The Houthis see the attacks in the Red Sea as part of a broader political project that goes back decades.
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The budding efforts between the Gulf Arab states and Iran to develop a process of détente and ease tensions are, in equal measure, important, welcome, and fragile. Their rivalry, which has waxed and waned over recent decades, has served the interests of neither side well. The international community also has a clear stake in the development of a more stable and secure regional order in the Gulf. In addition to recognizing the rare moment of opportunity that seems to be developing, and trying to build on it, the immediate task is to conceptualize a roadmap for what Iranian-Gulf Cooperation Council reconciliation would require and might look like. Such a framework is needed to help guide and measure this process, and while the burden to develop it rests with the parties themselves, it is not too soon for others to help think through the outlines of such an initiative. One of the key features of an effective approach could be a sequential nature, in which successfully dealing with one issue leads logically to the next, until the most damaging regional problems are dealt with and the basis for greater stability is restored.
How Tensions Grew
Beginning with some unintended consequences of the U.S. response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks – most notably the ouster of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq – the perception of the Gulf Arab states and many others has been that most of the major political developments in the region have slowly but surely strengthened the Iranian hand. Gulf anxieties were further intensified during President Barack Obama’s second term when, through both word and deed, an impression was created that Washington was no longer a reliable ally. Obama’s comments critical of these countries as “free riders” who need to “share” the Middle East with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal, as well as the reversal of Obama’s chemical weapons “red line” in Syria and his refusal to get involved significantly in the Syrian conflict all exacerbated a sense of profound vulnerability in the Gulf Arab countries.
Tensions between Iran and the GCC states reached a nadir in January 2016, when Iranian mobs sacked Saudi diplomatic missions in response to the execution of secessionist Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. The Arab League then designated Hezbollah a terrorist group, and GCC countries illegalized support for it. For its part, Iran ramped up its intervention – along with Hezbollah and Russia – in Syria, turning the tide of the conflict in favor of the regime, and reportedly became more active in Yemen and Bahrain.
Why the Potential Thaw Now?
In recent months, however, there have been numerous signs, on both sides, that a thaw might be in the offing. First came the November 30, 2016, OPEC agreement to cut oil production in an effort to bolster sagging energy prices. This was the first indication in many months that the parties saw beyond a zero-sum framework and could identify an area of mutual benefit. As so often happens, commerce became the icebreaker between feuding rivals who saw the irresistible logic of a financial win-win.
Since then, multiple hopeful signs have emerged. In January, Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sabah Khaled al-Sabah delivered a message to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on behalf of the entire GCC essentially offering a framework for a constructive dialogue. This was in response to Iran having sent an official letter along the same lines to the GCC in early 2016.
The Gulf Arab message to Tehran listed three essential principles that would have to undergird any substantive dialogue and ensure that it would not be a pro forma exercise. The first GCC principle demands respect by all countries for the sovereignty of their neighbors and a strict policy of noninterference in each other’s internal affairs. The second holds that Iran’s revolution was strictly a national event, and is not for “export” to any other country. The third demands recognition that the Shia communities in the Gulf Arab countries are to be viewed strictly as citizens of those countries and not part of any larger group that Iran, or any other power, can claim to represent.
At the meeting, Rouhani reportedly accepted the principle that the Iranian Revolution was indeed a national phenomenon, and not for export. During a reciprocal visit to Kuwait and Oman, he delivered a letter of his own that communicated Iran’s openness to dialogue, urged progress, and seemed to confirm the first and third of the GCC principles for dialogue. Among other recent Iranian rhetorical overtures, Rouhani tweeted in Arabic in February apparently addressing the prospects of repairing relations by saying that “Opportunity passes like a cloud. Therefore, make good use of good opportunities.”
Perhaps more importantly, Iran and Saudi Arabia have recently agreed on a formula for Iranian pilgrims to take part in the annual hajj this year, after negotiations ended in mutual recriminations in 2016. Since the 1920s, shortly following the establishment of the modern Saudi state, hajj issues have been a consistent source of tension between Tehran and Riyadh, and resolving them is a key to improved relations between the parties. This pattern regarding the influence of hajj-related issues on Saudi-Iranian relations was repeated several times during the 20th century and may be playing out again now.
Among the key bases for GCC-Iran dialogue are emerging shifts in the strategic landscape that incentivize both sides to seriously consider meaningful compromise, if not a full-blown rapprochement. The new administration of U.S. President Donald J. Trump has greatly strengthened the Arab hand and put additional pressure on Tehran. Washington has made its commitment to rebuilding relations with its traditional Sunni Arab partners, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, as clear as its intention to toughen its approach toward Iran. This new U.S. attitude is already being put into practice in regional conflicts in Syria and Yemen and, given the unrivaled military potency of the United States, has quickly produced a significant alteration to the Middle Eastern balance of power and strategic equation.
The U.S. missile strike against the Syrian regime’s Al Shayrat air base on April 6 has been the most dramatic iteration of this new approach by Washington to the Middle East and the significant new challenges it poses to Iran’s interests and allies. The U.S. missile strike came in response to the Assad regime’s April 4 chemical weapons attack on rebel-held areas of northern Syria. By responding with force to the Syrian regime’s renewed use of sarin, the Trump administration sent a series of signals to friend and foe alike in the Middle East, demonstrating that it is ready to use U.S. firepower in the region quickly, without the caution characteristic of the Obama administration.
This military response strongly suggests that the Trump administration is developing a policy toward Syria that emphasizes differences between President Bashar al-Assad and Iran, as well as Russia, rather than areas of potential agreement, such as the battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. These missile strikes have set Washington on a path that could easily lead to greater U.S. engagement in Syria, and if so almost certainly to the advantage of Gulf, rather than Iranian, interests.
An increasing level of U.S. involvement in Yemen also is noteworthy. U.S. airstrikes in Yemen in March alone exceeded the total for any previous year on record, and while they targeted Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, there are also reports that the United States is considering support for an anticipated joint Saudi-UAE effort to unseat the Houthi rebels and their allies from the strategic Red Sea port of Hodeidah. While no determination has been made, the serious consideration of an increased U.S. role in the Saudi-led war against the Iranian-backed Houthis is itself a sign of the evolution of U.S. policy in a manner that plainly strengthens the Gulf Arab position. The head of CENTCOM, Gen. Joseph Votel, told Congress on March 29 that in Yemen “there are vital U.S. interests at stake.” This is the first such statement from a senior U.S. official regarding the Yemen campaign, and one that could provide the policy basis for heightened U.S. engagement in many aspects of that conflict.
The State Department has reportedly decided to lift holds on about $400 million in precision-guided munitions for Saudi Arabia to replenish those that have been expended in the Yemen conflict, and on $5 billion worth of F-16 fighter jets being sold to Bahrain. Washington has also essentially endorsed Manama’s recent reports that it has uncovered massive stockpiles of weapons and munitions in Bahrain that both the United States and Gulf Arab countries say are of Iranian origin.
The GCC countries have also been seeking to push back somewhat against Iran’s strategic and political gains in Iraq, through recent Saudi outreach to the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and his receptivity to it. For both Riyadh and Abadi, this is intended to help stave off a serious political challenge from former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is perceived as unacceptably sectarian and beholden to Iran. It’s also an effort by Riyadh and its allies to develop the political space that can allow them to exercise influence in Iraq once Mosul is liberated from ISIL control. If Abadi can fend off Maliki’s challenge, which is mainly focused on the parliamentary elections in 2018, Riyadh and its GCC allies will have influence not only with Iraqi Sunni factions, but also with a renewed Abadi government and its partners. Iraq could thereby move further away from Tehran’s orbit than it has in many years.
Therefore, Iran’s strategic regional upper hand, which seemed unassailable a few months ago, is not as clear cut as it once appeared. Iran has certainly made a great deal of progress in its foreign policy agenda in recent years. Yet the evident change in U.S. attitudes and behavior toward a range of Middle Eastern issues and other recent developments strengthened the Arab position. So, at this point, both Iran and the GCC states can clearly see the benefits of exploring the prospects for at least some repair to relations, possibly leading to a broader reconciliation.
A Sequential Framework for Progress
If a strategic dialogue were to begin in earnest, it would be vital for both sides to move forward with a clear framework for what would be required to rebuild a basic level of cooperation. To deal with the underlying causes of tension and instability, it would probably be necessary for the parties to tackle a series of disputed issues in a sequential manner, each leading logically to the next. When composed in such a manner, a framework for progress builds upon itself, demonstrating the mutual gains, building confidence, and laying the groundwork for the next constructive step, as well as reducing the chances of additional irritants and sources of tension.
First, the conflict in Yemen provides Tehran with an opportunity to demonstrate it is serious about reducing points of friction with its Gulf Arab neighbors. While Iran’s support for the insurgent Houthi militia is not in question, its influence over the rebels is far less decisive than that exercised by former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In fact, Iran’s overall investment in the Yemen war seems quite modest. For both these reasons, and in view of the urgent humanitarian need to end the conflict in Yemen, Iran could publicly call for all parties to the conflict to take immediate steps to make the compromises needed for the resumption of negotiations. In doing so, it loses almost nothing: the Houthis will do what they determine is in their interest, as will the Saudis and Emiratis, but the Iranians can don the mantle of peacemaker, and perhaps even create momentum for an end to the war.
Such an outcome will be needed to fully contain and reverse the growth of extremist groups such as AQAP and ISIL in the context of the ongoing war, which would be in everyone’s interests. Both sides and their allies will have their share of heavy lifting in order to develop serious peace talks leading to a political settlement in Yemen, but it will be very hard to move forward regionally as long as the conflict there continues.
Gulf Maritime Security and Free Passage
Second, there needs to be a mutual commitment to ensuring that the waters of the Gulf itself remain secure and open to unimpeded free passage for international shipping. Threats to interfere with unencumbered access to international maritime commerce and transport, particularly against strategically crucial choke points, must stop. Iranian officials have repeatedly threatened to “close” the vital Strait of Hormuz – through which an estimated one-third of all sea-traded oil must pass – to the United States and its allies, most recently in May 2016.
Both parties will strongly benefit from such a commitment and practical efforts to ensure cooperation to ensure this access and openness. Again, both sides have much to gain from this endeavor, which would function as a strategic equivalent of the win-win OPEC deal. It could also promote a sense of partnership and shared responsibility for ensuring the order and stability in the region that both sides need and insist they want. At best, it could begin the development of a virtuous circle of self-reinforcing and mutually-beneficial cooperation.
Syria and Iraq
Third, both sides can and should agree on the political independence, territorial integrity, and need for stability in both Syria and Iraq. These two regional battlegrounds are in many ways very different, but they share certain key features that could allow them to be addressed as a single item within this broader sequential framework. Although Iran and the Gulf states – even with the engagement of Turkey and other countries – cannot resolve the wars in Syria and Iraq, it is also true that little progress can be made in either country unless there is a regional understanding that ending these conflicts is an urgent necessity and that their continuation is costlier than the compromises needed to resolve them.
If the conflict in Yemen has the potential to become a quagmire for Saudi Arabia, the even more brutal and bloodier conflict in Syria could hold similar risk for Iran and Hezbollah. Most reliable estimates suggest that the Assad regime has approximately 20,000 trustworthy ground troops, and relies on some 150,000 fighters from Iran, Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shia militias to enable its survival. The commitment is, therefore, seemingly open ended. There is no indication that domestic political support for the Assad regime is increasing because the Iran-led intervention has prevented the victory of the rebels. To the contrary, there is every indication that the war will continue, and virtually no credible observer believes that the regime and its allies will be able to regain control over large areas of the country currently in the hands of one opposition group or another.
Moreover, as the mainstream rebels have suffered grievous setbacks such as the fall of Aleppo at the end of 2016, al-Qaeda-affiliated groups have grown in stature and influence among the opposition. The rise of Salafist-jihadist groups in Syria, including ISIL, is plainly a threat to Iran on its own doorstep. The enormous scope of Iran’s project of propping up the dysfunctional and fragmented Syrian state, albeit with Russian support, and the costs it entails for Tehran, are just starting to emerge.
While Tehran and Moscow have agreed on the need to prevent the collapse of the Assad regime, their perspectives and priorities in, and regarding, Syria are otherwise strikingly divergent. In the aftermath of the regime’s reconquest of Aleppo, it is Russia, not Iran, that appears to be largely shaping the strategic approach of the pro-Assad coalition. Iran has secured its interests, but does not appear to have increased its influence, in Syria. All of this means that Tehran will have every reason to be receptive to a potential understanding on Syria that can extricate it from a growing quagmire of its own from which, as some influential Iranians have pointed out, it has, “no exit strategy.” Criticism of how overstreched the country has become, especially in Syria, has been quietly growing over the past year and a half in Iran despite the limitations on open debate.
The Gulf Arab countries have at least as much, if not more, of an incentive to encourage a political resolution to the Syrian conflict. The rebel groups backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in conjunction with Turkey, have suffered a string of serious military setbacks at the hands of pro-regime forces, culminating in the loss of rebel-held areas of Aleppo and other vital strategic territory. As a consequence, these groups have lost influence in opposition circles, largely to the expanding reach of al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria. Their strategic alliance with Turkey is, at best, on hold while Ankara deals with its domestic political upheavals and concentrates on the evolving Kurdish role in northern Syria. The ability of GCC countries to influence events in Syria has, therefore, steadily diminished since the joint Russian-Iranian surge on behalf of the regime that began in fall 2015. While the war in Syria seems set to continue indefinitely, until a political solution can be found, this may only allow the Gulf Arab countries to play the role of spoiler rather than help to arrange a satisfactory outcome. An understanding with Iran over Syria, and presumably with Russia as well, is, under current circumstances, the only obvious way in which the Gulf Arab countries can achieve their essential aims in Syria.
An Iranian-Gulf Arab understanding on Syria would be extremely difficult to achieve, because both sides regard their interests in the conflict as virtually existential. The details would be even more difficult to tease out. However, since a negotiated framework for the future is the only plausible way of ending the Syrian conflict, both Iran and the Gulf Arab countries have a strong interest in achieving such an understanding. Beginning to restore the independence, integration, and territorial integrity of Syria, even if this occurs within the framework of either a de facto or de jure loose federation can only be done with the support of outside players such as Iran, Turkey, Russia, and the Gulf Arab states. The interests of these parties in a functional cease-fire has been demonstrated since the peace talks on Syria began in Kazakhstan in January. Although the Gulf Arab countries were not present, they tacitly encouraged Turkey’s role as de facto representative of regional Sunni Muslim concerns. If such a cease-fire can be made to hold for several months, the building blocks of a longer-term arrangement in Syria that moves the country beyond open-ended warfare, and the incubation of global headquarters for major international terrorist movements in its war-ravaged provinces, may begin to emerge.
An analogous process can be imagined in Iraq, the significant differences between the two situations notwithstanding. As noted, both Iran and the Gulf Arab countries have reasonable relations the with Abadi government. Because Iraq is an Arab, as well as a Shia-majority, country Baghdad has a strong interest in being an integral part of the Arab world as well as a friend and partner to Iran. Both Iran and the Gulf Arab countries have a strong stake in wiping out ISIL’s presence in Iraq as well as Syria, and both can surely live with an Iraqi approach that leaves Baghdad maintaining strong ties to both Iran and its fellow Arab League members.
Significant give and take on both sides would be required, especially in Syria, but also in Iraq. The underlying political realities involving the balance of coercive power in these countries, their present fragmentation, and the legitimate interests of various communities and constituencies, would somehow have to be accommodated. The difficulties in achieving even a modicum of stability in both these countries, particularly Syria, can’t be underestimated. But neither can the interests that both Iran and the Gulf Arab countries, not to mention the Iraqi and Syrian people in general, would have in securing such arrangements. And, as in Yemen, it would be a matter of Iranian and Gulf Arab pressure and inducements on their respective allies and clients in these countries to present and accept reasonable proposals to end devastating conflicts. But without such influence, armed struggle is virtually guaranteed to continue, at everyone’s peril.
Fourth, it’s essential that Hezbollah return to its focus on serving its constituency in Lebanon and stop acting, in effect, as an international revolutionary vanguard supporting a range of militias, terrorist groups, and other nonstate actors throughout the region. The extent to which Hezbollah is imposing its will in many strategically and politically crucial areas of Syria is not widely understood outside of the Levant. The organization has even emerged as a key power-behind-the-throne in Damascus, wielding a growing influence over decision making and even the appointment of personnel within the regime’s military and intelligence forces and other parts of the government.
The organization even held a military parade in the strategically vital Syrian city Qusayr, which was the site of one of its earliest and most important battles. The Wall Street Journal quoted an unidentified former State Department official as noting, “To host a military parade commending yourselves in another country is as bold as you can get.” According to Hanin Ghaddar, their experiences in Syria have created tension and resentment between Hezbollah fighters and their Iranian masters. The war has also raised new questions within Lebanon’s Shia community about Hezbollah’s raison d’etre and the goals of its military actions, such that “People now ask why we are dying for the Syrians.” Despite all of this, Iran’s influence over Hezbollah remains vast, and probably decisive.
If Hezbollah and its patrons in Tehran chafe at the Arab League designation of the organization as a terrorist group, and GCC prohibitions on support for it, the only way out is for the organization to mend its ways, return to first principles, and attend to reasonable functions in its own country. Returning Hezbollah’s focus to caring for and representing its constituency in Lebanon, and forgoing its regional role, would help to secure the organization’s legitimacy and future, which otherwise are highly questionable, and would signal Iran’s willingness to play, along with its regional allies, a far more constructive, and less destabilizing, role in the Middle East.
This proposed four-point agenda for Iran-Gulf Arab reconciliation is, admittedly, ambitious, imaginative, and speculative. It certainly could be that Iran, and indeed perhaps the Gulf Arab countries, would envisage a very different agenda for progress. But it’s not enough to urge the parties to try to repair their differences and create a more stable regional order to replace the current ongoing volatility. It’s important to try, for what it is worth, to help everyone think through what a better approach might actually look like in practice.
is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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