In Dire Straights

For the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Iran is a threat and the close relationship with the West is a mixed blessing.

By STEVEN SOTLOFF
July 27, 2010 16:24
American Umbrella: A US Navy plane takes off from an airfield in Bahrain

US Navy Plane311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

A THICK DUST STORM blankets the Qatari capital of Doha, obscuring views of the skyscrapers and impeding drivers’ abilities to see the omnipresent Toyota Land Cruisers darting at dizzying speeds.

It would seem that many in the Persian Gulf are equally blind to the looming confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program.

Separated from Iran by a mere 56 kilometers (35 miles) at the Straits of Hormuz, the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Saudi Arabia, Oman, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait – maintain a conflicted relationship with the Islamic Republic. Tehran has been embroiled in territorial and ideological disputes with the sheikhdoms long before the current borders in the Arabian Peninsula were drawn up, and has often meddled in their internal affairs. Though they fear the ominous Persian giant, they also view it as a regional power with a large trade potential. Today, their greatest worries stem from the possibility that Iran will procure a nuclear bomb and the much rumored American-Israeli military plans to prevent such a scenario.

The Gulf nations are equally disturbed by both outcomes and are unsure which would lead to a more unwelcome future.

A military strike on Iran would involve several, if not all, of these oil-producing countries.

Despite the fact that all fear the repercussions of an Iranian bomb and publicly advocate a common policy to prevent Iran from emerging as a nuclear power, they have embraced different approaches to minimize this looming threat. Some have solicited the protection of their American patron while others have sought to establish a cordial entente with Iran. In some cases, they have even embraced both options.

Reclining on a spacious red sofa, Ahmed al- Khatani, a Qatari accountant, lights a cigarette in a colossal air-conditioned tent set up for watching soccer matches during the World Cup in the middle of Doha’s bustling market, Souk Waqqaf.

He fears a conflict would have deleterious consequences for the burgeoning local economy.

“Another war will only set the region back even more. See all these [Western expatiates]?” he asks, using his Marlboro cigarette to lead a scan across the room. “They will leave when the war comes to us.”

Qatar maintains amicable relations with Iran, stemming in part from their common economic interests. They jointly explore a Persian Gulf gas field, which is the largest in the world and provides Qatar with most of its liquid natural gas (LNG) reserves. A strike on Iran could seriously threaten Doha’s production.

At the same time, Qatar feels particularly vulnerable and has sought the protection of its American ally. To this end, it hosts Al-Udeid air base from which the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are managed. It is certain that any American military strike against Tehran would be planned and executed from the base. And Iran has warned Qatar that it would be the first country attacked if it colluded in a US strike.

“The American presence here is both a blessing and a curse. I am sure that America can take care of business in Iran,” says Hussain, 29, a real estate agent, as he sips his Starbucks cappuccino at Doha’s City Center mega mall. “Additionally, I think that [Qatar’s] foreign policy will deter Iran from attacking us.”

SAUDI ARABIA’S RELATIONSHIP with Iran, on the other hand, is much more hostile than Qatar’s, due to both geopolitical and religious factors. Saudi Arabia has sought to preserve the status quo while Iran has attempted to overthrow it and for decades the two countries have locked horns over regional hegemony. To this end, the kingdom has sought the aid of the United States, anathema to Tehran’s ruling mullahs.

The two countries are also theological foes.

Saudi Arabia is the home of Wahabbism, a puritanical strand belonging to Islam’s orthodox Sunni school. In contrast, the majority of Iran’s population adheres to the tenets of the heterodox Shi’ite branch. The kingdom’s clerics have historically vilified the Shi’a, accusing them of the most heinous crimes. These factors have made the bilateral relationship a venomous affair.

Though the traditional adversaries reconciled somewhat during the rule of reformist president Muhammad Khatami, who reigned as Iran’s president from 1997 until 2005, recently the relationship has soured. Current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s political style and rhetoric have made the neighboring Arab states more suspicious of Iran’s intentions.

“There were high levels of diplomatic and economic cooperation between us during the Khatami era. Rafsanjani and Khatami would visit Riyadh,” a Saudi security expert tells The Jerusalem Report, speaking on condition of anonymity because he cannot associate with an Israeli publication. “But late last year we boycotted an annual regional security conference in Manama because [Iranian Foreign Minister] Manouchehr Mottaki attended. Only recently we rejected a proposed visit by Mottaki to visit Riyadh.”

Kuwait has an equally precarious relationship with the Islamic Republic. When the sheikhdom pledged strong economic support for Iraq and let it use its ports during the Iran- Iraq war in the ’80s, Tehran responded by taking strong action against Kuwait, using antiship cruise missiles, Chinese Silkworm missiles and naval mines to target its oil tankers and refineries. This eventually led to Soviet and American reflagging of such vessels, as well as naval escorts to protect the shipment of oil.

Today, the two are trying to alleviate tensions through economic cooperation. Kuwait and Iran have long disputed the ownership of the Arash/Durra oil field; in March they agreed to jointly develop it. Furthermore, in April Iran agreed to construct a pipeline to provide 3.1 billion cubic meters of gas annually.

But not everyone is convinced that such transactions will protect Kuwait from a military blowback following an outbreak of hostilities.

“We are rich from our oil but it makes us weaker because we have to pay to be safe,” explains a Kuwaiti trader for a local exhibition in Doha, who wishes not to be identified. “We pay the Americans for their protection, but we know they have a strong interest in oil. Now we pay Iran for their gas. We used to pay Saddam for his protection and even gave him aid, and in the end he attacked us.”

THE UAE IS A FEDERATION OF seven emirates, each with its own individual perspective on Iran. The UAE’s largest city, Dubai, hosts as many as 500,000 Iranian expatriates and a large part of the country’s growing services industry is tailored to them. In fact, 20 to 30 percent of Dubai’s freezone trade is with Iran, worth an estimated $10 billion per year, according to most sources.

The United Nations Security Council resolution passed on June 9 sanctioning Tehran could be a serious hindrance to the financial services sector in Dubai, given the enormous bilateral trade between the two countries. An outbreak of hostilities would not only endanger such commerce, but would also curb the amount of international cargo that it feels can safely navigate the hostile waters to and from Dubai through the Straits of Hormuz, which funnels out 20 percent of the world’s oil shipments.

As a result, Dubai has come out against an attack on Iran. And while Abu Dhabi has taken a similar stance, the UAE’s true intentions may have slipped out of the mouth of Yousef al-Otaibah, the UAE ambassador to Washington, who claimed this week that “[the UAE] could not live with a nuclear Iran... [and is] willing to absorb what takes place at the expense of the security of the UAE,” a clear, if not official, sign that they support an attack on Iran.

Other emirates, such as Ras al-Khaimah and Sharjah have publicly pushed for a more assertive policy towards Iran.

Three islands, long claimed by Sharjah, are the source of an extensive territorial dispute between Iran and the UAE: Iran seized the islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs in 1971, weeks before the UAE gained independence. Sharjah’s main source of revenue derives from oil in the areas surrounding Abu Musa Island, which they currently acquire through a deal with Iran, but they feel entitled to the reserves under the island as well.

This has been a source of tension not only with Abu Dhabi, the seat of the UAE’s government, but with the entire GCC community.

Thus, the UAE has much to lose in a confrontation with Iran. Yet the Emirati Foreign Ministry has stated that the UN resolution will be enacted without regard to UAE’s economic considerations, because of its strategic interests.

In compliance with the newest round of sanctions, they have already accused 40 businesses of shipping questionable material to Iran, as well as frozen 41 Iranian bank accounts.

“All states will ratify the resolution... No hesitation. But American sanctions are a different issue,” a security analyst in Dubai tells The Report. “The UN is legal, and American sanctions are political, and the factor of obligation is completely different. We don’t believe economic sanctions will change Iranian policy.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the Security Council, we will follow our legal obligations.”

The UAE holds an interesting position regarding the nuclear question. In the face of the Iranian nuclear crisis, it signed the “123 agreement” with the United States, in January 2009, for the transfer of nuclear technology and fuel to build eight nuclear power plants. The Gulf nuclear club is not limited to Iran and the UAE: France has signed a nuclear energy deal with Kuwait, while the United States is also helping Saudi Arabia develop a peaceful civilian program. Qatar has also expressed interest in the nuclear option. These oil-rich nations are not exploring nuclear power because of a fear of dwindling energy resources, but due to their fear of a nuclear-armed Iran.

As one Qatari professor explains, this scenario of serious Arab interest in nuclear energy can be seen as defeated American policy.

“Arab countries today are looking into nuclear options when only ten years ago they were against nuclear power in the region. Now America and France are dealing with their failures to contain a nuclear Iran.”

Oman has traditionally strived to maintain cordial relationships with all its neighbors, including Iran. During the Iran-Iraq war, it was the only GCC country to maintain an embassy in Tehran. Oman’s ties with Iran have not come at the expense of a strong bond with the US, which has appreciated Oman’s special relationship with Iran. In 1999, Washington asked Oman to use its contacts in Iran to express America’s displeasure with Tehran’s role in the bombing of a building housing American military personnel, in Saudi Arabia, in 1996.

Washington maintains an air base on Masirah Island, which is purportedly used for operations in Afghanistan. Oman has also played a direct role in the American military confrontation with Iran in the past: the failed rescue attempt of American hostages in 1980 was launched from Masirah.

Of all the Gulf nations, tiny Bahrain has had the most difficult relationship with Iran and Iranian rhetoric has consistently increased the Bahrainis’ apprehensions. In 1981, a Tehranbacked coup was foiled. The island nation has a Shi’ite majority and has often blamed Iran for local unrest. As recently as 2007, a senior Iranian official called for Bahrain to be annexed as an Iranian province. Though Sunnis and Shi’a today live in relative harmony in Bahrain, foreign interference could fuel disturbance and instability. In February 2009, an Iranian parliamentarian boasted that Bahrainis would vote to merge with Iran if a referendum were held.

INDEED, IRAN HAS A HISTORY OF meddling all over the region. Not only is Tehran responsible for backing Hizballah in Lebanon and supporting Hamas in the Gaza Strip, but it is increasingly playing a key role in Iraqi politics. There is growing speculation in American and Israeli circles that Hizballah has cells ready to strike at their respective interests around the world if the two countries were to attack Iran. Similarly, the GCC member states, particularly those with a significant Shi’ite population, could suffer not only from Tehran’s punishing ballistic missiles but also from an indigenous “Iranian 5th column,” as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak referred to them during a 2006 visit to Bahrain.

Government officials are frightened by such a scenario. As far back as 2007, Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid ibn Ahmad Al- Khalifa told the British Guardian newspaper that “it is difficult to see [Iran] under attack and Shi’as in Bahrain keeping quiet. A conflict between Iran and the world in this region will be catastrophic... and could eventually prove worse than Iraq.”

It is not only Bahrain that harbors such fears. In 1985, the Iraqi Da’wa party, which has strong links to Iran and Hizballah, tried to assassinate the Kuwaiti leader, and just last month Kuwait’s security services uncovered a spy network scouting military facilities and US forces who use the country to transit into Iraq.

“There are lots of Shi’a in our country. The Shi’a want to make fire all over the world,” claims Kuwaiti Ahmed al-Hamad, 59, an American-educated perfumer, as he adjusts his traditional white headpiece during a break at a Doha trade show.” We know what Iran’s intentions are.”

One Bahraini government official tells The Jerusalem Report, “There’s a conviction here that there’s no talk of a military strike because it’s dangerous for all parties. We can’t bear the consequences of a military showdown. For the US to attack Iran would be very dangerous for us. New alliances could form and Iran can retaliate in different ways. We know the US can destroy the Iranian facilities, but after that we don’t know what lies in store for us.”

Even though Bahrain hosts the American 5th fleet, the official believes economic cooperation is the best way to avoid war. “The focus is on business. Our gas deals with Iran really facilitate friendlier relations.”

The improving economic relations between Iran and most GCC states is best explained by the Qatari professor. “No one is in favor of a military solution with Iran. War has not helped any country in the region. [The GCC countries] want to reduce the impact of the global economic crisis and the war in Iraq is still fresh in everyone’s mind. But this doesn’t mean they agree with Iranian foreign policy.”

NO ONE IN THE REGION SEEMS to have a coherent strategy for dealing with Iran. A professor from Dubai explains to The Report, “Many states don’t believe that economic and diplomatic endeavors will bring any results and have no faith in the current policy.” He then adds, “But no one wants confrontation and no one wants to irritate Iran. Oman and Bahrain believe the nuclear issue is the responsibility of the IAEA, while Qatar and the UAE do not interfere with internal issues of other countries.”

The security analyst from Dubai goes even further. “There is no guarantee a military strike will solve all the problems. There is no guarantee the information [the Americans] have is precise. The information on Iraq certainly wasn’t precise. You can’t have military action if you’re not sure you can achieve your aims. At the same time, we don’t believe economic sanctions will change Iranian policy.”

But much of the world is more cautious regarding economic ventures with Tehran.

Western countries are adhering to economic sanctions and suspending plans to invest in Iranian energy projects. Even Russia, which has traditionally been opposed to such measures, just opted out of an oil project and has ceased shipping gas to Iran.

It is only a matter of time before the GCC countries find their economic peace strategies unfeasible under pressure from America’s soft power.

The common response on the streets in the Gulf echoes the sentiments of Manama’s Saleh Mahmoud, an elderly fruit vendor. “Under no circumstances do we want Iran to have nuclear weapons... but we should only use the diplomatic approach. We cannot have anymore war,” said the oil executive on a short visit to Dubai.

Everyone seems to want neither war nor nuclear weapons. It appears the people of the region are on a collision course with a future they are desperately trying to avoid.


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