Iran is making fresh efforts to increase its influence in the Arab world mainly among the GCC countries because Iran finds the Arab Spring an idea which is closer to the Iranian Revolution. This has heightened the already apparent tensions that existed between Iran and GCC.
Since the Revolution in the Arab world is making impact, Iran feels that the time is right for Iran to get a fair chance to enhance its influence and reorient regional equations.
But this is creating a fear psychosis for GCC countries that are scared of Iran and are fully aware of the potentiality of Iranian region to destabilize their governments. Shia leaders from all the GCC countries are now increasingly visiting Iran and asking the followers to demonstrate Shiite ideology in provinces and districts of GCC countries.
Shia population in all the GCC countries ranges between 10 to 20%. Bahrain makes an exception, with about 60% Shias. Although GCC countries and Iran have got historical conflicts and ideological differences, most GCC countries are worried about Iran filling in the vacuum in the Arab world created by the loss of power exerted by Saudi Arabia and Egypt in the region.
With this in mind GCC countries are trying to find ways and means to deal with an assertive Iran which feels has a chance to play a leadership role in regional peace and conflict.
This was evident in the GCC Summit held in December 2012 in Bahraini capital, Manama, where the issue of Iran dominated most discussions. GCC lashed out at Iran, accusing it of interfering in their internal affairs.
This also goes to show that in future the conflict in the Persian Gulf is not likely to be directly between the US and Iran but between the GCC states - Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE-and Iran.
Traditionally, Iran and GCC have had a tense relation marked by sectarian and ideological differences, differences concerning presence of US in the region, concern over Iran’s nuclear programme and territorial disputes between Iran and the UAE.
Iran’s robust nuclear development programme had the West in doubts over its objectives and they reacted by the US and the UN Security Council imposing sanctions on Iran over charges that it did not fully cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in declaration of its nuclear program.
The sanctions were meant to isolate Iran in an effort to halt the enrichment of uranium components of its nuclear program.
Due to their population and military weaknesses, the GCC states in the past had looked towards the US and the western nations for maintaining security and independence. Iran, on the other hand, was powerful during the reign of the former Shah and exerted influence in the Gulf for the most part.
The reign of Shah was followed by one whose ideology was based on the Shiite doctrine. This engendered fear among the GCC states that the Iranian revolutionary regime might want to export this doctrine to the GCC states. Thus, after Saddam Hussain’s invasion of Kuwait, the GCC nations sought support of the US and NATO.
Also, previously Iran had been sidelined by nations such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and North East African countries as their regimes had been in power for a considerable period of time.
But post the Arab Spring, which brought about a change in many of these countries with long entrenched regimes, Iran hopes that the chances of forging better relations with the new governments are ripe as they have not demonstrated any closeness with the US, unlike their predecessors. With other powers declining Iran feels that the new leaders would be a little more compatible with the Iranian government.
In the latest Summit, the six nations of the GCC accused Iran of fueling Shia-led uprising in Bahrain last year and condemned its continued occupation of the three UAE islands-Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb-that lie in the strategically important Strait of Hormuz.
The Summit also agreed to establish a joint command for naval, air and ground forces of the member countries complemented by strengthening the military and development of each of the GCC state.
Last year, Iran was accused of instigating a Shia led uprising in Bahrain, given its Shia dominated population.
The ongoing Syrian crisis has further aggravated the differences between the two sides as Iran, which supports the Assad regime has called for a political solution to the crisis while GCC openly supports the newly formed opposition-National Coalition. The GCC also urged the international community to make a serious move to end the massacre in Syria.
As put by Bahrain’s Foreign Minister, Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa, the threat posed by Iran is not only political-due to meddling in the affairs of the GCC states, but also environmental-due to the technology employed by Iran in some of their nuclear facilities, and then there is always the looming danger arising from Iran’s nuclear program that a wider conflict might erupt in the region at any time.
Looking at the present state of relations between Iran and the GCC it is likely that if Iran’s influence continues to increase in the Middle East, it may lead to wider military conflict.
The radical and revolutionary nature of Iran’s political dynamics puts it at odds with the aspirations of the GCC countries’ status-quoist system of governance. Further, Iran is composed mostly of Persians, and not Arabs whose mother-tongue is Farsi and not Arabic. Also, Iran is not a part of the League of Arab states, the organization to which all the GCC states have been members for the longest period, and which links them to other Arab states.
It looks like the Shia-Sunni divide is not the origin of the lack of trust and tensions that exist between the GCC and Iran, but is made use of to stoke sectarian feelings leading to clashes. Shias and Sunnis have been living together all over the world in spite of the differences that divide them. But sectarian differences are used by political leaders for their own gains when required.
In the December GCC Summit, affirmation of the six nations to set up a joint defence system and removing obstacles to economic integration shows their determination to intensify relations among themselves against possible Iranian domination.
The GCC members might seek informal alliances to strengthen themselves against Iran. There is a likelihood of the GCC members getting closer to Israel, in the event of which Iran may draw closer to Palestine. This again is something that the Gulf countries would not be comfortable with.
If GCC’s fears of Iranian eminence are realized, there is a possibility of the GCC and Iran getting involved in a wider conflict that would have consequences for the entire region.