To realize shared priorities and fulfill the Persian Gulf’s potential as a global cornerstone for energy and trade, hardline Gulf states must acquiesce to waning U.S. hegemony and pursue reconciliation with Iran.
By Sharmine Narwani
Mired in turmoil from the Levant to the Persian Gulf, on the surface, the Middle East’s future has rarely looked this bleak. There is, however, an inherent value in hitting rock bottom, and that is the prospect of remaking it all from scratch. But to do so, there needs to be a unique constellation of actors, incentives, alliances, and opportunity. Today, that critical mix exists in the region; the only question is when and where it will give shape to the Mideast’s new direction.
While the war-torn and economically-crippled Levant draws all eyes, it is in the Persian Gulf where the seeds of a changed future will be planted. Simply put, the confrontations throughout the region since the start of the Arab uprisings have largely been driven by actors in the Persian Gulf, and hence that is where the settlements will be reached.
The recent conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and now Lebanon are all connected to the decades-long standoff between the United States and Islamic Republic of Iran, which has split the region into two poles. Some parties view this fight as a zero-sum game, while others believe a win-win solution still exists within the region. The latter is possible and there have been a number of initiatives—from Iran, Kuwait, and Oman in the main—that have thus far proven unsuccessful, largely because many parties, both inside and outside the region, are still attempting to gain leverage on the ground in various battlefields and confrontations.
Using the counter revolutions of the 2011 Arab uprisings, Iran’s Persian Gulf adversaries sought to buoy waning U.S. hegemony by weakening Iran’s allies in the Levant and elsewhere. These actions backfired by strengthening bonds between Iranian allies who began to work from joint command centers, sharpen their battle experience, and score unprecedented victories in every military theater.
Importantly, as a direct result of the instability caused by these conflicts, the Iranian pole began to garner the attention, support, and intervention of major powers Russia and China, who stepped forward to act as intermediaries: further supplanting the traditional U.S. role in the region.
China, Russia, and their Growing Significance
“Iran is the new great power of the Middle East, and the United States is the old,” Adel Jubeir—then the Saudi ambassador in Washington, later Saudi’s foreign minister—told his superiors in Riyadh. This was in 2013, in the aftermath of a chemical attack in Ghouta, when then-U.S. President Barack Obama famously backed down from his “red line” warning of a military strike against Syria.
If history could point to a moment when the United States’ allies in the Persian Gulf ceased to bank on American might, this would be it. Over the following years, that trust would waver further. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) foes of Iran watched in mortified silence as the Iranians shot down a $200 million U.S. drone in their airspace and fired a dozen ballistic missiles into two U.S. military bases in Iraq in retaliation for the U.S. assassination of a top Iranian general. When Yemen’s Houthis targeted ARAMCO with precision weapons—and refineries, ports, ships, military sites, and infrastructure came under sophisticated fire in Abha, Jizan, Najran, Fujairah, Al-Shuqaiq, Damam, Abqaiq, Riyadh, Jeddah, and countless other sites in retaliation for the Saudi–UAE-led war against Yemen—the United States did nothing.
Despite intensifying U.S. threats against Iran and its allies during the Trump administration, the Pentagon was disinclined to follow through with actual military confrontation, further diminishing America’s credibility as a reliable ally. Persian Gulf states began to hedge their bets and seek other intermediaries and partners to shore their interests, primarily Russia and China.
Since 2013, when Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the biggest global investment project since the Marshall Plan, Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been cutting a swathe across Asia, with an active focus on the Persian Gulf, the vital energy hub fueling China’s growth engine.
China has now inked comprehensive strategic partnerships with Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and strategic partnerships with Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, and Iraq, which include investments in the range of hundreds of billions of dollars: resources that Washington could never hope to match.
While China brings financial resources to the table, the Russians have marched onto the Middle East stage with unusually effective diplomatic finesse and military resolve, dazzling even the most pro-American Gulf monarchies.
Arab emirs have, one by one, made their way to Moscow for help and assurances on the most taxing regional issues of the day. Overnight, the Russians turned the tide in the Syrian war by introducing critical air support in 2015 to Syria and its allies fighting North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and GCC-backed militias on the ground. And, it did so while maintaining—and even consolidating—relations with those adversaries, from Turkey and Qatar to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
For the Chinese and Russians, Syria became their entrée into a region that had not been a priority for either in decades. Syria became a red line and turning point for them for various reasons: it was where they intended to halt U.S. regime change interventions lest those end up in Moscow or Beijing; they would squash the U.S. program of using radicalized Islamic extremists to fight dirty wars across the globe; they would stabilize the near Mideast, which had become the premier global security emergency.
For China’s BRI plans, energy needs, and fears of Uighur separatism, West Asia and the Persian Gulf had suddenly become foreign policy priorities. For Russians who missed the old proactive Soviet Union, it was time to play a global role again, securing their interests and protecting their borders.
These two major powers, in a sense, “discovered” Iran during the Syrian war. Here was a civilizational regional state that had realized its potential; maintained secure borders; supported the international principles of nonintervention, sovereignty, territorial integrity; fiercely combatted jihadi extremism; preferred soft power to hard power; prioritized domestic economic development; and shared their interest in thwarting U.S. military and economic aggression.
These are important points to remember: despite deepening Chinese and Russian relationships with other major regional states, Iran is by far the most constitutionally similar to both in its global outlook and political values.
This March, China and Iran inked a sweeping twenty-five-year comprehensive strategic partnership that covered all domains: economic, military, agriculture, transportation, energy, innovation, technology, and culture, to say the least. The pact is short on specifics, giving rise to questions about its ultimate utility, but here’s the rub: China just put its back behind Iran, pulling it out of isolation induced by the U.S. “maximum pressure campaign” and providing the Islamic Republic with a new range of options and flexibility.
The clout of this major power will also do one more thing for Iran: it will put on the map the long-term Iranian goal of advancing regional security arrangements in the Persian Gulf. Unsurprisingly, this is also a stated Chinese policy objective. That same month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi paid an official visit to Saudi Arabia where he highlighted, among other bilateral goals, regional peace and stability.
In an Arab News editorial, China’s Ambassador to Riyadh Chen Weiqing writes that China and Saudi Arabia reached important consensus on several issues, among them “a five-point initiative to achieve peace and stability in the Middle East, calling on countries in the region to respect each other, uphold equity and justice, achieve nuclear non-proliferation, jointly foster collective security and accelerate development cooperation. China is willing to play its due role in promoting long-term peace and stability in the Middle East.”
The Chinese visit followed a surprise four-day tour of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, where he plugged Moscow’s own security vision for the Persian Gulf.
Undoubtedly, the Russians are seeking to exploit the American vacuum felt by Saudi Arabia and the UAE since the changing of the guard at the White House this year. However, the Russian resolve to push for regional security should not be underestimated, given the material evidence we have seen from its Syria commitment.
The United States as a Barrier to Regional Dialogue
Both the Chinese and Russians will be well aware that it is Iran that has most heavily promoted regional Persian Gulf security, and that it is Iran that will most benefit from a halt to conflict.
Since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s 2013 election, Tehran has promoted regional dialogue at every opportunity, in every available forum. In 2019, at the United Nations, Rouhani proposed HOPE—the Hormuz Peace Endeavor—as a plan of action to convene all eight littoral states of the Persian Gulf (including Iraq) to address and resolve the vital issues of cooperation, security, and freedom of navigation, from which further mutual interests can be addressed.
Premised upon and heavily dependent on the concepts of goodwill and neighborliness, Rouhani warned about the plan’s biggest potential impediment: U.S. hegemonic ambition.
“The peace, security and independence of our neighbours are the peace, security and independence of us. America is not our neighbour. It is the Islamic Republic of Iran that neighbours you, and we have been long taught that the neighbour comes first, then the house. In the event of an incident, you and we shall remain alone. We are neighbours with each other, and not with the United States.”
HOPE clearly didn’t take off. The problem lay partly in the fact that several pro-U.S. Persian Gulf Arab states are still heavily oriented toward their U.S. ally, and partly because these states remain committed to building leverage and gaining the upper hand in the various confrontations still underway in the region.
These are the “zero-sum” crowd: the hardline states that still believe they can defeat Iran and its allies despite all evidence pointing otherwise in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon, with no prospect of victory remotely in sight.
Iran, Oman, Kuwait, Iraq, and possibly Qatar, on the other hand, are more inclined to believe there is a “win-win” scenario that can be salvaged amidst the destruction: wherein confrontation can be halted, cooperation begun, and mutual security, development, and prosperity dotting the horizon.
But, before any of that can happen, the United States needs to be edged out of the equation.
In an interview in March, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif sounded fed up. Arguing that Iran’s Persian Gulf neighbors have always sought to “buy security” from malign actors like the United States, and now Israel, Zarif expounded: “We believe that tension in the region is caused by the presence of foreign forces and they are not the cure; they are the malady.” He expressed a willingness to work with Iran’s neighbors, optimistic that the United Nations can provide an “international umbrella” over the Persian Gulf: an international umbrella that does not include the United States.
Since the assassination of Iran’s top general Qasem Soleimani in January 2020, Iran has vowed to eliminate all U.S. forces and military bases from the region. The Americans can not be a party to rapprochement; they are a direct adversary of a principal participant. The Chinese and Russians, however, have no such impediment. Furthermore, they enjoy good relations with all parties and have spent the past few years enhancing those bilateral relationships without prejudice or favoritism.
To be fair, the Americans fundamentally recognize that they bring nothing to the table. In a rare candid moment for a politician, Obama famously said that Saudi Arabia will just have to learn to share the region with Iran: “Our friends as well as…the Iranians…need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood.”
The implication, of course, was that the United States wasn’t interested in enabling its allies’ confrontational posture any longer, calling them “freeloaders.” Notably, U.S. President Joe Biden, Obama’s former vice president, has jumpstarted his tenure by delisting the Houthis from the United States’ terrorist list, challenging arms sales to Riyadh, and releasing a damning Central Intelligence Agency report attributing blame for Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder to the Kingdom’s crown prince.
In fact, Biden’s opening gambit on the Mideast—slamming his allies and trying hard to restart the nuclear deal with Iran—provides a unique opportunity for hardline Gulf states to shed their zero-sum outlook and hammer out a comprehensive peace and security agenda with their longtime foe, Iran
Why? Take a hard look at some uncomfortable realities: these hardline states are constitutionally unable to prevent Iran’s regional ascension and, if anything, have aggressively contributed to it. Iran is “efficient”—i.e. it has the means and focus to realize any policy objective it sets for itself—while its adversaries are inefficient. Iran has rock-solid alliances that seek common objectives based on shared values. Iran’s foes today are in opportunistic alliances that can diverge dramatically because their values are power, hegemony, and wealth accumulation. Iran has won the support and cooperation of the world’s two growing powers; its foes have been unable to secure reliable commitment from their one major ally, the United States, and are now seeking support from a much weaker, regionally reviled state, Israel. Iran’s economy remains relatively stable despite punishing sanctions; it hits development milestones lauded by the United Nation; and has made genuine strides in diversifying its economy. Its adversaries, meanwhile, have been bleeding wealth on multiple conflict zones, on unprecedented weapons purchases, and on ego investments that serve no national purpose.
The point here is not to denigrate Iran’s foes or to praise Iran, but to honestly assess the state of one versus the other in context of a rapidly changing world where the future is uncertain.
Iran’s elections are in two months, and the anticipation is that Iranians will elect themselves a less conciliatory president who is likely to take a tougher stand against Iran’s enemies, particularly the United States.
Common Ground in the Persian Gulf
This is perhaps the time to remember the common histories, peoples, resources, and religion that bind the Persian Gulf region together.
There are around five to six hundred thousand Iranians in the United Arab Emirates, fifty thousand in Kuwait, and thirty thousand in Qatar, with smaller amounts in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iraq, and Oman. Included in this number are Iranian Arabs too. Anwar Gargash, who until two months ago was the UAE’s foreign minister, is a Huwala, or an Iranian Arab who originated from the Arabian Peninsula, like so many others. The vast majority of Kuwaiti Shia are of Iranian ancestry, though many Iranian-origin Kuwaitis are Sunni. According to the 1997 census, approximately 9 percent of Iran’s population of 82 million are Sunni Muslims; of those five million Sunnis, an estimated one million of them live in Tehran. There are 10,344 Sunni mosques in Iran. Over 1.6 million, or 2–3 percent of Iranian citizens, are Arabs.
In short, Persian Gulf populations share so much recent and ancient history, and centuries of intermarriage have consolidated those ties. Today, with the exception of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, Iran enjoys diplomatic relations with all other Persian Gulf littoral states, and in some cases, deep economic interests. Despite being on opposing sides of various regional conflicts, the UAE just became Iran’s second biggest trading partner in the world, with an annual value of $14.3 billion.
Establishing a regional security architecture won’t only benefit Iran and the GCC. Intra-GCC tensions and border conflicts have also plagued the organization since its inception. All eight littoral states have much to gain from embracing mechanisms that can guarantee freedom of navigation; deescalating conflict; bolstering oil prices; regulating the regional arms race; pooling resources to fight terrorism; and creating and training joint forces to patrol their waters.
These issues remain vital to the wellbeing of all parties. As military, economic, and pandemic-related fatigue kicks in and the United States’ role shrinks dramatically in the region, Iran and the GCC states have a choice to make: ignore changing realities, stay mired in conflict, and become failed states, or collectively become the joint energy hub of the world and the primary economic gateway connecting Asia, Europe, and even Africa. A shift toward the latter priorities even has the ability to resolve conflict and stabilize North Africa, which has also been torn apart by Arab rivalries in the Persian Gulf.
Iran can tough this out. But for hardliners in the Persian Gulf, only a dramatic pivot toward reconciliation can offer a face-saving exit from a decade of miscalculations.
This article was originally published in the May 2021 issue of The Cairo Review of Global Affairs. Follow the author on Twitter and Facebook.