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Foreign Policy

Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council: Prospects And Challenges


The past few months have seen Iran busy.

Gulf Cooperation Council session. Source: ISSA

Apart from elections and a new President, a proposed nuclear deal still being discussed and despite past efforts neither side has walked away from the negotiating table. Additionally, with the United States no longer directly engaged in Iraq, Iran’s role in the region seems to be growing, to the chagrin of the United States, Saudi Arabia and other countries.

Furthermore, the Iranian nuclear deal might just put an end to the status quo between the Gulf countries and Iran. If so, how is the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) going to react? To begin with, the Arab countries are having a hard time trying to find some common ground. When it comes to the Iranian situation, different member countries of the GCC are adopting different approaches. For instance, Oman is trying its best to be neutral. In fact, Oman acted as the facilitator during the US-Iran negotiations for the nuclear deal. On the other hand, Qatar is waiting to project itself as the key player in the region, ahead of both Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Saudi Arabia has launched its proxy wars against Iran because the US-Iran nuclear negotiations have left Saudi Arabia feeling threatened. The position of the UAE can best be termed as ‘confused’; on one hand, the UAE is openly siding with Saudi Arabia, whereas on the other hand, it is also trying to ease its relationship with Iran. From the point of view of the GCC, Iran’s plans of becoming a regional hegemon are neither acceptable nor tolerable. However, if the GCC is serious about its stand vis a vis Iran, it needs to leave behind ghosts from the past and look forward to a future of regional cooperation. As of now, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) faces three major challenges.

First, the member-states of the GCC need to put an end to their mutual differences and disagreements. If the GCC intends to emerge as a collective force, it needs to act as one. Second, the GCC needs a properly-defined agenda for the long-term. With the Iranian nuclear deal in the backdrop, the Arab states badly need a tectonic shift in the regional balance of power. However, no country can accomplish it single-handedly. This is where the role of the GCC becomes super-important. Third, the GCC requires a common strategy when it comes to negotiating with Iran. Oman’s neutrality and Saudi Arabia’s hostility might suit their respective purposes, but when it comes to the collective interests of the entire region, a different roadmap needs to be adopted. Plus, GCC also needs to consider the importance of Iran economically.

Of course, all is not lost for the Gulf Cooperation Council. In fact, the GCC is doing a good job in its own right, albeit with a good number of hiccups that it urgently needs to find a remedy for. To begin with, sectarian differences and communal disharmony must perish. Sectarian violence, as we are witnessing in the case of Syria, can become a mammoth-sized problem if left untreated. None of the GCC member-states can afford to go through sectarian strife. Moderation in regional politics is the need of the hour. GCC needs to accomplish selective engagement with Iran at the earliest. Most importantly, the GCC needs to strengthen its relationship with Turkey. While it is true that certain GCC countries did not appreciate the Turkish policy towards Egypt, this time the story is different. Turkey can play the crucial role of establishing a balance of power between the GCC on one hand and Iran on the other.

Even today, the Arab Spring uprisings have major implications in the region. The role of non-state actors is growing, and the call for transformation of autocratic ruling systems is gaining momentum. However, after all is said and done, the GCC member-states are, to a large extent, immune to the Arab Spring crisis on account of their booming economy and overall prosperity. Yet, societal demands for better governance are not going away either. Thus, the role of the GCC in ensuring the overall stability of the region becomes all the more important. The status quo in the Gulf does not seem sustainable anymore. A restructuring of the regional order and setup seems to be imminent.

At this point, the member-states of the GCC need to engage, if they are serious about answering the challenges posed by the growing developments on the Iranian front. Proper regional cooperation and a forward-looking game plan would go a long way in helping the Gulf countries preserve the regional fabric.