What Could the GCC Have Done on Iran?

During a recent regional security conference in Manama, the Bahraini foreign minister made an interesting statement regarding the ongoing negotiations between the IAEA, US and Iran about the Iranian nuclear programme.

By Nicole Stracke

Published: Wed 16 Dec 2009, 9:54 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:50 AM

Shaikh Khaled bin Ahmed Al Khalifa said the lack of progress in the negotiations with Iran was the result of a fundamental mistake in how the talks with Iran were conducted; he criticised the fact that the Gulf states had not been involved in the talks and this, according to the Bahraini foreign minister, “is the main reason of why the talks had failed.” To put it in other words, if the GCC states had been participants in talks between the US and Iran, the negotiations would have been successful. That leads to the question: what would the Gulf States have done to make the talks successful? What would Bahrain have done? While the GCC states agree on the basic fact that an Iran with military nuclear capability has to be prevented, they do not agree on a common strategy.

Last December, when a number of GCC foreign ministers met with the US administration in New York to discuss both parties’ policy towards Iran, not all the GCC states were represented. This is because there is no defined policy within the GCC on how to deal with Iran in general, or how to deal with the controversy over Iran’s nuclear programme. Oman and Qatar stayed away from the meeting with the argument that the Iranian nuclear file is an international issue and does not need the regional involvement of the GCC states. Oman and Qatar are moderate in their policies towards Iran. Oman traditionally follows a diplomatic, non-confrontational foreign policy.

Even at the height of the Iran-Iraq war, when all the Arab states were siding with Iraq, Oman tried to keep a dialogue channel open to Iran. Qatar also has a similar policy. Sharing the giant Pars gas field with Iran, the Qataris are much more inclined to follow a diplomatic approach to Teheran.

Qatar, which assumed the role of regional mediator in conflict negotiations in Lebanon, Sudan or Yemen, might not rule out such a role with Iran in future. Among the GCC states, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have a more determined attitude towards what is perceived as Iran’s ambitious policy in the region. Both states have made it clear that Iranian nuclear military capability is a red line.

As for Kuwait and Bahrain, their policy toward the Iran nuclear issue is not clear. Kuwait’s post-liberation policy has focused on maintaining cordial relations with Iran and sharing a common goal with Teheran to prevent Iraq from emerging as a strong state. Bahrain is cautious towards Iran both because of its Shia majority and its concern about the occasional rhetorical Iranian claims on Bahraini territory.

While all the GCC states agree on the necessity of preventing Teheran from acquiring nuclear military capability, it is not clear how this could be done if the GCC states themselves do not follow a clear cut policy towards Iran.

So, what would the GCC states’ involvement in US negotiations with Iran have changed? Does the GCC have the leverage to pressurize Iran or negotiate with it? Can the GCC states provide new incentives to Iran that would convince Teheran to relinquish its nuclear ambitions?

Over the past two years, the GCC states have put forward a number of proposals in a bid to engage Iran. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, on separate occasions, have proposed the establishment of a security architecture in the Gulf which would include Iran and Iraq. With regard to the Iranian nuclear program, the GCC proposed the establishment of a Uranium Enrichment International Consortium for Middle East to be based in a neutral country outside the region and tested the waters further with the concept of establishing a nuclear or a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Gulf region. None of the proposals have been taken seriously by Iran. The GCC states have long stated that they have limited capacity to pressurise Iran. The lack of military capacity and the geographic proximity to Iran, among other factors, have put limits on GCC’s ability to put diplomatic pressure on Teheran.

In fact, it was convenient for some of the GCC states when the Iran nuclear file was finally internationalised and referred to the UNSC in 2006. In the past year, there has been no indication of a change in the GCC stance towards Iran nor is it clear if the GCC is in a position to provide new incentives for Iran.

And what does Iran want? Teheran has made it clear that developing its nuclear programme, including the continuation of its enrichment activities, is top priority. In such a situation, only the international community and specifically the US would be able to give an offer to Iran that could convince it to change its current course.

After all, it is the US that Iran wants to negotiate with and not the Gulf states. Thus, it is unlikely that GCC states’ involvement in the US-Iran negotiations would have brought about a different result. The GCC states’ wish to be part of the negotiations may be only to ensure that their strategic interests in the region are taken care of in case of a potential Iran-US deal.

Nicole Stracke is Researcher at the Security and Terrorism Department, Gulf Research Center, Dubai

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