Updated: Mar 23, 2021
On March 17 Wikistrat hosted a webinar that discussed the implications of a renewed US engagement with Iran for the Gulf States. The webinar deliberated how a return to the JCPOA might impact the Gulf States and regional stability in the Gulf, what the US role in the Middle East should be in this context, and how US-Iran talks might impact the Gulf States' relations with Iran.
Dr. Raz Zimmt, Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) ;
Dr. Kristian Ulrichsen, Baker Institute Fellow for the Middle East;
Dr. Sebastian Sons, Researcher at the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient Institute in Bonn, Germany;
Dr. Annelle Sheline, Research Fellow for the Middle East at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
The event was moderated by Adam Hoffman, Head of Middle East Desk at Wikistrat, and Dr. Rebecca Molloy, Director of Wikistrat's Middle East Community.
Adam Hoffman, Head of Middle East Desk: Welcome, everyone. Thank you for joining us at this event. This is a Wikistrat webinar on the revival of the Iran Nuclear Deal - implication for the Gulf’s security. This is part of a series of webinars that we do at Wikistrat, focusing on the Middle East and the Gulf. And we're very happy to see all of you here with us today. I'm honored to be joined by a panel of distinguished speakers, focusing each on their particular areas of expertise, on the Gulf or on Iran itself.
In this panel, we have Dr. Raz Zimmt who is an Iran expert and research fellow at The Institute for National Security Studies at Tel-Aviv. He will be moderating this discussion, the panel itself, and also presenting, at the outset, Iran's perspective on these new developments. We also have here Dr. Kristian Ulrichsen, a long-time member of our experts community, an expert on the Gulf, and a Baker Institute fellow for the Middle East who is joining us from Austin, Texas. We have Dr. Sebastian Sons, who is a researcher in DGAP's Middle East and North Africa program, and an expert on Saudi Arabia. We also have with us Dr. Annelle Sheline, a research fellow in the Middle-East program at the Quincy Institute in DC, focusing on the Gulf states. And finally, we have Dr. Rebecca Molloy who is the director of the Middle East community at Wikistrat, and she will be moderating the Q&A part of this event.
Dr. Raz Zimmt: Thank you, Adam. Good evening, it's a pleasure to be here tonight. Well, I was asked by Adam to give a short introduction concerning the Iranian perspective, which is a little weird for an Israeli to present the Iranian perspective, but I have a sense that perhaps I became too pro-Iranian so Adam thought I could present the Iranian perspective as well, which is good.
Let me just say at the beginning that as we discuss the revival of the Iran Nuclear Deal, I have to say that I'm not so sure that a return to the JCPOA is going to be that simple. And although it seems that both sides, both the Biden administration and the government in Iran, it seems that they want to go back to the JCPOA, I have to say that I'm not confident that the debate going on right now over the so-called sequence between Iran and United States is just tactical or technical. It seems more serious than that.
And to quote just a few hours ago, tweets published by Ali Shamkhani, the Secretary of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council. He tweeted just a few hours ago saying in response to a statement given yesterday by the French foreign minister. So Shamkhani said, "Nothing will happen unless the United States takes effective actions to lift their oppressive sanctions."
And he also said, "The current stalemate is not tactical or domestic as the French foreign minister said yesterday, but related to the West’s deceptive strategy." What I think is very clear at this point is that Iran is not going to give up at least two of its positions. One is Iran's readiness to go back to compliance, only if the United States is ready to go back to the JCPOA and remove sanctions. So, this is the first position, a very clear position taken by Iran. And the second Iranian position is that the JCPOA is not going to be renegotiated. So, whereas a foreign minister Zarif said, "We should not sell one horse again and we are not buying one horse again."
Meaning we are not going to discuss the JCPOA again, at least until both sides decide to go back to the original JCPOA. But I think what makes one even more concerned when it comes to the current situation, is that even in issues in which one could perhaps expect Iran to show some flexibility, for example, Iran's readiness for a step by step return to the JCPOA, or its readiness to go back to indirect talks with the United States before sanctions relieved. Even on those issues, it doesn't seem right now that Iran is going to compromise. We've had some contradictory statements going from Iran over the last few weeks.
But it makes you wonder whether the Iranian position right now is really an issue of tactical negotiation strategy, whether it has to do with political considerations, especially from the Supreme Leader, Khamenei, who might not want to go back to the JCPOA before the upcoming elections in June in Iran, so that it won't be attributed to the Rouhani pragmatic camp in Iran. Or whether it is really a strategic decision made by Superior Leader Khamenei not to go back to the JCPOA, perhaps because of the lack of trust in the United States, especially after Trump's decision to withdraw from the JCPOA.
And I have to remind you what Khamenei said again, and again, it's better to neutralize the sanctions rather to remove the sanctions. So, I'm not saying Iran is not going to go back to the JCPOA, but I think we have to take this option as one possibility. But as our main focus today and our discussion today is the regional issues, I would like to make some points concerning the Iranian perspective over the region and perhaps the missiles issue. So, the first question is whether Iran's going to be ready to go back to what Biden considers to be a stronger and longer JCPOA. And by that, I don't mean the nuclear issue which I leave aside, but I mean taking the two other issues, which are the long-range missiles and the regional activity of Iran, and discuss and address those issues in addition to the nuclear issue.
Well, I personally believe that it will be very difficult to address other issues in the near future. It will definitely demand Iran to try and overcome this huge wall of distrust with regard to the United States. So, I wouldn't rule out a possibility, but in the future, if there is a return to the JCPOA, Iran is going to be willing to discuss other issues, but it probably won't happen in the next future.
The second point I would like to say concerns the issue of the missiles which of course is the main, major concern, both for Israel and for the Gulf States in the region here. Again, I can't be too optimistic. I think it is very unlikely that Iran is going to be ready to discuss its missile capability. Some would argue that Iran would be ready to discuss its missile's capability if other regional players, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the UAE are going to be ready to discuss their missile capabilities as well.
I personally believe it will be even more complicated because Iran really considers its missile program as the main deterrence against possible aggression. So, as I usually say to Israeli colleagues, if you expect Iran to give up its missile capabilities, you should perhaps expect Israel to give up its own. So that's the comparison. So even if Iran agrees to discuss its missiles, I think that at the most we should expect Iran to discuss the range of the missiles which is no solution to the original players in the Middle East.
Now, I would like to make five short points before moving to our experts considering the regional issue. My first point is that I think when it comes to the JCPOA and to the regional Iranian activity, we should perhaps separate between Iran's regional policy, which has to do with the so-called maximum resistance strategy Iran adopted since summer or spring of 2019, a year after Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA. And by that, I mean, all those provocative actions carried out by Iran in the Persian Gulf, such as the sabotage of oil tankers in the region, the attack against Saudi Arabia.
So, this is part of the so-called, malign Iranian regional policy, which has certainly linked to the JCPOA. And if the JCPOA is renewed, and if both sides will go back to the JCPOA, then perhaps there is a possibility to lower the tension in a way that will prevent some of those actions. But I think that most Iranian regional activity has almost nothing to do with the JCPOA. So, when you look at what Iran has been doing in Syria, or Iraq, or Yemen, or its connections to the Palestinian Islamic organization, it has nothing to do with the JCPOA. It has to do with the well-known traditional strategy of Iran of becoming a regional power, or as some would say, trying to increase not just its influence, but perhaps even its hegemony in the region. So, I think that even if the JCPOA is restored, one should not expect Iran to give up what was before the Islamic revolution of 1979.
My second remark or point is that we should all remember that in the Iranian perspective, the United States cannot be part of the regional negotiations. I mean, Iran considers the United States as part of the problem, not as part of the solution. So, the United States will not be allowed in the Iranian position to be part of any kind of regional negotiations. It can be a partner perhaps for nuclear discussions, not for regional discussions.
The third point is that Israel of course cannot be part of any kind of regional talks with Iran. Iran does not even recognize the state of Israel, but I would say that it is even more complicated because it's not just that Iran is not willing to discuss anything with Israel, it will probably not discuss anything that is of Israeli concern. So even if Iran is ready to discuss issues such as Yemen, such as Iraq, which are more relevant to other players in the region, it will certainly not negotiate, for example, its support for Hezbollah or perhaps even its military advancements in Syria, or it's support for Hamas the PIJ in Gaza.
So, this is another, I would say an elephant in the room we have to take into consideration. My fourth point is that even if Iran agrees to have talks over the regional issues, it will probably demand to discuss not just the so-called Iranian activity or the Iranian influence in the region, but the influence of other players in the region. So, the Iranian position has always been, if you want to discuss Yemen, that's fine with us, but we should discuss not just the Iranian support for the Houthis in Yemen, but also what the Saudis have been doing in Saudi Arabia. If we want to discuss the Iranian activity in Iraq, that's fine, but let's discuss what Turkey has been doing in Northern Iraq, what the Saudis are doing in Iraq. So that might make things more complicated.
And my last point, and perhaps this is the most important point. If we take into consideration all those Iranian positions, that raises the question, whether it is possible and whether it is advisable to even discuss regional issues as part of the JCPOA or in parallel to the JCPOA? Is it possible for example, to force Iran into giving up some of its activities? Much of it is carried out by proxies, not directly by Iran. I have to say I'm quite a skeptic about that. It doesn't mean of course that there are no ways to influence Iranian activities in the region. Israel has been doing that in Syria. There are ways to do that in Iraq, not just by military force, but also by perhaps giving Iraq or Syria alternatives to Iranian economic and political, and military influence.
But I'm not sure that discussing those issues diplomatically, is the best way to enforce the objectives of the regional players in the region. I think I'll leave it with that, and now I would like to address our dear experts here in the panel and raise a few questions.
The first question I would like to raise, concerns the Gulf states regarding the new possible nuclear agreement between the West and Iran and how the Biden administration should address those concerns when re-engaging with Iran. Annelle, could we start with you?
Dr. Annelle Sheline: Sure. Thanks so much. It's really a pleasure to be here. And I appreciate your kicking us off with your opening comments. So maybe before I turn to that, I just wanted to respond to a couple of the points you made. So, in general, I do agree with your point that it won't be necessarily simple to return to the JCPOA as we've observed. And I'm sitting here in Washington, D.C. Sort of my perspective is that it has been fairly disappointing for myself and for other progressive Americans who were really heartened that on the campaign trail Biden, as well as all of the democratic candidates, agreed that returning to the JCPOA was a core objective. So, remaining hopeful that that will take place. But I agree with you that it's clearly not simple.
I also really appreciated your point about trying to think from Iran's perspective about the demand of giving up its missiles, how that would look from an Israeli perspective, for example, or from an American perspective.
And I also really agreed with your point that the US cannot be part of negotiations, not only this would be a non-starter for Iran, but as we've observed elsewhere, given that the US remains the global military hegemon, when the US is involved in essentially anything, but especially in matters, for example, if there was going to be efforts to try to negotiate some kind of security arrangement among the regional powers, if the US is involved, it would lead it. And I know we have a question later where we're going to get into that a little bit more directly about the lack of success in trying to establish some kind of regional security architecture for the Middle East. So again, I just wanted to thank you for those points.
So, to get to the first question about the main concerns of the Gulf states, regarding a new nuclear agreement between the West and Iran. So essentially, the current balance of power in the region is somewhat artificially inflated in favor of states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. As you mentioned, there is this concern about Iran sort of becoming a regional power. And the fact that Iran at present, their economy is about the size of the economy of the American state of New Jersey, this is artificial that Iran is in fact a large, populous, and resource-rich country. And so, the fact that it continues to be sort of throttled as a result of US actions, American sanctions, et cetera, this is an unsustainable sort of balance of power. And so, I would argue this contributes to the instability that we see here.
So, while I do understand that Gulf states are concerned about the thought that they might lose in sort of a balance of power that shifts in favor of Iran, I think that they are currently losing as a result of the violence and instability that comes about from this sort of artificial inflation of their power as a result of US military partnerships. So, in terms of how the Biden administration should address their concerns, I would argue that this is the wrong question to ask, at least from an American perspective, that for too long American policy has focused on trying to reassure the Gulf states when really the Biden administration should be focused on the interests of the American people.
And for example, we saw that under President Obama, when in the midst of some sort of effort to negotiate the JCPOA, there were concerns about needing to reassure Saudi Arabia, for example, that the US was still committed to their security. And so, as a result, the Obama administration did not push back when Saudi Arabia invaded Yemen, and half a million Yemenis have died as a result of that war and the subsequent instability, structural factors starvation happening there.
So clearly it doesn't necessarily work very well to try to reassure the Gulf states, again, to reinforce this sort of artificial sense of their own power, which is primarily the result of the American military presence in the region, as well as massive amounts of weapons sales, and the ongoing transfer of military aid, primarily to Israel, as well as to Egypt, the two largest recipients of military aid, as well as Jordan. So, I think in the future, moving forward, there are concerns from American foreign policy experts about this notion of Iran. We clearly saw under the Trump administration, the overwhelming focus on Iran as an alleged threat.
And this, again, in my reading, is also an artificially inflated threat. It is a multipolar region. The US can trust this, that none of the powers in the region are going to be able to sort of assert overwhelming military hegemony. And that moving forward, just to reiterate here, I very much agree that Biden shouldn't take the perspective of trying to reassure the Gulf states. I think where we tend to see a reduction of tensions is when the US has a smaller presence in the region, or for example, after the attacks on the oil facility in Saudi Arabia, when the Trump administration's response was quite muted, that was when we saw Saudi officials or sort of back-channel Saudi outreach to Iran to try to tone down tensions.
Whereas once, for example, after the killing of Soleimani, when the Saudis were reassured that the US was going to potentially fight Iran on their behalf, then we started to see a lot more of this sort of aggressive rhetoric. So just to reiterate your point, that I think Biden needs to take a back seat here and allow the regional countries to work this out for themselves. I'll stop there.
Dr. Raz Zimmt: Just as a short follow-up. Do you think that the United States should reduce even further its military presence in Syria and Iraq?
Dr. Annelle Sheline: Yes. Absolutely. I mean, the justification for being in Syria was to combat ISIS and ISIS has been militarily defeated, if not ideologically, but the United States cannot maintain a military presence in every part of the world where people are ideologically opposed to it. In fact, I think we would find less ideological opposition to the United States if the US had a much smaller military presence in general. So, the US needs to be out of Syria, in a responsible way, not the way that Trump sort of announced in October of 2019 that he would simply pull out and then decided he wasn't going to do that.
It needs to be done in a way that is responsible. But again, it shouldn't be based on necessarily stability milestones, because then you have actors in the region who would be incentivized to exacerbate instability in order to prevent the US from leaving. So, I absolutely agree that the US needs to get out of Iraq and Syria and to have a much smaller military presence in the region in general.
Dr. Raz Zimmt: Thank you, Annelle. Sebastian, what is your take on the concerns of the Gulf states and what Biden should or shouldn't do regarding those concerns?
Dr. Sebastian Sons: Thank you very much. And first of all, thank you very much for the invitation. I'm really much looking forward to the discussion and I'm very sorry because I had some technical difficulties here in the not very well digitalized heart of Germany. So I was not able to listen to everything that Annelle said, so I hope I will not repeat what she has said already.
Dr. Raz Zimmt: But perhaps in the meantime, we could skip to Kristian. Hopefully, your link is better. Sorry for that. Could you address my question, please?
Dr. Kristian Ulrichsen: Okay. Thank you very much for the invitation. I hope you can all hear me. In terms of the Gulf states and building on what Annelle was saying, I think we also should distinguish between or among the Gulf states as well. I mean, there's no Gulf consensus in as much as you have the blocks one in Saudi, UAE, Bahrain to some extent. And the other, again, not a full-on block per se, but cut out Kuwait and Oman which put more emphasis on diplomatic outreach and engagement. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, for example, see Iran as much of a threat to domestic security because of their own Shia communities in ways that the other countries in the Gulf don't necessarily do. And we also saw quite a neat split among the Gulf states over Biden's election broadly speaking. Reactions in Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman were favorable, certainly more so than responses initially in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Bahrain. So, there's no real Gulf consensus on this.
Dr. Sebastian Sons: Bahrain's tremendously under pressure. Not only when it comes to the security situation, but also when it comes to the relations with Joe Biden. I don't think I have to go into details here. We all know that the situation with the U.S. is under strain and that the pressure that is exerted on the Saudi leadership with regards to Yemen, with regards to the human rights record, with regards to the release of the Khashoggi report is intensifying. And of course, regional stability or regional instability also has negative implications for the Saudi business role models. So Saudi Arabia is in dire need of foreign investment. Mohammad bin Salman, the Crown Prince, wants to foster socio-economic transformation in terms of tourism, in terms of entertainment, in terms of creating a new hub in the region. And without regional stability...
Dr. Kristian Ulrichsen: Well, I was going to then add that the Biden administration does to some extent have a dilemma in the sense that if it does include Gulf States in negotiations for whatever comes next, not certainly is that separate from the JCPOA which deliberately set aside regional issues so that they couldn't get to a nuclear agreement on a more narrowly focused set of issues. But then, who among the Gulf States do you include? And there's a risk then that's like putting say the Saudis or the Iraqis, you then create discourse among the other Gulf States who also perhaps would like a seat at the table. So, then you include the Gulf cooperation council, the GCC, which at least now is led by a Kuwaiti secretary-general, who is more of a balancing actor than what we saw in the 2017 to January 2021 period when the GCC itself was hopelessly split between these two camps.
So, I think there had to be quite capital considerations as to who we included if any further engagement is decided to include any Gulf States in negotiations while agreeing of course, with about some of the voting points, kind of U.S. Gulf relationships. But I mean, in terms of including some States and not others, this has the potential to exacerbate some of the regional dynamics and of course, Kuwait and Qatar, and Oman have at least a potential to be facilitators of back-channel dialogues. And I think that's already happening to some extent with all countries offering their services to the U.S. So I guess engaging in different ways is an option and not necessarily having a seat at the table, but that again would then create problems in Saudi Arabia and in Abu Dhabi, which would demand a seat at the table, probably Israel as well. So again, there's no easy answer here.
Raz Zimmt: Thank you. And I see Sebastian is back. So, I'm afraid that we miss some of your answers. Can you hear me, Sebastian?
Dr. Sebastian Sons: Yes, I can hear. I'm really sorry for that. Yeah. As you might know, Germany, when it comes to digitalization is maybe not the most advanced country in the world. So, I'm really sorry for that. I don't know what part you have missed and maybe we can also continue or what do you suggest?
Dr. Raz Zimmt: You can always blame the Iranians. But let's move to the next question, please. And what are the implications in your view of a new nuclear agreement with Iran for regional stability, especially for the Gulf States?
Adam Hoffman, Head of Middle East Desk: May I suggest we start with Sebastian this time, so we make sure we'll get your response?
Dr. Sebastian Sons: Yes, of course. So, when it comes to the Gulf States, when it comes specifically to Saudi Arabia, a new nuclear agreement with Iran is, on one hand, a big challenge as I've tried to explain before, but it's also a chance because Saudi Arabia is in a very sensitive situation at the moment due to the fact that its national security is under threat. When we take into consideration that the good Houthis are launching missiles and drones on Saudi soil on almost a daily level, they're targeting sensitive...
Dr. Raz Zimmt: I'm afraid we lost you again. Can you hear me, Sebastian? Again, if you want, perhaps you should try to give up the camera. At least we can hear you perhaps. Well, I'm afraid we'll have to go to Annelle with this question, or I'm not afraid to. Okay. Annelle, could you address this question as well?
Dr. Annelle Sheline: Yes. So, in terms of the implications of a new nuclear agreement with Iran for regional stability specifically for the Gulf States, it does confuse me somewhat why states like Saudi Arabia and Israel seem more interested in Iran remaining isolated than in preventing it from acquiring a nuclear weapon. If these countries were so terrified of the threat posed by Iran, they should be demanding that U.S. returned to the nuclear deal immediately so then Iran, according to its own statements, would then come back into compliance with the terms of the deal. So, it seems fairly clear that that states like Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the UAE, as well as Bahrain and Egypt, and sort of Kuwait, are more interested in a nuclear-armed Iran than they are in having an Iran that is more integrated into the regional economy, the global economy, and therefore would threaten them.
And so, I can understand that from their perspective, they see a more integrated Iran as threatening their sort of influence in the region. But in general, I do think that the whole world would be better off with fewer nuclear-armed powers. I mean, these states already spend inordinate amounts of their own budgets on the military, on buying weapons that are often unnecessary, fancy planes that they, in the case of Saudi Arabia, can't even necessarily fly themselves without the help of the United States. And all of these countries, particularly the Gulf States, are in an untenable economic position.
Particularly states like Saudi Arabia that have a large population frustrated by lack of opportunity. Clearly, we've seen some efforts, excuse me, from crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in trying to diversify the Saudi economy. And I think these efforts are commendable and should certainly be encouraged by the United States to try to move away from its oil-dependent economy, and also to hopefully move away from this inordinate expenditure on military.
However, I think as long as the States remain autocratic, we are likely to see them continue to invest in their security apparatuses, partly as a means of protecting themselves from their own populations. So again, some of this just goes back to the fact that the regional dynamics are sort of artificially stable as a result of autocracy and the American military in Germany.
But an additional point I would make here is that, although to this point several from the second Bush administration to the Obama administration through to a certain extent, the Trump administration, and now under the Biden administration, we have seen U.S. foreign policy establishment emphasize the need to get out of the Middle East, to end the endless wars there and to focus more on Asia and on this perceived threat from China. And yet, our security partners in the region are averse to that. They want to see the United States maintain a large military presence on the ground and to continue to support them. And so essentially, the United States, this will happen eventually.
It's been a long slow process but I do think, I mean, somewhat, unfortunately, as we see the U.S. embracing more and more of this language of a so-called cold war with China, which I think is very problematic for its own reasons in terms of emphasizing the need for more military buildup, the need to combat China as opposed to the fact that we're all working from, or almost all of us are working from home offices as results of global pandemic that the world has been unable to effectively combat up to this point a year in. That clearly, as well as global problems like climate change, the undue expenditure of a nation's resources on its military, which is something that the United States is particularly guilty of as well.
This is simply not going to be sustainable as we move towards a world of global problems where a nation's individual military capacities is going to be useless in the face of these global problems. So just to go back to the... I've zoomed way out. So, to get back to the narrow question of the implications of nuclear agreement for regional stability, I feel that it would be good for regional stability that these countries would not then feel that they necessarily have to scramble to acquire nuclear weapons in order to counterbalance a perceived threat from Iran. I do recognize that there are arguments that these countries will sort of continue to feel that Iran is a threat. And I think that the best way of combating that is for U.S. to have a much smaller presence in the region so that these countries will have to base their own level of aggressiveness on their own military capacity and their appetite for
Dr. Raz Zimmt: Thank you, Annelle. Let's have another try with Sebastian. Can you hear me?
Dr. Sebastian Sons: Yes. I can hear you. Again, sorry.
Dr. Raz Zimmt: That's fine. So just your take on the first question because we missed most of what you tried to say.
Dr. Sebastian Sons: Okay. Now I'll try to make it very brief because I don't know what you have heard and what you don't have heard. So, with regards to Saudi Arabia, I think regional stability is one of its key priorities. So, if the nuclear agreement could serve regional stability, then of course it's in the interest of Saudi Arabia. But of course there are some preconditions as I've outlined before. The nuclear deal needs to address the regional ambitions and the influence of Iran, its ballistic missile program, the control or the influence on the Houthis, et cetera.
And if this is not about to happen, then of course, Saudi Arabia has to adapt to the situation, which is at the moment very risky and therefore Saudi Arabia is following a more pragmatic approach. It's trying to make concessions towards the Biden administration on the domestic, on the international level as we've seen with the Al-Ula declaration, as we have seen also with the release of some human rights activists in the last couple of weeks. As we have also seen with regards to some reforms in the Catholicism system just announced today. And of course this is one approach in order to reconcile again with Biden, but it is also the approval or it's the attempt to present itself as a reliable, as a pragmatic, and also as a constructive partner in