades. This will make American policy in the Middle East less dependent on oil-related considerations, which led to the initial U.S. involvement in several conflicts in the region.
Because the United States knows that it has to focus more on its competition with China, it will not allow Israel or any of the GCC states to place conditions on its return to the JCPOA. Instead, the United States will likely insist that its Arab partners accept a compromise with Tehran that would curb its behavior but allow it a role in Middle Eastern politics.
The U.S. Priorities in the Gulf are Changing
The declining influence of the United States, and its increasing reluctance to commit itself to Middle Eastern political and military conflicts, is a major challenge for the differing regional policies of the Gulf states, which have long depended on Washington as a source of security. This has led some Gulf states to pursue political and security relations with a previously-unimaginable source—Israel—to compensate for the American retreat. Other states, such as Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman, have sought to decrease the chance of conflict by pursuing less confrontational policies towards Iran.
The changes in American foreign policy in the region have also reached Yemen, where we are seeing a divergence in America’s policy from those of some GCC states. The United States has banned the export of offensive weapons to the Arab coalition in the war in Yemen, and it is expected that American diplomats will meet with representatives of a Yemeni government that includes members of the Houthis.
The conflict between Iran and some GCC states, if continued, will expose the security of the region to additional challenges and conflicts. This will lead to greater fear from foreign investors to explore investment opportunities in the GCC, probably leading to a further drop of oil prices.
Iran Must Be Treated as a Regional Power
One thing is certain: no matter what happens, Iran will not disappear from the region. Although Tehran’s regional agenda is troubling to the GCC, Iran has the size, population, and regional role of a medium power, and it has proven its ability to challenge U.S. policy across the Middle East. While some of the countries in the region had the chance to resolve the problems with Iran, they previously resorted to boycotting their neighbor and seeking international (particularly American) assistance in weakening Iran—sometimes even urging them to pursue military confrontation.
Fortunately, these short-sighted approaches have not succeeded with either the Republican administration of President Donald Trump or the Democratic administration of President Joe Biden. These two men, though differing in nearly every respect, agree that a war with Iran should be avoided at any cost; hence, both of them sought alternative approaches to dealing with the Islamic Republic. The road to find a middle ground and a compromise with Iran is clear, but the initiative now is in the hands of the United States.
After a decade of punishing sanctions, Iran has succeeded in overcoming the worst of them. This means that, despite internal unrest and external challenges, Iran has a political system that is able to survive outside pressure. While the character of the Iranian regime might one day change, the change will probably not come without creating economic growth and reform. This will only happen after sanctions are lifted, and when the regime feels that economic reform will not endanger it.
Ending the conflict with Iran, or at least de-escalating it from an existential threat to a regional competitor, will benefit the GCC states and the entire region. The Gulf region needs a new arrangement to protect the mutual interests for all the states—and one of those states, for better or worse, is Iran.
Dr. Shafeeq Ghabra is a Professor of Political Science at Kuwait University.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.