Mideast Affairs: As summer nears, the Gulf is heating up

Tensions between the Gulf states and Teheran threaten the regional balance.

iran warship 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
iran warship 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Relations between Iran and the Gulf states are more strained than ever. Iran is issuing threats and working nonstop to undermine their stability. It repeatedly declares that these countries are part of its historic territory and it will take them over at the appropriate time.
In the meantime, Iran is exploiting their territory and services to circumvent the sanctions that were imposed on it over the last two years. Straw companies were established in Dubai, and apparently in Bahrain and Kuwait, to purchase sophisticated products on Iran’s behalf that were needed to advance its nuclear program. The banks in these countries also provide a smoke screen for illicit transactions and money laundering by Revolutionary Guard leaders.
The Gulf states are aware of what is going on, but they are conducting an appeasement policy toward Teheran – even if they themselves have no confidence in it. All this is occurring while with increasing dread they helplessly follow the nuclear crisis, epitomized by Iranian determination and aggression in the face of American weakness.The tension level in the region has increased in recent days as once again a measure of Iranian subversion in the Gulf states came to light. In Kuwait a spy network acting on behalf of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard was uncovered; it intended to establish the infrastructure in anticipation of a takeover of the country: to incite the Shi’ites against the regime, establish sleeper cells to act when the time came and provide support for illicit economic activity.
This time parliament members insisted that Kuwait not back down from confronting Iran, and the attorney-general has already submitted an indictment to the courts. Kuwait is considered a stable and moderate country, with close ties to the US. It provides strategic depth and a lifeline for the American army in Iraq. American soldiers on their way to and from Iraq pass through Kuwait, and the US Army’s weapons and munitions are funneled via Kuwait.
The confrontation between Iran and the United Arab Emirates escalated as UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan compared the continuous occupation by Iran of three islands belonging to his country to “the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian lands.” Iran conquered these islands (Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunb) in 1971, the year that the Emirates gained independence from British rule. In recent years Iran has settled the islands and established military camps there. The rulers of the Emirates, on the other hand, continue to reiterate their demand that Iran restore the islands or agree to international arbitration. Iran refuses. The issue is also on the Arab League agenda, and at every senior-level conclave the demand to restore the islands to their legal owners is emphasized.
THE IRANIAN response to Kuwait and the UAE was as brutal as ever. Iran totally denied that spies acting on its behalf were operating in Kuwait and warned the regional media “not to take lightly their responsibility to publish credible information and particularly [avoid] baseless information.” This affair recalls the exposure of a Hizbullah cell in Egypt whose members were placed on trial and sentenced to long prison terms. In this case, Hizbullah conceded its guilt, but explained that the intention was to assist Hamas in Gaza against Israel. Nevertheless, everyone knows that Hizbullah was operating in the service of Iran to strike at Egyptian stability.
In a response to the declaration by the UAE foreign minister, the chargé d’affaires of its embassy in Iran was summoned to the Foreign Ministry where he was read a protest, whose main points were that “the Iranian people considered itself aggrieved by the foreign minister’s declaration and that the response to these declarations would be severe.” An Iranian spokesman even said that the Emirates states belonged to Iran and when the time came, they would come under Iran’s control.
With these incidents in the background, the official Iranian news agency published a notice warning the Gulf states against pursuing confrontation in the following picturesque language: ‘There is no lion in the region save for the one that crouches on the shore opposite the Emirate states. He guards his den which is the Persian Gulf. Those who believe that another lion exists in the vicinity (meaning the US) – well, his claws and fangs have already been broken in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Palestine. No good can be expected of him or his hunting sorties. Today he is counting the days until he finds a way out that will allow him to escape by the skin of his teeth. Iran, the Emirates, and the other countries in the region will remain, by dint of geography, neighbors forever.’
This is an interesting and realistic expression of the condition in the region as long as the West does not alter its weak policy.
Iranian confrontation with Bahrain made recent headlines when the director of the Bahraini anti-drug trafficking apparatus, Mubarak bin Abdallah al-Marri, said at a regional conclave in Riyadh that Iran operated directly to smuggle drugs into Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and that both countries had thwarted many smuggling attempts by sea in Iranian vessels coming from Iranian territory.
A year ago, one of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s advisers announced that Bahrain was the 14th district of Iran, an announcement that triggered severe responses in the Arab world. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak immediately flew to Bahrain to express his support. Intermittent reports are published about Iranian subversion in Bahrain with the assistance of Shi’ite citizens who constitute about 60 percent of the population.
It is to be recalled that the Bahraini authorities produced intelligence for the Clinton administration in the mid-1990s that Iran was behind a subversion campaign to overthrow the Bahraini government. In 1995, Teheran acquired a new incentive: The US upgraded its naval presence in Bahrain to become the headquarters of the newly-created US Fifth Fleet. Successful Iranian subversion in Bahrain would also have a major strategic consequence by forcing the withdrawal of the US Navy from its main base in the Persian Gulf, just as Iran seeks to establish itself as the hegemonial power of the entire region.
It is precisely Qatar, which hosts large American military bases, that maintains the most cordial relations with Iran. This policy apparently derives from the desire of Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, who is engaged in a protracted dispute with Saudi Arabia, to flaunt his independence as compared with the other Gulf states which efface themselves before Saudi Arabia. Qatar is also influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, which maintains a large and influential presence there. Despite the fact that the Brotherhood members are Sunni, they have elected at this juncture to support Iran in its conflict with the US.
Two years ago, the Qatari ruler invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a summit meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council without informing his colleagues, who expressed their displeasure. He also sent his chief of staff to Teheran to examine options for military cooperation. During Israel’s Gaza operation, he even convened an Arab summit, together with Syria, that called for severing relations with Israel, thus arousing Mubarak’s ire.
The Qatari shift occurred right after the Bush administration released its 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran that suggested the Iranians had suspended key aspects of their nuclear weapons program in 2003. From the perspective of the Persian Gulf states, this was the first indication that they might not be able to rely on US determination to block Iran’s quest for regional hegemony, and the Qataris sought a rapprochement with Iran instead.
Oman, situated astride the exit from the Persian Gulf, attempts to maintain balanced relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, and recently refused to join a convention for a monetary union of Gulf states.
Saudi Arabia, the largest Sunni state and the caretaker of Islam’s holy places, is worried. Despite the fact that it has expended prodigious sums on the purchase of American weapons and equipment, its small army is incapable of deterring or even contending with Iran. It is doing its utmost to assist Sunni forces struggling against the spread of the Shi’ite wave under the baton of Iran, as we have witnessed in Iraq, Lebanon and most recently in Yemen with the Houthi revolt that is supported by Iran. Eastern Saudi Arabia, where the country’s largest oil reserves are located, contains a sizable Shi’ite minority. Incitement by Iran could trigger a civil war and inflict mortal damage on Saudi oil resources and exports, the cornerstone of the Saudi economy and the royal family’s power.
At this stage, although Saudi Arabia is in the same camp with Egypt versus Iran, Riyadh prefers to maintain relative calm in its communications, to avoid provocation and aggravated tension, in the belief that its friend the US will protect it. Yet Saudi-owned media outlets openly admit the magnitude of the Iranian threat. For example, Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed, director-general of the Al-Arabiya network, wrote in the Saudi London daily Asharq al-Awsat that nuclear weapons in Iran’s hands would help it dominate the Middle East through subversion: “We fear the logic of the current regime in Teheran, which spent the country’s funds on Hizbullah, Hamas, the extremist movements in Bahrain, Iraq and Yemen, and the Muslim Brotherhood, and supported every extremist in the region. The Ahmadinejad regime aspires to expansion, hegemony and a clear takeover on the ground, and to do this he needs a nuclear umbrella.”
Given the failed attempts by the West to impose sanctions on Iran, and the voices emerging from Washington that diplomacy is the way to solve the crisis and that the military option is off the table, Ahmadinejad has nothing to fear, at least at the current stage. He feels he can advance his subversive plan and strike at the countries of the region. The provocative naval maneuvers that Iran continues to conduct are intended to deter the US and Israel, but they also convey a clear message to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states: “We are here alongside you and we have massive power. Do not dare to provoke us.”
Meanwhile, the US offers no response.
The writer, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt and Sweden, is a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.