June 23, 2017
TSC IntelBrief: Iran Benefiting from Gulf State Rift
The June 5 isolation of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain, joined by Egypt and a few other regional states, exposed widening fissures with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) alliance. The GCC was formed in late 1981 specifically to counter Iran’s Islamic revolutionary government hat sought to export Iran’s revolution into the Gulf and the broader Middle East region. Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain represent the ‘hardline’ camp within the GCC on Iran; the three have consistently rejected broad engagement with Iran and blame it for attempting to dominate the region. U.S. officials have corroborated Bahrain government assertions that Iran is supporting small violent Shi’a opposition groups that have added to the unrest in Bahrain since early 2011. Along with Qatar, Kuwait and Oman—both of which refused to join the Saudi-led move against Qatar—have been advocates of engagement with Iran as a means of mitigating Iran’s objectionable regional behavior. Yet, because the Saudi-led move was not directed against Kuwait or Oman—whose relations with Iran are deeper than are Qatar’s—it is clear that differences over Iran were not at the center of the Saudi-led move. In March, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani visited Kuwait and Oman as part of an effort to begin a dialogue with the GCC states; he did not visit Qatar and has not done so since taking office in 2013. The core of the intra-GCC dispute is Qatar’s support for regional Muslim Brotherhood movements that Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in particular, see as threats to the GCC monarchies themselves.
The rift is the most serious in the GCC’s 36-year history. A 2014 dispute between Qatar and the three ‘hardline’ GCC states over many of the same issues was quickly resolved with minor concessions by Qatar. The current rift is far more extensive and the Saudi-led demands on Qatar are more sweeping, setting the stage for a prolonged crisis. The dispute even has the potential to cause the GCC alliance to dissolve—a result that would represent an achievement of one of Iran’s most sought regional goals—although this outcome is by no means the most likely scenario. Sensing this opportunity, Iran has delivered good exports to Qatar to compensate for Qatar’s reliance on Saudi food supplies that have been cut off. Iran also has redoubled its efforts to engage not only Qatar but also Kuwait and Oman, in particular by sending several naval vessels on a port visit to Oman after the rift erupted.
The dispute significantly complicates efforts by the Trump administration to assemble a broad and cohesive regional coalition to counter Iran’s regional influence. The Saudi-led isolation of Qatar came just two weeks after the visit by President Trump to Saudi Arabia in which countering Iran—and terrorism more broadly—was a pronounced theme. It is possible that the Trump visit’s highlighting of the Iran threat appeared to tilt the U.S. so far in the Saudi/UAE/Bahrain direction that the three were emboldened to wring major concessions from Qatar. Yet, the U.S. effort to contain Iran, and to operate throughout the region, depends on an access to an inter-connected web of Gulf military facilities, perhaps most prominent of which is Qatar’s Al Udeid Air Base where 10,000 U.S. Air Force personnel serve. A prolonged intra-GCC dispute is certain to interfere with the seamlessness of U.S. operations in the Gulf, whether or not U.S. access to Al Udeid is affected (which it has not to date)—and thus impinge on U.S. efforts to keep Iran militarily contained. Even if day-to-day U.S. operations are unaffected, the U.S. effort to construct an integrated ballistic missile defense system in the Gulf—intended to neutralize Iran’s increasingly large and sophisticated ballistic missile force—is sure to be hampered. These strategic considerations for Iran policy largely explain why U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has stepped in as a mediator to try to repair the rift as quickly as possible.
The Gulf rift’s effect on Iran’s regional position is likely to be mixed. In the near term, Iran’s allies, the Zaydi Shi’a Houthi rebels in Yemen are likely to benefit at least somewhat because Qatar is exiting the Saudi-led coalition and seeking to restore the Sunni-led government there. While Qatar’s ground contingent in Yemen is small, its air force is well trained and its air strikes have helped the Saudi-led effort. Iran’s position in Syria is likely to benefit marginally from the Gulf dispute. Qatar has been aiding groups such as Ahrar al-Sham against the Assad regime; this and other pro-Qatar groups have been effective against pro-Assad forces, particularly around Damascus. If, in an effort to resolve the rift, Qatar agrees to cease supporting its protégé groups in Syria, the overall opposition effort against Assad could weaken pro-Iranian forces in Syria, which might gain more room to advance. Conversely, Iran’s regional position could be set back if resolving the rift requires Qatar to cease its support for Hamas and end its humanitarian support for the Gaza Strip, which Hamas runs. Hamas has been a key instrument through which Iran puts pressure on Israel, and any weakening of Hamas weakens Iran’s regional strategy, particularly against Israel. However, these outcomes pale by comparison to the benefits Iran receives from watching the GCC, the its primary regional adversary, devolve into acrimony.
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