The growing rift within the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Saudi-led regional alliance, the isolation of Qatar and Wednesday’s terror attacks in Iran represent a witches’ brew of trouble for US policy in the Gulf and the attainment of the Trump administration’s goals in the region.
It’s too early to predict to what extent, if at all, these events will reshape Arab politics or power balances. But here are the key takeaways:
Even Iran isn’t immune from terrorism
If ISIS’ claim of responsibility is true, it would mark its first major operation within Iran. Before Wednesday morning’s mayhem in the Iranian Parliament and in the mausoleum housing the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founding father of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Tehran routinely branded itself as an island of stability in an otherwise tumultuous neighborhood. With destabilization of regional bulwarks after the Arab Spring — Iraq, Syria and Yemen — Iran positioned itself as an Islamic heavyweight not to be ignored.
Whether the alleged ISIS attack opens an avenue of cooperation with Washington remains to be seen.
Even as late as last month, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif proclaimed “[w]e derive stability not from ‘coalitions,’ but from our people, who — unlike many — do vote.” But for years Sunni Muslims living in Shiite Iran have been ostracized, officially and unofficially.
For instance, Sunnis are not permitted to run for the presidency in Iran under Article 115 of its constitution, and despite the language in Article 12 that other sects within Islam are to be accorded “full respect,” the major and dominant form of Islam remains Shiite Twelver Ja’fari.
Discrimination exists in other forms. For instance, news reports indicate that in major cities in Iran, Sunnis are prohibited from building their own mosques and that unofficial Sunni prayer spaces have been routinely destroyed.
Likewise, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, officials arrested 20 Arab-Iranians on February 26, 2014, for conversion from Shiite to Sunni Islam. As in Iraq, with the oppression of a Sunni minority, such activity feeds alienation and results in a constituency ripe for radicalization by groups like ISIS, which has taken advantage of this dynamic, releasing its first Farsi video in March aiming “to defend their dignity and regain back the pride taken away by Iranian Shia authorities.”
Iran will take an even harder line
The ISIS attacks and the growing rift with Saudi Arabia will only deepen the accelerating trend toward hard-line policies even while the re-election of Hassan Rouhani as President has been cast by some observers as a victory for moderation over extremism. The hope was that Rouhani would capitalize on his popularity to usher in reforms, particularly in the non-nuclear aspects of Tehran’s problematic behavior, namely regional meddling, terrorism and human rights abuses. That’s not likely now.
Just consider the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ statement after the terrorist attack: “This terrorist attack happened only a week after the meeting between the US President (Donald Trump) and the (Saudi) backward leaders who support terrorists. The fact that Islamic State has claimed responsibility proves that they were involved in the brutal attack.” The accusation of US support for terrorism directly undercuts any attempt at dialogue by Rouhani for sanctions relief and will weaken his standing in Tehran’s power games.
Russia stands to gain
With the reports that the FBI suspects Russian hackers were behind fake news being uploaded onto the website of Qatar’s state news agency, such a cyberintrusion represents another attempt by Russian President Vladimir Putin to undermine US alliances around the world — first NATO and now the Middle East. For Russia, undercutting GCC unity works to its advantage in a variety of theaters, most especially Syria. Rupturing relations between Qatar and key players in the GCC, like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, weakens the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS — of which all are members except for Russia.
The Kremlin is bolstering the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad with the help of Iran, and the Tehran-Moscow axis benefits from such disunity, especially the prospect of luring Washington away from its al-Udeid Air Base, which houses more than 10,000 US servicemen and enhances the United States and partner capacity in carrying out strikes in Syria.
The escalation of tensions between Qatar and key Gulf states is neither new nor completely reparable. Indeed, given the dramatic closure of Qatar’s land border and severing of critical air links, the Qataris will have to make significant concessions unless they’re prepared to risk a serious weakening of their economy. Still, unless the Saudis and Emiratis are prepared to launch a coup and replace the Thanis, the ruling family, whatever diplomacy succeeds in mending fences is certain to be temporary.
At its core, this is a contest of wills over Qatar’s capacity to be an independent actor in the Gulf and in the region at large on a range of critical issues, including Qatar’s close economic ties with Iran, its right to publicly criticize its neighbors and its provocative tendencies to support a range of Islamist groups from Hamas to al-Qaeda affiliates.
Qatar seems determined to follow its own course and to choose its own allies and adversaries. One choice — its relationship with the United States — resulted in an agreement to host the strategically situated air base at al-Udeid and gave the Qataris significant leverage with Washington.
Other choices to support Islamist forces seeking to overthrow regimes in Egypt and Tunisia and to support a variety of extremists groups in Syria brought it into conflict with its more conservative neighbors, who saw Islamist challenges during the Arab Spring as threats against their own rule.
It’s ironic that GCC unity now appears more fraught than ever, particularly in the wake of President Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia and the aura of unity and togetherness that seemed to mark his meetings there.
Undermining Trump’s Middle East goals
The idea that any administration would be able to put together a functional and powerful alignment of Sunni Arab states marshaled in the service of US policy goals was always a fraught, some would say elusive, goal. Part of the problem is the fractiousness of relations between Arab states, part is their own agendas, and part are very real differences between Washington and the Arab world on issues ranging from Iran to Arab-Israeli peace to Syria.
The emergence of the Trump administration, particularly its harder line on Iran and the Islamists, seemed to offer a chance to mend relations with the Gulf and enlist their support in carrying out Trump’s three core Middle East objectives: destroy ISIS, roll back Iran and deliver Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Trump’s strong backing for Saudi Arabia didn’t create this crisis with Qatar, but it likely emboldened the Saudis to act now. It’s hard to see how any of this will end happily. If the United States tries to mediate, chances are it will fail; if it doesn’t, the United States will be perceived to have been marginalized. And if it chooses, as the President did on Twitter, to back the Saudis, it will find itself in the middle of a rift that will weaken the GCC.
Indeed, Trump will learn an important lesson about the Middle East: Great powers meddle in the affairs of small tribes at their own risk.