This weekend Iran came out and fiercely condemned Bahrain’s intention to normalize relations with Israel. On Friday Bahrain announced a deal along similar lines to last month’s deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates at the behest of the United States. That makes two Gulf State Arab nations set to establish full relations with Israel. Yesterday Iran called the move shameful and ignominious. The Iranian Foreign Ministry said Bahrain’s normalization “will remain in the historical memory of the oppressed and downtrodden people of Palestine and the world’s free nations forever.” If that were not enough, the Iranian Republican Guards labeled the move a betrayal of the Palestinian people, and a “threat to security in West Asia and the Muslim world.”
Iran is not only outraged, but also significantly worried about the direction of events in the Persian Gulf region. Two neighboring nation-states are on the road to making peace with Israel. Right now, Iranian leaders are no doubt wondering what nation will be next, fervently hoping it will not be Saudi Arabia, its regional rival. It would appear, however, that negotiations between Israel and the Saudis are underway. It would not be unrealistic to see them normalize relations by the beginning of 2021. The Kuwaitis, also in discussions with Israel, could be ready to announce a deal next month. Qatar’s position at present is unknown, but the Trump administration is likely making inroads there.
Make no mistake about it, the Trump administration’s goal here is to place Iran in a box that it cannot escape from. US pressure has been increasing on a number of fronts since 2017 and the Iranian regime knows the walls are closing in. Now, with neighboring Arab states making peace with Israel, Iran’s position in Syria will become more precarious. That affects its position in Beirut, which at the moment is not as secure as it was twelve months ago.
Iran’s reaction to the UAE and Bahrain will not be limited to words. At some point in the coming weeks expect to see tensions rise in the Persian Gulf. Another tanker hijacking incident off the Emirates is probable, or a renewed Iranian threat to close off the Strait of Hormuz. It is no likely, however, that these or any similar moves will derail the prospect of US-backed peace breaking out in the Persian Gulf.
Less than twenty-four hours after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo labeled the Iranian attack against Saudi oil facilities to be an act of war, his Iranian counterpart warned the world that any US or Saudi military action against Iran will lead to an ‘all out war.’ Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif went on to explain that while Iran does not wish for war, it is prepared to defend itself should war come. His comments today have escalated the war of words presently underway between the Iranian regime and the Trump administration.
Zarif’s verbal barrage comes on the heels of not only Pompeo’s words, but also Saudi Arabia’s announcement that it believes Iran ‘unquestionably sponsored’ the attacks. Riyadh stopped short of openly blaming Iran, however. In yesterday’s statements, the Saudi government did explain its intention to gather more information on the attack. Specifically, determining the launch points of the cruise missiles. As I hinted at in a post the other day, this explanation could be little more than a screen to hide what is taking place behind the scenes. The US has incontrovertible proof that Iran is entirely responsible for the attack and the intelligence has been shared with the Saudi leadership and its military.
The other Gulf States appear to be aligning themselves with the United States as the crisis escalates. Today the United Arab Emirates announced it would be joining the US-led maritime coalition now being put together. Bahrain has previously said it too would be a part of the effort. Kuwait has raised the alert level of its military and security services as a precautionary measure. The Kuwaitis are also investigating the detection of unidentified UAVs over its territory earlier in the week, in an attempt to determine if there is a link to Iranian actions and future intentions.
The fissure between Qatar and its Gulf State neighbors and allies appears to be widening even more this morning. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt have severed ties with Qatar. This potentially volatile diplomatic crisis has been a long time in the making. For years the Saudis, Egypt and other nations in the region have been wary of Qatar’s support for Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood, a group which the Saudis and Egyptians particularly regard as a dangerous terror organization. Saudi Arabia accused Qatar of backing militant groups, some of which are backed by Iran, that are operating in eastern Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
SPA, the Saudi state news agency released the following statement summarily explaining Riyadh’s justification for its actions. “(Qatar) embraces multiple terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at disturbing stability in the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS (Islamic State) and al-Qaeda, and promotes the message and schemes of these groups through their media constantly.”
The severing of diplomatic ties is apparently not enough to satisfy Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and Egypt. Qatari troops are being removed from the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen. The four are also making moves to cut off Qatar’s land, sea, and air routes to the outside world. Saudi Arabia has closed its border with Qatar. The tiny emirate receives 40% of its food from overland routes. Food trucks are now lining up on the border, unable to cross.
Iran, not surprisingly, has taken the opportunity to blame the rift on the United States. Tehran has identified President Trump’s recent visit to Riyadh, and the allegedly hawkish tone of his speech to the Muslim world as reasons why this crisis is developing. The Iranian government has also called for a peaceful resolution, and has hinted that it would be open to transporting food and other needed goods to Qatar should this situation continue.
The United States is urging the Gulf nations to negotiate a settlement to their differences. For now, Washington does not appear eager to make a statement or take action that could be perceived by supporting one side over the other.
President Trump’s approach to America’s allies in the Persian Gulf region is markedly different from the policies and approach of his predecessor. For the last eight years, as Iran grew stronger and more audacious, the Gulf States were left to confront the situation without support or guidance from the United States. As the power and influence of ISIS increased, and the Arab Spring metastasized into a regional nightmare Washington remained on the sidelines to a great extent. Obama’s ‘lead from behind’ foreign policy doctrine was alienating some of America’s most important strategic partners and allies at a time when those nations were desperately seeking US leadership.
President Trump’s visit to Riyadh has made it clear that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf allies again have a steadfast friend in the White House. The strategic relationship is being rekindled, much to the delight of the Saudis. In a widely anticipated speech on Sunday to the leaders of 50 Muslim-majority nations, Trump called on those nations to take the lead in combatting radical Islamic terrorism, and its root causes. His speech was widely seen as an attempt to ‘reset’ relations with the Muslim world. He blamed Iran for much of the region’s instability, and characterized the war on extremism as a fight between ‘good and evil.’ Unlike his predecessor, Trump did not bring up human rights, or democracy. However, he did condemn the oppression of woman, something the Saudi government is seen to be guilty of.
The list of subjects discussed between Trump, and GCC leaders included threats to regional security and stability, Iran’s influence in the region, and Yemen. The civil war raging in that country is also a proxy war between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and Saudi/GCC- supported government forces. Iran’s move to support the Houthis came as part of a wider campaign to obtain a lasting strategic advantage over Saudi Arabia. The Saudis and its GCC allies could not stand idly by and allow Yemen to fall into Tehran’s sphere of influence. Saudi Arabia, leading a coalition of 9 Arab and African nations launched a military intervention in March, 2015. UN efforts to negotiate a ceasefire have been unsuccessful. The Saudis are holding onto the hope that US efforts to broker a ceasefire will materialize and be more fruitful.
President Trump next flies to Israel on Monday morning for a two-day visit.
After the ransacking of its embassy in Tehran over the weekend, Saudi Arabia has wasted little time in severing diplomatic ties with Iran. Less than a day later, a number of Saudi allies are hopping aboard the bandwagon against Iran. Sudan and Bahrain have severed ties with Iran outright, while the UAE has recalled its ambassador in Tehran. The Emirates will maintain its trade links with Iran for the time being. The diplomatic maneuvering is happening amid a backdrop of rising tension and increasing sectarian strife in the region. As Iran’s regional power and influence rises, the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia view this as an increasingly serious threat.
When announcing the severing of diplomatic relations with Iran, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir accused Iran of having “distributed weapons and planted terrorist cells in the region”. The Gulf States, like their Saudi ally, blame Iran for attempting to spread instability across the region. Following the execution of Sheik Nimr, Iran fired a volley of thinly-veiled threats at the Saudis, hinting that the execution will lead to imminent sectarian violence in the region. In the last twenty-four hours or so, Saudi police have come under heavy gunfire in the hometown of Nimr, while bombs have exploded in two Sunni mosques and a Sunni mosque was killed by gunmen in Iraq.
The timing of the attacks is quite suspect to say the least. Are these examples of spontaneous sectarian strife or is it happening on orders from Tehran?