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Iran Détente Still a Poison Pill for Gulf Arabs, Nuclear Question or Not

The majority of the estimated 250,000 people displaced by the Houthi conflict scattered across the vast landscape of north Yemen, seeking shelter and food among the local rural populations. Photo: Hugh Macleod / IRIN / 201003170737560353

The majority of the estimated 250,000 people displaced by the Houthi conflict scattered across the vast landscape of north Yemen, seeking shelter and food among the local rural populations.
Photo: Hugh Macleod / IRIN / 201003170737560353

U.S. policymakers face many difficult choices in pursuing rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Iran. There is little chance that Iran and the Arab monarchies, led by Saudi Arabia, can countenance each another’s respective aspirations. The U.S. is trying to make a deal with Iran while still tying itself to the demands of its other security partners in the region.

Iran’s ambitions are not new or “revolutionary”: Before the overthrow of the last Shah, a number of modern Iranian leaders had hegemonic aspirations in the Gulf, expressed in terms of past imperial grandeurs. The revolution in 1979 unleashed a torrent of anti-Americanism, but it did not diminish Iranian leaders’ aspirations. Instead, it emboldened them, as they were now animated by true revolutionary zeal, and not the reactionary imaginations of some “pan-Iranists” who called for a “Greater Iran.”

Today, such naked ethnic supremacism holds little stock among even the most hardline Iranian policymakers. While Supreme Leader Khomeini expressed himself in religious terms, he and his colleagues still yearned for national greatness beyond Iran’s borders, to export their model of governance so that would be surrounded by far friendlier regimes. Now they must balance this desire with the realization that their rule cannot survive without better international relations and a lessening of economic sanctions.

Iranian leaders still fear that offensive action might topple them from power — they know full well Western powers could stoke discontent against the ruling class — but they also want be feared and treated as equals. Iranian influence is seen in much of the Arab world as Shia, Persian chauvinism – an unsurprising view given the way Tehran carries itself. But that chauvinism is only exceeded in pretensions by the chauvinism of the Gulf States arrayed against the so-called Shia Crescent.

These Arab powers have many of the same underlying fears of their own citizenry that Iranian leaders do, though there are several notable differences. For one, the Arab states are not under the same sanctions as Iran and need to fear the socioeconomic impact of decades-long censure. Yet the underlying economic and political contracts they have with their subjects are under strain, because of the simple fact that people cannot be bought off forever, especially those who seek to overthrow the state, remove all “undesirables,” and institute a new Islamist order. Yet even with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) at the House of Saud’s doorstep, the Gulf States collectively seem to fear dissidents who may look to the Islamic Republic even more – and do too little to quell the extremist messaging emanating from their own religious establishments that has empowered ISIS and AQAP.

This shortsightedness is why the outcome of the current Gulf-led intervention in Yemen will prove decisive. Saudi leadership has sought to build up a consensus on Yemen among other predominantly Sunni nations. In drawing in as many of these countries as possible, including apparent outliers such as Sudan, Malaysia and Senegal, they wish to obscure that any political solution Riyadh finds acceptable will be unacceptable to many Yemenis.

Iran, for its part, seems content to let the coalition bleed itself. The previous beneficiary of Saudi (and American) largesse, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was tossed aside in 2011 not because he suddenly discovered reform or sided with the Houthis (as he did after losing power), but because he had so badly bungled things that domestic unrest threatened to embolden al Qaeda – which, we now learn, may have deeply infiltrated his security services. Riyadh fails to realize that its actions could deepen the quagmire that Saleh dug himself into with U.S. military assistance.

For now, the U.S. is content to distance itself from the Saudi campaign over Yemen while pursuing a grand bargain with Tehran. The coming months will tell if this remains doable, or if Washington will have to truly set down the rationale for its courting of Tehran while still upholding sanctions and arming the Gulf Arab and Israeli militaries.



Paul Mutter
Paul Mutter

NYU graduate student blogging at FPA, The Arabist, War is Boring, and Souciant.

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