Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Divesting from Sectarianism: Reimagining Relations between Iran and the Arab Gulf States

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Divesting from Sectarianism: Reimagining Relations between Iran and the Arab Gulf States

Article excerpt

Until recently, Iran has been economically isolated by way of sanctions, preempting investment opportunities with states allied with the United States. However, the Obama administration's recent effort towards economic normalization with Iran affords it with unprecedented commercial possibilities, and per the focus of this article, legalized commercial enterprising within Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) States--across sectarian tensions and fault lines. From both a legal and practical prism, this article investigates the recent lifting of sanctions, which opens the door for Iran's investment within neighboring states including the GCC. Subsequently, it analyzes how commercial investment and the reciprocal advancement of economic interests offers a promising pathway toward eroding political standoffs, economic inequities, and the politicization of sectarianism. In closing, the article addresses salient challenges that may hinder the potential of this economic rapprochement, and ways forward.

I. INTRODUCTION

Sectarian tension is polarizing the Middle East like never before. Proxy wars pitting Iran, the Shiite hegemon, against the Sunni guard--Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states--are intensifying throughout the region. Both Iran and the Gulf States have exploited sectarianism to broaden their political spheres of influence in the region, and as a means of advancing their economic agendas. In short, sectarianism is realpolitik strategy and business strategy for states in the region.

Until recently, Iran has been economically isolated by way of sanctions, preempting investment opportunities with states allied with the United States. However, the Obama administration's recent effort towards economic normalization with Iran affords it with unprecedented commercial possibilities and, per the focus of this article, legalized commercial enterprising within Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) States, across sectarian tensions and fault lines.

The prospects for ameliorating sectarian tension and embedded political rivalry through commerce are undoubtedly considerable. As examined by political scientists and renowned economists, symbiotic advancement of economic interests is an effective means of forging better diplomatic relations and sustained alignment. Therefore, commercial investment stands as the optimal conduit toward divestment from sectarian tensions, and mitigating the direct, proxy, and collateral standoffs rooted in it.

From both a legal and practical prism, this article investigates the recent lifting of significant sanctions between the international community and Iran, which opens the door for the latter's investment within neighboring states, including the GCC. Subsequently, it analyzes how commercial investment and the reciprocal advancement of economic interests offers a promising pathway toward eroding political standoffs, economic inequities, and the politicization of sectarianism. Thus, envisioning coordinating economic understanding and advancing the interests of states currently interlocked in sectarian strife as an alternative to the politics of sectarianism is the central focus of this article. In closing, the authors address salient challenges that may hinder the potential of this economic rapprochement, and ways forward.

II. THE MODERN EVOLUTION OF POLITICAL SECTARIANISM IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Sectarianism is politically and discursively framed as an age-old, deep-seated rivalry between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. While the theological divisions are old, they have not manifested themselves in stark political terms until recently. The politicization of sect, spearheaded by the GCC states (most notably Saudi Arabia) and Iran after the 1979 revolution, have mutated the salience of sect from a largely private spiritual matter into a political vehicle to realize state interests. …

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