US Foreign Policy

The Arab Gulf States in the Shadow of the Iranian Nuclear Challenge

in Program

Proponents of the 2003 Iraq war anticipated that the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime would dramatically improve security in the Persian Gulf. Under Hussein’s reckless, brutal and risk-taking leadership, Iraq had adopted a threatening posture that precipitated three wars and generated great uncertainty and instability in the region. Yet, contrary to these expectations, prospects for Persian Gulf security have significantly deteriorated in the past year.

While the removal of Hussein has eliminated the risk in the medium term of Iraq being a state threat to the region, internal unrest in Iraq and the perception of rising Shia Islam, however vague this notion may be, have profound implications.i The worsening of the security situation in Iraq, combined with a fragile and divisive political process, has the potential to heighten regional tensions and pit Iraq’s powerful neighbors against each other.

Indeed, in the eyes of Arab Gulf states, Iran is emerging as the real beneficiary of Saddam’s fall, and as such, has become a much bigger threat to stability in their neighborhood. Well before the establishment of the Islamic republic, the Shah was seen as an arrogant and overbearing leader who considered himself the natural leader of the area, a ‘toff’ to use the expression of a British-educated leading GCC diplomat. However, Gulf Arabs had no reason to expect domestic tampering on his part. This fear has become palpable in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution. These days, the creation of a stable security system in the Gulf appears even more distant with the coming to power of a second generation of Iranian revolutionaries. These leaders are committed to acquiring the complete nuclear fuel cycle. This program draws support from all actors across Iran’s political spectrum, and it has gained significant symbolic meaning for Iran’s population. On this and other issues Iranian leaders are willing to challenge the United States and much of the international community. Nevertheless, while Iran’s involvement in Iraq dominates Arab headlines, only recently did its nuclear program attract significant attention.

One would expect the Gulf Cooperation Council states (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Oman) to play a major role in the negotiations aimed at convincing Iran to renounce access to the complete nuclear fuel cycle. Yet, they have remained on the sidelines. At first glance, this passive posture seems to make little sense. Yet a more thorough examination reveals intricate layers of logic and reasoning that explain the persistent and uneasy silence of the Arab Gulf states.

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