With the US military presence in the Persian Gulf dwindling on the back of Pentagon’s recent withdrawal of troops from Saudi Arabia, an important question that the Gulf Arab states need to consider is whether they are to follow the US-imposed anti-Iranian line. For the US, Iran remains an enemy state. Accordingly, the US continues to thrash fresh sanctions, issue warnings to the Iranian navy against any ‘misadventure’ in the Gulf, and find ways to block the sale of Iranian oil. For the Saudis and the rest of erstwhile Iran’s rival states—the UAE, Kuwait etc—this enmity, while real in its own sense, does no longer reflect the true reality of the Middle Eastern geo-politics. For the Gulf states, the US strategy of “maximum pressure” has not worked to their advantage. If “maximum” economic and political pressure has not worked, nothing will, especially if one is to consider the feeble military potential of the Gulf states vis-à-vis Iran, which means there’s a need to approach the situation from a different angle.
As it stands, if Gulf states continue to mindlessly pursue the “maximum pressure” strategy, it will only make future diplomatic initiatives and normalisation of relations difficult. Therefore, in the wake of US withdrawal from the Middle and relocation of military systems, it is important that the Gulf states exploit the relaxed security scenario and build better relations with Iran. Extended cooperation to combat COVID-19 can provide an additional boost to the fragile diplomatic ties.
Such a policy makes sense in two ways. First, the Gulf states will be left with no alternative option but to reconcile if Donald Trump wins elections this January and continues the process of gradual military withdrawal from the Middle East. A military withdrawal from Afghanistan is most likely to leave its impact on the US military presence in other Gulf states.
Secondly, if Trump loses the up-coming elections, it is highly unlikely that the Democrats will assume Trump’s hostile anti-Iran posture. Indeed, the focus may very well shift towards reinvigorating the Iran nuclear deal through a slightly renegotiated Washington’s re-entry in the agreement. This will again provide the Gulf states with a necessary context to normalise relations with Iran. In this scenario, a mindless pursuit of “maximum pressure” will put the Gulf states at a disadvantaged position on the negotiating table.
In the wake of Trump’s re-election and his persistence in withdrawing US military assets and personnel from the Middle East, the Gulf states, who are ill-equipped to militarily fight Iran, can and should reach out to the US’ European allies and close their ranks with them to initiate a diplomatic endeavour with Iran to normalise relations.
There is no doubt that the US decision to pull itself out of nuclear deal has created a lot of friction with Europe. Despite repeated Us threats, Europe continues to maintain ties with Iran, even though they are far from full-fledged and normal. Despite EU-Iran relations being fragile, there remains the fact the Europe—Germany, France and Britain—strongly detest any prospects of a US military adventure in the Gul with Iran, a war that, Europeans believe, will force on them an other massive wave of refugees and create a host of political, economic and social problems, creating increasingly strong prospects of ‘white radicalisation.’ The Syrian civil war demonstrated all too clearly that this is Europe’s Achilles heel, with anti-migrant protests in EU nations creating a serious political challenge for the leaders.
Europe can thus be a readily available ally for the Gulf states to resort to in order for them to mend ties with Iran, especially at a time when the Pandemic has badly left all countries in the Gulf equally and badly exposed and vulnerable, forcing them to prioritise not war but economic and political stability. It explains why many pro-regime newspapers in the Gulf are already speaking of ‘better relations’ with Iran, although they still think Iran needs to take the initiative.
Trade relations between Iran and the Gulf are already showing positive signs, thanks to some of the Gulf states, including the UAE, mending ties with Tehran. According to the latest figures, Iran exported $12.5 billion and imported $9 billion worth of commodities from these countries—UAE, Kuwait, Iraq, Oman, Bahrain—bringing the mutual trade volume to a promising figure of US$ 22 billion.
Therefore, in the wake of a US decision to pivot itself out of the Middle East and utilise these resources elsewhere—particularly against China—and Gulf economy, including that of Iran, hit by massive drop in oil prices, a golden opportunity for reframing the Middle Eastern geo-political chessboard exists, missing which will inevitably force the Gulf states in an unnecessary arms race to beef up their defence in the wake of a so-called “vacuum” left by the US withdrawal.
In fact, an arms race in the Middle East, with all Gulf states running to the US military industrial complex to buy the made-in-US weapons and defence systems is all the US would ideally want to see happening. That the US wants an arms race is evident from the way it continues to lash sanctions on Iran and threaten it in the Gulf and how it is, at the same time, withdrawing from Arab states, directly forcing them to see their ‘vulnerability to Iran’ and the need to tackle it (by buying made-in-US weapons), making it all the more important for the Gulf states to fundamentally rethink their Iran policy and craft and an independent policy.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.