Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

The Arab Gulf States and the Iranian Nuclear Challenge: In the Line of Fire

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

The Arab Gulf States and the Iranian Nuclear Challenge: In the Line of Fire

Article excerpt

As a way to contain Iran's ambitions, the Gulf states' policy combines elements of appeasement with a fundamental reliance on the United States as a defending and deterring force. Iran's determination to continue with its nuclear program, more than ever, is already forcing them to struggle with a different type of threat perception, which so far has made it difficult for them openly to present a united front and thereby function as a counterforce to Iran's might.

The relative weakness of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Qatar stems from the fact that most of them lack strategic depth, have small populations, and small, untrained armies. Moreover, their territory contains some 45 percent of the world's oil reserves and 25 percent of the world's natural gas reserves, a fact that has over the years made them the target of aggression and dependent on outside force for defense. One may have expected that, in light of these facts-great wealth and inherent weakness-the GCC states would have played a big part in the international effort to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, but to date they have remained largely on the sidelines.1

GCC POLICY

The Gulf policy regarding Iran is replete with inherent contradictions. While the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) States are indeed worried about continuing nuclear development in Iran, they are no less worried about a scenario in which, lacking any attractive diplomatic option, Iranian nuclear facilities are attacked. In their view, such violence is liable to trickle across their borders, whether in the form of a direct Iranian retaliation against them and U.S. interests on their soil or in the form of general regional destabilization. Moreover, while the Gulf states support a diplomatic solution to the Iran crisis, they are concerned that it may come at the expense of their own interests and that the result will be the United States recognizing Iran's dominance in the Gulf. The GCC states have thus chosen a strategy that combines appeasing the Iranians, demonstrating public support for diplomatic efforts to solve the nuclear crisis, and relying on American military strength for deterrence and defense, coupled with behind-the-scenes activity designed primarily to heave the problem as far away from them as possible.

The Gulf states continue to make preparations for possible developments in the Gulf on the Iranian question and demonstrate sensitivity to oft-repeated threats coming from Teheran. Although all seek to curb Iran's regional ambitions, they prefer not to show them publicly to avoid generating an Iranian counter-move against them. The public expressions about Iran's nuclear program include:

* Repeating the recognition of Iran's right to maintain nuclear technology for peaceful uses while calling for a regional ban on nuclear weapons (Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone, WMDFZ).

* Supporting a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis and expressing a desire to take an active part in it alongside Western nations.

* Urging Iran to cooperate with the international community and the accepted verification regimes of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

* Expressing concern over any military action directed against Iran while stressing the destructive ramifications such an attack could to bring to their doorstep.

Iran has positioned itself as the utmost threat to the stability of the Gulf regimes. The hegemonic ambitions of the Shah and the attempts of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to export the Islamic Revolution to the west shores of the Gulf are still fresh in the memories of the region's rulers. Despite the severity of the threat, the monarchies are constrained by a number of factors: public opinion and "the Arab street," which tend to be anti-American and do not-unlike the ruling elite-view Iran's nuclear program as a real threat; recognition of their military and strategic inferiority compared to Iran; different threat perceptions among them with regard to the threat from Iran; the weakness of the relatively moderate Arab bloc; and perhaps also the recognition that it may be too late to stop Iran from achieving nuclear capabilities and that it is thus pointless to join a lost cause. …

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