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Albadr Al-Shateri

Arabian Gulf Security Following the Nuclear Deal with Iran  

Summary: It may be premature to come up with a final conclusion on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (P5+1 agreement with Iran). Despite an atmosphere of optimism prevailing in some capitals in the aftermath of concluding the P5+1 agreement, this paper analyse if Iran would be trusted to abide by the terms of the signed agreement (i.e. JCPoA). Furthermore, the article studies the political context of the nuclear agreement as well as addressing the reactions of GCC countries. The author identifies a number of options which summarizes possible reaction of the GCC states and options that may undertake.  

A paper by:  Albadr Al-Shateri

It may be premature to come up with a final conclusion on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (P5+1 agreement with Iran) and its implications on regional security. The agreement is now two years old and has stimulated much controversy. Countries within the region are weary of Iran for several reasons. For example, lifting economic sanctions would provide Iran with large revenues, thus allowing it to fund projects which would destabilize the region. 

Additionally, Iran cannot be trusted to abide by the terms of the agreement. It is unclear if Iran would be able to resume its nuclear activities after a period of 10 years of storing its nuclear equipment as the agreement stipulates. [1] 

The secrecy surrounding negotiations and the details of the deal reinforced impression that the interests of Middle East countries were not taken into consideration and further bolstered the suspicion of Gulf states over the deal. [2] Some press reports fortify these suspicions by indicating that the Obama administration prevented access to documents which were deposited in the so-called "Sensitive Compartmentalized Information Facilities" in Washington. All these documents can be viewed by members of Congress and their staff who have been granted high security permits but are not available to the public.

Despite an atmosphere of optimism prevailing in some capitals in the aftermath of concluding the P5+1 nuclear agreement, Gulf countries did not witness a breakthrough in relations with Tehran. Gulf States continue to complain about increased Iranian interference in Arab affairs starting from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and ending up with Palestine. It was revealed that Iran worked on smuggling weapons to Gulf countries with the intention of inflecting chaos and unrest.

The Political Context of the Nuclear Agreement
Many observers overlook the importance of the strategic context of the nuclear deal. The Obama administration initiated the Pivot to Asia policy claiming that the Middle East was provided with more than its deserved attention. This stems from the firm belief by Obama's administration's that US intervention in the Middle East lead to counter-productive results. The lack of confidence between Washington and its allies in the Gulf has led to a negative perception towards the various aspects of this agreement.

There is a general regional perception that US foreign policy is driven by interests. In conjunction with the US announcement of Pivot to the East; Susan Rice, national security adviser, declared that the United States should not be kept hostage to the Middle East and that there was a great world in which the United States had great interests and opportunities [3]. 

President Obama confirmed this tendency in an interview published by "The Atlantic" with US journalist Jeffrey Goldberg where the President showed a lack of political prudence in addressing US relations with the Middle East, which was widely referred to as "the Obama doctrine". Obama told his interlocutor "There are countries that have failed to provide well-being and opportunities for their people, there is violence, radical ideology, and ideologies charged with social media". The President adds "There are countries that lack civil traditions. When autocratic regimes are torn apart, only sectarian principles are available for political organization". [5]

In fact in 2006, long before President Obama's announcement and MS Rice's statement, Richard Haass, the former US official, mourned US presence in the Middle East in a paper published by Foreign Affairs [4]. Richard Haass added that the United States cannot do much and confirmed fact is that the American era in the Middle East is over," [7].

Apparently, the perceptions of the Gulf Cooperation Council member states does not seem to be more positive towards President Obama who is viewed as lacking decisiveness, determination in addition to being hesitant especially after abandoning his "Red Line" on Syrian chemical weapons. Yet and despite these perceptions, there is tangible evidence that cooperation between the GCC and the United States has grown under the Obama administration. Military cooperation in equipment and munitions, security cooperation, intelligence exchange, counter-terrorism, trade exchange, economic investment, diplomatic activities, and cultural and educational cooperation have all flourished. [7]

But what are the reasons for the reported difference in perceptions versus actual relations witnessed between the GCC and the United States. One of the reasons is that strategic interests is the actual link between these countries despite the shared political resentment. The United States cannot afford to abandon the region so the created void would not be filled by countries hostile to American interests. The same applies to GCC countries, which appreciates and values its strategic ties with Washington despite the prevailing state of dissatisfaction.

Despite the change in US administration and the election of President Donald Trump which brought much comfort to the region [8], there is still a level of ambiguity in the priorities of the new US administration. In fact, some of the statements and policies announced by the US administration may be taken in a negative manner. 

The GCC Countries … What are the Reactions
According to the realistic school of thought, the reaction of the GCC states could be summarized by the following points:

A. The formation of regional alliances
Saudi Arabia has taken the initiative to establish the Gulf Union where both Morocco and Jordan were invited as members to this Union; however it was not clear if the Gulf Union would be similar to the European Union, a confederation or simply as a federation analogous to the UAE model. Moreover, Gulf states sought to revive the Arab regional system as a safeguard against regional expansion by Iran and its attempt to dominate some Arab countries such as Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. Saudi Arabia established an Arab force to intervene in preventing what it saw as controlling Yemen by Iran's arm represented by the Houthis. In the same vein, Saudi Arabia established the Islamic military alliance in 2016 to combat terrorism, an alliance made up of thirty-nine countries, reinforced by the presence of a nuclear power, namely Pakistan. The military alliance conducted the "Northern Thunder", a military exercise as a direct signal to the stalkers of the GCC be it Iran or ISIS.

B. Diversification of Security Partnerships
The GCC countries have diversified their security partnerships and sources of armaments. France, Britain, Russia, South Africa, Brazil and China were eager to supply the GCC with military hardware. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have also given naval bases to France and Britain, respectively. [9] In this regard, British Prime Minister Theresa May participated as the guest of honor at the 2016 GCC summit in Manama. In the same year, British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson announced at Manama Dialogue that Britain is coming back to the region. He added that "Any crisis in the Gulf is a crisis for Britain ... and your security is our security". [10] Australia sees the Gulf States as an important trading and military partner, its geographical position qualifies it to play a role in the new tendency by Gulf states of Pivoting to East. [11] The importance of Gulf relations with Asian countries is signified by King Salman's visit to several Asian countries in 2017, a visit that supports Pivot to East policy. In addition, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, visited India in the same year as the guest of honor at the 68th anniversary of the Republic Day, again a clear indication to the new trend.

C. Extended Deterrence
There is a debate in Arabian Gulf States on the importance of acquiring deterrence capabilities or even extended deterrence capabilities. Some analysts and observers believe that Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, should develop their own deterrence capabilities. Others call for expanded deterrence where Pakistan may contribute to this type of expanded deterrence. The first invitation may have political consequences as Western countries will object to the development of deterrence capabilities which means that Gulf States are to acquire nuclear weapons. Obviously, risking to engage in a clash with superpowers would be greater than the benefits that self-deterrence would bring. However, the pursuit of acquiring extended deterrence from any side would be justified and analogous to the US position of granting extended deterrence to Western Europe during the cold war, such a gesture will not contradict with the NPT.

Providing the region with a security or nuclear umbrella requires determining clear red lines that defines a swift and decisive response if exceeded by adversaries. For deterrence to achieve credibility, this may require the deployment of conventional and non-conventional military forces in the region. For the GCC states, the former US administration would not be committed to the daunting task of engaging in a nuclear war on behalf of GCC states. This calls for the need of GCC states to diversify their security, especially if there are signs of hostile regional powers possessing weapons of mass destruction.

The signing of the nuclear agreement with Iran puts the region in a state of anticipation and suspicion. Many skeptics of Iran's intentions and the previous US administration see the deal as providing Iran an opportunity to spread its influence across the region, and that the improvement of the economic situation in Iran would offer a greater chance to intervene in regional affairs. Yet, GCC states will not stand still towards the situation and will eagerly pursue to take precautions to limit Iran's role in the region. It will also seek to diversify its security alliances through with the rest of the world.

[1] Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, "The Western-Iranian Agreement and Us", Middle East Daily, 16 July 2015

[2] Tim Mak, “The Iran Nuke Documents Obama Doesn’t Want You to See,” The Daily Beast, December 5, 2016

[3] Taimur Khan, “US determined ‘not to be consumed by one region’” The National, October 28, 2013’

[4] Richard N. Haass, “The New Middle East,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2006 Issue

[5] Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine,” The Atlantic, April 2016

[6] Richard Haass, “The New Middle East,” Newsweek International, January 8, 2007

[7] Jon B. Alterman, “The Asia Pivot,” CSIS Middle East Notes and Comment | January 2013. See also Albadr Alshateri, “The US and Gulf Security,” National Defense, Issue 2, June 2015

[8] Elizabeth Dickinson, “His Excellency, Sheikh Donald of the House of Trump: Why the President-Elect is Already a Big Hit in the Persian Gulf,” December 16, 2016

[9] Leah Sherwood, “Risk Diversification and UAE Foreign Policy in the Small Gulf States: Foreign and Security Policies before and after the Arab Spring":, Khalid S. Almezaini, Jean-Marc Rickli, (Eds.) Routlege, 2016

[10] The IISS Manama Dialogue 2016 Keynote Address, Boris Johnson, Foreign Secretary, UK, 09 December 2016

[11] Rodger Shanahan, “Why the Gulf Matters: Crafting an Australian Security Policy for the Arabian Gulf,” Lowy Institute for International Policy, Sydney, May 2008. 


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