The Gaza war has demonstrated the strategic utility and resilience of the detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, its longer-term sustainability may depend on unpredictable regional dynamics or other outside factors.
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In recent months, there has been a gradual thawing of hostilities among long-standing rivals in the Gulf. From the Chinese-brokered agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran to normalize diplomatic relations to Saudi-Houthi peace talks over the war in Yemen and the subsided animosities within the Gulf Cooperation Council, concrete manifestations of detente abound.
Yet these diplomatic developments have failed to yield a meaningful amelioration of security conditions at sea. Unsafe interactions between the U.S. and Iranian navies and seizures of merchant vessels by Iranian forces have surged in and around the Strait of Hormuz, increasing concerns about the safety of critical energy routes.
The United States and its traditional Gulf Arab partners have pursued diverging policy responses to cope with these rising tensions. On the one hand, Washington has opted for a conventional security approach predicated on deploying additional air and naval assets to bolster its regional deterrence capabilities. The U.S. military is also reportedly considering putting armed personnel on commercial vessels in the Gulf to deter Iran from seizing more civilian ships. On the other hand, the Gulf Arab states have adopted a softer, less threatening posture that aims to lower the risk of unintended escalation and keep the region’s fragile de-escalation dialogue on track while at the same time demanding the United States take more robust action to deter Iranian seizures of commercial ships.
Mounting Awareness of the Need for Cooperation
Unhealthy rivalry and deep-rooted mutual suspicion have long led the Gulf littoral states to view the maritime domain as a battleground to settle old scores and sort out new frictions rather than a space for peaceful cooperation. However, they have recently shown a growing resolve to eschew zero-sum calculations and embrace a more conciliatory posture in managing maritime security affairs. The recent flurry of diplomatic interactions highlights this measured, sometimes contradictory, policy shift.
On May 31, the United Arab Emirates disclosed its withdrawal from the Combined Maritime Forces, a U.S.-led 38-country naval partnership that conducts maritime security activities off the Arabian Peninsula’s coasts. A few days later, the commander of the Iranian navy, Rear Admiral Shahram Irani, announced Iran’s intention to launch a naval alliance with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Iraq, Pakistan, and India aimed at securing the vital shipping routes in the northwestern Indian Ocean.
On June 17, during the first visit to Iran by a senior Saudi official since 2016, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan communicated to his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Saudi Arabia’s willingness to cooperate with Iran in turning the Gulf into a secure maritime environment for seafarers and commercial vessels. Two days later, the Pakistan Maritime Security Agency and the Iranian border guards signed an agreement to strengthen bilateral maritime coordination, emphasizing the importance of countering terrorism and safeguarding regional trade routes.
Nonetheless, the path to a full-fledged regional naval alliance is unlikely to be smooth sailing. The region’s highly volatile security landscape, significant deficit of mutual trust, and diverging threat perceptions remain roadblocks to an effective collective defense mechanism in the Gulf. Still, although the prospects of a regionwide naval alliance look dim under the current circumstances, the Gulf littoral states seem to have developed a growing awareness of the mutual benefits of reshaping the region’s security architecture and achieving minimum safety guarantees at sea.
Is Iran’s Policy Shift Genuine?
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has sought to ease domestic and foreign pressures by mending fences with Iran’s regional competitors and pursuing closer ties with countries sharing some of Tehran’s anti-Western sentiments, namely Russia and China.
The Raisi government’s regional olive branch policy is multipronged. First, Iran aims to mitigate its isolation by showing its main adversaries – the United States and Israel – that it is not a pariah state within its immediate neighborhood. Second, Iran hopes to reconnect its ailing economy to the regional trade community to soften the impact of U.S. sanctions. At the same time, the Iranians embarked in late April on a heightened effort to seize and harass commercial ships in the Gulf, possibly to increase pressure on Gulf Arab states to move more quickly on maritime security cooperation or as a tit-for-tat response to U.S. sanctions enforcement action in the Gulf.
Tehran’s charm offensive has been yielding some meaningful outcomes, including the resumption of formal bilateral ties with key Gulf Arab states and Amir-Abdollahian’s diplomatic tour to four Gulf Arab capitals. However, Iran’s neighbors remain skeptical about the sincerity of the Iranian push for regional stability.
While ideational factors, such as revolutionary fervor, religious zeal, and nationalist sentiments, have often dominated Iran’s narrative about the Gulf, the Iranian leadership’s evolving threat perception of the region’s geopolitical landscape has driven shifts in Iranian naval strategy. Iran has proved to be a nimble regional power capable of alternatively playing the role of security guarantor or spoiler in the Gulf waters depending on its leadership’s shifting perceptions of regional threats.
Through a massive buildup of sophisticated naval assets and advanced weapon systems, technical and military support to proxies across the Middle East, and harassing or seizing merchant vessels on dozens of occasions since mid-2019, Iran has weaponized the Gulf waters to build strategic leverage by using hybrid warfare tactics that have imposed high costs on its antagonists while ensuring a degree of deniability. Therefore, even though the Raisi government is now trying to portray Iran as a regional peace builder, the country’s image as a destabilizing force still deeply permeates the Gulf Arab states’ strategic thinking, decreasing the appeal and trustworthiness of Iran’s calls for regional detente.
However, Tehran’s effort to delink its strategic outlook vis-à-vis the Gulf Arab states from the conditions of its relations with Washington appears to be a new feature of its naval posture. Over the past decades, periods of increased U.S.-Iran tensions have often been accompanied by a deterioration of cross-Gulf ties. While the Gulf Arab states remain vulnerable to the fallout from any U.S.-Iran escalation, Iran has shown a measured shift in the logic informing its retaliatory measures. Iran’s most recent at-sea harassment incidents have targeted third-country-flagged oil tankers and bulk carriers – including vessels carrying cargo bound to U.S. ports – rather than the energy installations of the Gulf Arab states. It remains to be seen whether this adjustment will assuage Gulf Arab security concerns – the Emiratis were particularly incensed about the recent seizure of a tanker transiting from Dubai to Fujairah – and eventually help Tehran build diplomatic capital among its Arab neighbors.
Toward a New “HOPE”?
For now, Iran has not publicly announced concrete steps to turn its navy chief’s call for a cross-regional naval alliance into an official proposal. Assuming Iran is genuinely interested in opening negotiations on the matter, a high level of discretion in the early stages would not be surprising, especially considering the fragile status of cross-Gulf ties. Another possibility, however, is that Iran has put forward the naval coalition proposal to test the reactions of its neighbors and then craft policy options accordingly. While Tehran’s long-term intentions remain opaque, examining one of its most recent initiatives for a regional dialogue platform can help identify what elements could facilitate or spoil the process.
In September 2019, then-Iranian President Hassan Rouhani presented the Hormuz Peace Endeavor at the United Nations General Assembly. Anchored to a set of core tenets, including the inviolability of international borders, respect of sovereignty and territorial integrity, and peaceful settlement of disputes, the proposal outlined a plan of action to build consensus and mutual trust across the Strait of Hormuz. Among other things, the Hormuz Peace Endeavor aimed to articulate a collective approach to managing freedom of navigation in the Gulf.
With Rouhani’s speech coming 11 days after devastating missile and drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities attributed to Iran, the Gulf Arab states met the proposal with great skepticism. Tehran’s calls for dialogue were received more as a sneer than a serious diplomatic initiative and did little to alter a political climate exacerbated by a monthslong string of clandestine attacks carried out by Iran and its proxies against its Gulf Arab neighbors and permeated by a deep-rooted sense of mistrust and hostility.
At the time, Iran’s concurrent malign behavior and calls for dialogue further entrenched the view of Tehran as an unreliable actor. Perceiving Iran’s duplicity as a major cause of regional insecurity and concerned by the significant imbalance of conventional military power vis-à-vis Iran, the Gulf states doubled down on then-U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy. Ultimately, this series of misunderstandings and miscalculations contributed to a spiral of hostility that damaged Iran-Gulf Arab ties and resulted in the further militarization of the region’s waters, undermining the possibility of durable de-escalation.
The escalatory spirals that have brought the region to the brink of all-out armed confrontation have highlighted the importance of a maritime collective security community for the long-term stability and prosperity of states around the Strait of Hormuz.
Unlike a collective defense mechanism, which is fundamentally designed to counter a mutual threat, the core aim of a collective security community is to take into equal account the security concerns of all participants, implicitly contemplating the possibility of members voicing different – if not conflicting – security dilemmas. Although more flexible than an alliance, a collective security community still requires its members to develop a minimal level of common purpose, enter talks in good faith, and abide by principles of good neighborliness.
A practical step to foster mutual trust and a culture of cooperation would be to inaugurate regionwide forums where senior commanders and shipping industry stakeholders can voice concerns and security grievances. Regular consultations would facilitate the efforts of naval officers and seafarers to minimize unintended maritime incidents and bring some operational clarity in a tight security environment often dominated by suspicion and uncertainty. At their best, these trust-building steps could also catalyze more institutionalized forms of maritime engagement and lay a solid foundation for cooperation beyond the maritime domain.
Efforts to set up a regionwide collective security community in an escalation-prone and highly volatile theater will inevitably be vulnerable to setbacks and shortcomings. To ensure its success, the Gulf littoral states should prevent occasional eruptions of friction from taking over the broader de-escalation push. The recent flare-up over decades-old maritime border demarcation disputes – Iran’s spat with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia over the Al Durra gas field and the UAE-Iran rift over the Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa islands – exemplify the frictions that could torpedo de-escalation efforts if not deftly handled. On August 2, following a joint Russia-GCC statement backing Abu Dhabi’s territorial claims, Iran launched a massive naval drill in a bid to signal its military readiness and political resolve to defend the contested islands.
Border disputes bring the risk of escalation, but these localized flashpoints should not prevent powers on the opposite shores of the Gulf from recognizing that they also share some underlying concerns and maritime interests that transcend their different threat perceptions. While the cross-Gulf rapprochement spree has created a conducive climate for dialogue and cooperation, the practical value of today’s detente will be measured by its concrete contributions to maritime security and stability.
is a researcher who focuses on the security affairs of the Gulf region.
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