What does the Iran nuclear deal mean for the GCC?

What does the Iran nuclear deal mean for the GCC?

The recently struck Iranian nuclear deal poses tough questions and considerations for members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, who will work to preserve their influence in the Gulf and broader Middle East.

On the 14th of July, the P5+1, which includes the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany, reached a nuclear deal with Iran after 20 months of negotiations.

Described as “historic”, the deal promises better relationships between the West and Iran. But it also raises questions on the stability of the Middle East as well as the future of the relationship between Iran and the different regional powers and,, in particular its close neighbors in the Gulf region.

The deal, which did not involve any of Iran’s neighbors and did not include any agreements regarding its regional policy in the Middle East, is a hard sell to several parties: Gulf Cooperation Council Countries (GCC) and, in particular, Saudi Arabia and the UAE; hardliners in Iran and their counterpart conservative movements in the US and Europe; and Israel, whose Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, described the deal a few hours after its announcement as an “historic mistake”.

On the 15th of July, US president Barack Obama called the Saudi King and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, the future ruler of UAE, to assure them that the US would not compromise its strategic partnership with the two countries and its commitment to their security.

A couple of days later, in Tehran, the Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced that Iran does not have “any negotiations or deal with the U.S. on different issues [other than the nuclear deal] in the world or the region” and vowed not to change Iran’s policy of supporting regional allies. Meanwhile, the Saudi backed forces fighting against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen took control of the airport of the country’s second largest city, Aden, and expelled the rebels from the city’s suburbs in the most recent proxy war between the Kingdom and Iran.

Signed in Vienna, the nuclear deal is uniquely focused on making Iran commit to halting its nuclear program in exchange for lifting the economic sanctions that have been crippling its economy for years. Despite the sanctions, Iran has been actively and openly involved in several regional conflicts that require substantial financial resources, such as the armed conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

As the sanctions get lifted, and more resources pour legally into the Iranian state’s safe, more questions will be raised on the possibility of exacerbating regional conflicts and consequently heightening militarization in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are good examples.

The tense relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not uniquely driven by the regional conflicts, but derives originally from the fact that each of the two countries is ruled by a theological autocracy regime. On the one hand, the Wahabi school of thought, dominant in the Kingdom, views the Shite sect as heretics. On the other hand, the recurring turmoil in Saudi’s Eastern province, where the country’s Shia community is concentrated, is usually blamed on Iranian conspiracy.

King Salman, the current ruler of Saudi Arabia, who mounted the throne of the Kingdom in February 2015, along with his aides and advisors seems to adopt hardline stances regarding different issues in the Middle East and towards Iranian policy.

The Kingdom’s officials have been recently very openly vocal about Iranian intervention in Syria and Iraq, and the current administration set the precedent of a long-term Saudi military intervention in a neighboring country when they formed and led an ongoing coalition against Houthi rebels in Yemen last March. In the same month, Saudi Arabia signed a nuclear-cooperation agreement with South Korea, a move that raised fears of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

Things work differently between Iran and the UAE. Historically, the UAE have always had stronger ties with Iran due to the geographical proximity between the two countries, which led to mixed populations as well as commercial dependency. However, the two States have also had an ongoing conflict over a group of islands in the Arabian Gulf, which are claimed by the UAE but are currently under Iranian military control.

For decades, the Iranian regime has established its legitimacy and justified its actions, whether domestically or externally, on the hostility between Iran and the West and the embargo imposed on the Iranian state. The nuclear deal, as well as the potential of having a joint intelligence and military cooperation effort with the US and western powers to combat ISIS, is laying foundation for a new scene where the regime’s domestic and international policies can no longer be blamed on the hostility between the two parties.

This rhetorical void, however, is likely to be filled with a focus on regional issues and more hostility towards regional Sunni powers, which will lead to more sectarian tension and regional turmoil.

Would an improving Iranian economy lead to less tension in the Middle East? This is a question that is difficult to answer at the moment. It also seems unlikely that any change would happen to the country’s foreign policy given the dominance of Iranian hardliners over the country’s decision-making process.

However, it remains a fact that Iran has a historical chance to open a new page with its neighbors and elaborate fresh regional policies that are based on cooperation and compromise rather than clash and tension.

About Author

Ahmad Taleb

Ahmed is a Business Intelligence Analyst for a multinational financial advisory services company. He received his graduate education in Business & International Commerce in Egypt and France. He obtained a master’s degree in Comparative Politics from the Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po Aix) in France.