ISSN 2330-717X

Gulf Cooperation Council: Riyadh’s Inefficient Tool For Isolating Iran – OpEd


By Hossein Kebriaeezadeh*

Foreign ministers of the Persian Gulf littoral states came together in Riyadh in 1981, just three years after the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, to form the political entity that came to be known as the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council [(P)GCC], on the basis of the “balance of threat” and in order to block the influence of the Islamic Revolution.

The history of relations between Iran and (P)GCC shows that since the establishment of the latter up to the present time, relations within this political club have been influenced by Riyadh and, therefore, have been based on rivalry and conflict with Iran, though there have been a number of turning points in this process.

The first main tension following the establishment of (P)GCC was related to the victory of Iran in the Battle of Faw (during Iraq’s imposed war on Iran) in 1986, when for the first time, concern about reversion of the course of the Iraq’s war with Iran started to govern the Council. This tangible escalation of tensions continued until a year later and was exacerbated after a few hundreds of Iranian pilgrims were killed in Mecca and the Saudi embassy in Tehran was attacked.

After the end of war between Iran and Iraq, and due to Iran’s determination to reconstruct the country, Tehran put the policy of interaction with (P)GCC on top of its regional policies, so that, Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia started to improve and as a consequence, its relations with the whole Council picked up as well.

This trend continued until the election of Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when due to policies adopted by him, misunderstandings grew between Iran and the Council and bilateral relations became less friendly.

As the civil war started in Syria, (P)GCC took its differences with Iran to Syria’s battleground with the goal of eliminating the Shia Crescent, and it was in that country that through support of all member states of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council, an unconventional entity called Daesh was born.

At that juncture, when Iran’s nuclear case was subject of Iran’s negotiations with member states of the P5+1 group, terrorists and violent measures of this group had an indirect impact on the resolution of Iran’s nuclear case. Meanwhile, (P)GCC’s military operations, dubbed Operation Decisive Storm, against Houthi Shias in Yemen, which was considered Riyadh’s backyard, was not very successful. Riyadh, as the big brother of the Council members, who saw itself on the verge of leaving another field to its rival, resorted to its hackneyed technique by taking provocative measures. Sexual assault against two Iranian teenagers at Jeddah airport, mismanagement of Hajj pilgrimage and the deaths of about 600 Iranian pilgrims in Mina incident, and massacre of Yemeni Shias in Saudi Arabia’s military assault on that country were examples of such measures.

In the meantime, although the recent beheading of top Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, by Saudi government failed to make the Iranian government take a rash decision, the Iranian society showed a sharp reaction to this measure by Riyadh through attacking Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran and consulate in the city of Mashhad, which turned into a new turning point in Iran’s relations with (P)GCC. Although this measure was condemned by the Iranian government, but the condemnation did not prevent severance of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia for the second time and a freeze in Iran’s ties with the Council.

Of course, this time, the turn of developments between the two actors seems to be different and more serious compared to previous junctures of turmoil in bilateral relations, but this level of reaction by the member states of (P)GCC in totally cutting or downgrading relations was not incomprehensible for Iran. Tehran is well aware of the arrangements and political considerations of (P)GCC members. The experience of three decades of communications and tension with this institution has taught Tehran that beyond their apparent unison, these countries do not follow the same stance on Iran and, therefore, the goal that Riyadh pursued to make Iran isolated across region will not be easily attainable.

Among member states of (P)GCC, Oman follows an impartial political approach as a result of which its relations with Tehran have been always amicable and it was even one of the reasons behind nuclear diplomacy of Iran by playing a mediatory role between Iran and the West. Although this country condemned the storming of Saudi embassy in Tehran, it has managed to continue sustainable relations with Iran without any tensions.

Qatar, another member of (P)GCC, has always sought its own interests whenever the Council has been dealing with a crisis because of the differences that Doha has with Riyadh in various fields, from unilateral regional policies to oil-related and territorial issues. Therefore, despite downgrading relations with Tehran, Doha does not consider tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia as Iranian-Arab tension. For this reason, Doha is expected to normalize its relations with Tehran sooner than other members of the Council.

There is also an actor named Kuwait among this heterogeneous group whose entire behavior within the Council is based on the principle of conservatism. This country has not forgotten the bitter experience of its occupation by invading Iraqi army before the first Persian Gulf War and the passivity of the Council at that time. Therefore, it is still trying to take a middle ground when faced with such tensions, especially when Iran is involved.

In the meantime, there are Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, whose positions, unlike the other three members, are more in line with Saudi Arabia’s position due to historical and territorial conflicts with Iran. As a result, Bahrain moved fast to cut its relations with Iran, while the United Arab Emirates, has adopted the sharpest position against the Islamic Republic of Iran among all member of the Council.

Under these conditions, the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council is not expected to see a coordinated stance among its members for a long time following the current tension with Iran due to fundamental differences among member states’ interests, and low level of convergence among them. This has been also the case with regard to many other issues, including the Arab Spring. It seems that at this juncture, member states of the Council will be divided in two groups. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates will insist on their adventurism, while on the other hand, Oman, Qatar, and to some extent, Kuwait, will try to reduce tension with their powerful neighbor and change the nature of tensions from Iranian-Arab to a lower level of sectarian tension. In doing so, they will also try to change the situation through mediatory efforts.

In the meantime, regional and global developments and the will of such actors as the United States, Russia and China will work to reduce tensions because of the high degree that the Council is influenced by transregional actors. As a result, once again, Riyadh will not succeed in its effort to use the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council as a tool to pursue its policy of making Iran isolated in the region.

*Hossein Kebriaeezadeh
Expert on Middle East Issues

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Iran Review is a Tehran-based site that is independent, non-governmental and non-partisan and representing scientific and professional approaches towards Iran’s political, economic, social, religious, and cultural affairs, its foreign policy, and regional and international issues within the framework of analysis and articles.

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