For the Gulf as a whole, Iran’s nuclear ambitions represents the most serious ongoing threat to the security of the region as a whole. However, there is diversity of opinion, reflecting important differences in the strategic circumstances and historical experiences of each Gulf state. Not least Oman with its trading and geographical proximity to Iran.
Bahrain, in particular, has encountered significant moments of tension with Iran, especially during periods of domestic unrest. Qatar, on the other hand, has developed a pragmatic relationship based on the desire to maintain stability and exploit common offshore gas reserves. Oman and Iran are linked by centuries of trade and migration as well as a shared responsibility for the Strait of Hormuz. As the authors point out, this plurality of relations can be an advantage, even though it sometimes precludes the adoption of common policies. For example, Oman’s decision to maintain diplomatic relations with Iran during the Iran–Iraq War meant that it was able to play a role in facilitating dialogue both during and after the conflict. In relation to the nuclear issue, Oman helped to pave the way for the recent breakthrough in Geneva, negotiating the release of American citizens detained in Iran, encouraging discreet contacts between Washington and Tehran, and providing a neutral location for government-to-government talks.
The way that these different perspectives affect interpretations of Iranian behaviour is a crucial aspect of this debate. Countries concerned about the influence of Iran on their internal affairs are more likely to take Tehran’s revolutionary rhetoric at face value. Those that have managed to develop ‘functional’ working relations with Iran find it easier to see behind the veil of ideology and recognise the pursuit of national interests at work. Responses to Iran’s nuclear programme differ according to whether the Islamic Republic is assumed to be an implacable and disruptive ideological force or a state motivated by normal considerations of security and prestige.
There are, in fact, good grounds for concluding that Iran has followed the path taken by many other revolutionary regimes in the past and exchanged an early desire to export its model for the more conservative goals of regime consolidation and survival. This is obviously reflected in the new pragmatism of President Rouhani, but the signs have been there for some time in Iran’s evolving bilateral relations and its measured approach to post-Saddam Iraq. Iran’s nuclear programme therefore needs to be seen in the context of its efforts to find a place for itself in the world consistent with its desire for security and its sense of national greatness. In this its motives are not very different from those of any other emerging power or even those of Iran under the Shah.
From the standpoint of its own interests, an Iranian decision to acquire nuclear weapons would be a major miscalculation, raising tension and delaying the normalisation of its foreign relations by several years. Although it would not fundamentally change how different Gulf states view Iran, it would alter the balance of debate between them. Those inclined to see the Islamic Republic as a threat would take it as confirmation of aggressive intent and seek to strengthen measures of containment and deterrence in response. External security guarantees might not be sufficient to dissuade Saudi Arabia and possibly even the United Arab Emirates from acquiring their own nuclear weapons. Nuclearisation of the Gulf would inevitably bring a whole new set of security challenges to do with command and control, especially considering the extremely short early-warning times that would be available to defence planners.
There would be a desire for closer co-operation between the Gulf states, including at a military level, in order to improve crisis-management capabilities. Yet it would be equally important to prevent a polarisation of the region into rival camps in a way that increased the potential for misunderstanding and the risk of conflict. Those countries more likely to interpret Iranian behaviour within the framework of national interests would want to establish confidence-building arrangements and maintain relations on a pragmatic basis, although their freedom to do so might become increasingly constrained as international pressure to isolate Iran grew in the medium term.
There has been a lack of attention to Iran’s role as a ‘strategic regional player’. The long-term security interests of the region mean that sooner or later a way will need to be found to accommodate Iran’s national aspirations in a manner that benefits all. The best way to discourage it from acquiring nuclear weapons would be to explore that option now. This requires a more open and inclusive regional order, a willingness to turn away from zero-sum thinking and look to Iran as a potential problem solver in dealing with issues like Syria, and a conscious effort to deepen regional economic integration by harnessing Iran’s enormous potential to the commercial dynamism of its Gulf neighbours.
This is an ambitious agenda to take forward, especially given what the authors say about the relative size and power of the smaller Gulf states. However, it is worth remembering that after the Second World War the Benelux countries played a disproportionately influential role in building a peaceful and united Europe based on trade and commerce. Small states with big ideas can make a difference.
Mohammed Mahfoodh Al Ardhi is a graduate from the RAF College, Cranwell with a Bachelor of Science in Military Science. Al Ardhi rose to become head of the Omani Air Force, a position he held for ten years. Following his military service, Al Ardhi earned a Master of Public Administration from the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He was appointed vice-chairman of the National Bank of Oman (NBO) in 2010, and serves on the International Advisory Board of the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC and is a trustee for the Eisenhower Fellowship in Philadelphia. Al Ardhi is the author of two books: Arabs Down Under and Pearls from Arabia.