Dr. Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and well-known Arab rights scholar, gave an intimate talk to a group of students at the University of California, Santa Barbara titled “Anxious Allies: The Arab Gulf States and the Iran Nuclear Deal,” where he discussed the tensions between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Iran regarding the agreement, the role of the United States in the region and whether halting the continuing violence of the self-declared Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) will become a global priority.
At the beginning of the talk, Dr. Ibish provided background information on the member countries of the GCC — which include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — relating to the U.S. He made sure to point out that GCC member countries were not a “monolith, [with] a single position, a single foreign policy, a single worldview.” However, Saudi Arabia is by far the largest state, geographically and demographically, so their policy often takes precedence over the other, smaller states in the GCC.
According to Dr. Ibish, “the Gulf States are important because they are key U.S. allies, they are all stable Arab countries, they are all monarchies [and] they’re relatively wealthy.” All GCC countries are major oil-exporting countries, except for Bahrain whose wealth comes from banking and other GCC states, and all are positioned along the Persian Gulf, an immeasurably strategic body of water where 70 percent of the world’s exported oil passes through.
The Gulf’s importance has attracted significant attention from the U.S. military. After the Cold War, the U.S. military shifted most of its overseas focus to the Middle East, and built military bases in all GCC countries except for Oman (though it still maintains a military presence within its borders). The concentration of American military power in the Persian Gulf is substantial, resulting in tens of billions of U.S. dollars in weapon sales to regional allies, and “at least one, but sometimes two, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in the Gulf at any given time, of which we have several. The only other country that has one of a comparable size is Russia, and they have one [total],” Dr. Ibish said.
The only two countries that border the Persian Gulf and are not part of the GCC are Iran and Iraq, neither of whom are considered U.S. allies, and both of whom were fighting against each other in the Iran-Iraq War when the coalition was formed in 1981.
Concerning the Iran Nuclear Deal, tensions are already high between Iran and the GCC because of religious and ethnic differences. Iran is a Persian state while the states in the GCC are Arab, and both are very aware of the historical distinctions between Persians and Arabs, contributing to a continuing rivalry between them, according to Dr. Ibish. In terms of religion, Iran is a Shiite state while all the governments in the GCC are Sunni, besides Oman which is Ibadi.
At the moment, the GCC is more concerned about what they perceive as Iran’s spreading influence through the Middle East than the nation’s possible nuclear capabilities. Additionally, “they are wondering even whether the United States is preferring the idea of a cooperation with Iran to secure the Persian Gulf … to the longstanding cooperation with them,” due to President Obama’s more favorable diplomacy to Iran as of late coupled with his criticism of many Gulf States’ laws and policies, especially concerning their reception to refugees displaced by ISIL. This leaves many GCC countries with the feeling that, “the United States is a friend of the Gulf States but an ally of Iran, and an enemy of Iran but not an ally to the Gulf States.”
However, in Dr. Ibish’s opinion, the GCC’s suspicions toward Iran are mostly speculative. The GCC officially endorsed the agreement after Secretary of State John Kerry promised them more weapons and intelligence capability from the U.S. in a meeting in Doha, Qatar.
Out of all the countries in the GCC, Oman was the first nation to openly favor negotiations between the U.S. and Iran, even opting to host some of the first talks in Muskat, their capital city.
No matter how they feel about the negotiations, if any members of the GCC were to oppose the Iran Nuclear Deal, they would stand completely alone except for Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu. This decision could cause the dissenting nation to lose favor with the U.S. because, according to Dr. Ibish, “they just don’t have the domestic political capital that the Israelis do, to kick up a fuss about a major American policy decision and get away with it in the American politics.” For now, the Gulf States feel “worried, but hopeful … that the next president after Obama will move more towards them rhetorically.”
Eventually the talk shifted to ISIL, where Dr. Ibish asked, “How is ISIL surviving being at war with everyone at the same time? I mean that’s got to occur to people right? You’re 20,000, 30,000 criminals, how are you surviving if everyone’s against you? Well, the reason is … that they’re not number one on anybody’s list. They’re number two, so they can pit off everybody against each other.”
Dr. Ibish conveyed that ISIL is a “wild card” in the region, attacking forces on every side of virtually every conflict in the Middle East, whether between Turkey and Kurdish PKK forces, Assad’s government and Syrian rebel forces, or Iran and the Gulf States. Not to mention they recently blew up a plane carrying Russian passengers over the Sinai Peninsula, whose government backs the Assad regime; bombed a neighborhood in Beirut, Lebanon; and committed multiple coordinated attacks in Paris, France, whose government opposes the Assad regime. According to Dr. Ibish, if eliminating ISIL continues not to be a number one priority for any regional power, they will continue to attack everyone with impunity.