The Arab Gulf States and the Iranian Nuclear Challenge / Yoel Guzansky

The Gulf states' policy towards Iran's nuclear ambitions has combined elements of appeasement with a fundamental reliance on the United States as a defending and deterring force. Most Gulf states lack strategic depth, have small populations, and small, untrained armies. Moreover, their significant oil and natural gas reserves have made them the potential target for aggression and dependent on outside forces for defense. Despite the great wealth and inherent weakness of the Gulf states, they have remained largely on the sidelines in the international effort to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Iran's determination to continue with its nuclear program has made it difficult for them openly to present a united front and thereby function as a counterforce to Iran's might.

As a way to contain Iran’s ambitions, the Gulf states’ policy combines elements of appeasement with a fundamental reliance on the United States as a defending and deterring force. Iran’s determination to continue with its nuclear program, more than ever, is already forcing them to struggle with a different type of threat perception, which so far has made it difficult for them openly to present a united front and thereby function as a counterforce to Iran’s might.

The relative weakness of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Qatar stems from the fact that most of them lack strategic depth, have small populations, and small, untrained armies. Moreover, their territory contains some 45 percent of the world’s oil reserves and 25 percent of the world’s natural gas reserves, a fact that has over the years made them the target of aggression and dependent on outside force for defense. One may have expected that, in light of these facts--great wealth and inherent weakness--the GCC states would have played a big part in the international effort to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, but to date they have remained largely on the sidelines.[1]


The Gulf policy regarding Iran is replete with inherent contradictions. While the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) States are indeed worried about continuing nuclear development in Iran, they are no less worried about a scenario in which, lacking any attractive diplomatic option, Iranian nuclear facilities are attacked. In their view, such violence is liable to trickle across their borders, whether in the form of a direct Iranian retaliation against them and U.S. interests on their soil or in the form of general regional destabilization. Moreover, while the Gulf states support a diplomatic solution to the Iran crisis, they are concerned that it may come at the expense of their own interests and that the result will be the United States recognizing Iran’s dominance in the Gulf. The GCC states have thus chosen a strategy that combines appeasing the Iranians, demonstrating public support for diplomatic efforts to solve the nuclear crisis, and relying on American military strength for deterrence and defense, coupled with behind-the-scenes activity designed primarily to heave the problem as far away from them as possible.

The Gulf states continue to make preparations for possible developments in the Gulf on the Iranian question and demonstrate sensitivity to oft-repeated threats coming from Teheran. Although all seek to curb Iran’s regional ambitions, they prefer not to show them publicly to avoid generating an Iranian counter-move against them. The public expressions about Iran’s nuclear program include:

Repeating the recognition of Iran’s right to maintain nuclear technology for peaceful uses while calling for a regional ban on nuclear weapons (Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone, WMDFZ).
Supporting a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis and expressing a desire to take an active part in it alongside Western nations.
Urging Iran to cooperate with the international community and the accepted verification regimes of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Expressing concern over any military action directed against Iran while stressing the destructive ramifications such an attack could to bring to their doorstep.

Iran has positioned itself as the utmost threat to the stability of the Gulf regimes. The hegemonic ambitions of the Shah and the attempts of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to export the Islamic Revolution to the west shores of the Gulf are still fresh in the memories of the region’s rulers. Despite the severity of the threat, the monarchies are constrained by a number of factors: public opinion and “the Arab street,” which tend to be anti-American and do not--unlike the ruling elite--view Iran’s nuclear program as a real threat; recognition of their military and strategic inferiority compared to Iran; different threat perceptions among them with regard to the threat from Iran; the weakness of the relatively moderate Arab bloc; and perhaps also the recognition that it may be too late to stop Iran from achieving nuclear capabilities and that it is thus pointless to join a lost cause. The outcome is an inverse ratio between the threat level coming from Iranian nuclear development and the level of involvement of the Arab Gulf states in attempt to keep that capability from Iran.

The Gulf states have also demonstrated passivity in their planning for the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran; it would seem that they are simply casting their lot in with the United States. Almost certainly, the result will continue to be a marginal contribution to the region’s security and reliance, as before, on America’s military might to handle Iran, especially should its aggressive tendencies be backed up by military nuclear capability.

It is interesting to note that, at first, Gulf criticism of Iranian nuclear development appeared in the context of nuclear safety and concern about radioactive spills from the Bushehr nuclear plant (where, in late October 2010, the Iranians began loading fuel into the core), whether accidents or caused by outside attacks. It is possible the GCC states chose to relate to this context in order to differentiate themselves from Western criticism of Iran and to avoid angering Iran too much. The repeated use of the statement, “The nuclear reactor at Bushehr is closer to Manama or Kuwait city than to Teheran,” shows that the high level of threat has made the Arab Gulf states very cautious. Iran has proven sensitive to this criticism and has made efforts to lend its program as civilian a nature as possible. For example, Iran has often hosted delegations from the Gulf at the Bushehr reactor in order to provide reassurances about its safety.[2]

Whether it is the inherent passivity of the Gulf states’ conduct or the West’s indifference to receiving their input in the political effort against Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the result is that the GCC states feel that talks on so acute an issue to them take place with or without their involvement, and at times even--as they have put it--"behind their backs." Their primary concern is that the United States and Iran could arrive at an agreement that would be harmful to their own interests. Such fears have led to criticism of the diplomatic effort aimed at dissuading Iran. One of the difficulties of the diplomatic channels and dialogue with Iran, at least according to some of the Gulf states, is that they were not invited to participate from the outset.[3]


Iran does not view the GCC states as a serious threat; they are certainly not the primary motivation behind its nuclear program. Nonetheless, it does identify them as a serious security problem...



*Yoel Guzansky is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University. He joined INSS after coordinating work on the Iranian nuclear challenge at the National Security Council, the Israeli Prime Minister's Office.

Meria Journal, Vol. 14, No. 4 - December 2010,

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