Assessing Iran’s Strategy Toward the Arab World

Richard LeBaron delivered the following remarks at a discussion hosted by the Middle East Institute in Washington DC on March 27, 2015.

I want to make a few brief remarks about the Iran-Gulf relationship. I want to step back a little bit and focus on the things that somehow get lost in the day-to-day drumbeat of news of the latest disaster; the latest IRGC general striding across the landscape or the latest bombing by the Saudis. I am going to make three brief points and wrap up with a complaint and a plug.

First, when Iranians and Gulf Arabs gaze at each other across what will remain both the Persian and the Arabian Gulf, I think they see some things we do not focus on so much. They do not tend to focus on the same things as we do. Or as the Israelis do. First, I think competition for influence between Iran and Gulf States is nothing new. The Shah was a key element in our calculation of balance of power long before the revolution in Iran. Certainly, we viewed him as a counterweight to the ascension of power by the Sunni Arabs in the Gulf who we were afraid would be a threat to Israel. And we had to fight for AWACS for Saudi Arabia; remember that fight? It came down to a couple votes. So we have been playing this game of counterweights in the Gulf for a long time, it is nothing new and we should not treat it as something new and different. It is not that different, regardless of the players; and a lot of the players have not changed.

Second, there is a great deal more interaction between the Gulf and Iran that people realize. You can get on a plane five times a day in Dubai and fly to Iran—and people do! Unlike Americans who think it is a big deal to go to Iran. So few actually go there, but the people in Dubai and Kuwait go back and forth. They have religious connections, make pilgrimages, and have businesses operating both in the Gulf and in parts of Iran. They have family members, they have social connections, and ninety-five countries have embassies in Tehran. Two countries that do not: Israel and the United States. All six Gulf countries have embassies there. They have relationships, in other words, that seem so foreign to us since 1979. I entered the Foreign Service in that year and since then we have thought of Iran as a pariah, a state that was an evil magic kingdom out there rather than a real country. The countries of the Gulf, Europe, China, India and elsewhere treat Iran as pretty much a normal place.

Also, I think it is a mistake to think of a broad Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) view of Iran. There is no GCC view of Iran, the GCC is made up of six states, all of whom have specific histories, specific national interests, and have differentiated views of Iran and different types of relationships. There are thousands of expat Iranian businessman who live in Dubai. The Emiratis would be delighted to see sanctions to go. They would make millions. They would make more money than anyone the day sanctions come off. Whereas the Saudis detest the idea of giving any quarter at all to this Iranian regime. Oman, of course, has already made it clear they’re not joining any offensive action against Iran. They made that quite clear and played intermediary with the Iranians for us. In Kuwait where I was, I had an intern do some research for me for this presentation and she came across this Wikipedia entry that said “Iranians in Kuwait.” She sent me this list of “Iranians” in Kuwait: all these families that have been in Kuwait for hundreds of years; they’re no more Iranian than I am. There is still a perception that they are Iranian, but these are Kuwaitis and they are more Kuwaiti that Iranian-Americans are Americans! There is no hyphenation of Shia populations. They are not Iranian-Kuwaitis; they are just Kuwaitis. Whereas in the United States they are Iranian-Americans even though they are very well integrated. But the key point to remember is these populations have historical roots; they aren’t new and are well established.

The third general point involves threat perception. In the Gulf, threat perception is sort of a different animal than it is for us “think-tankers” who mull it all over and think of the nature of international threats. Threat perception is all about fear: fear of various threats is the guiding principle of their existence. What is going to kill me—or who is going to kill me—is basically the guiding principle of a Gulf monarch. How do I survive in a very dangerous world? Fear is the organizing principle. Not progress, not imagination, not change, certainly not political change. Rather the fear of change and the management of change when it comes. We need to think of that from their point of view. Stability is the main organizing principle to confront their insecurity.

They fear a nuclear agreement in the GCC, especially the Saudis. But they fear the nuclear agreement not because they care about nuclear proliferation, not because they think they will need to get nuclear weapons. They think that will open the doors to a normalization of relations with the United States and the rest of the world with Iran. Iran will become a normal player and used by the West to balance against their interests in this region in the old balance of power. The president has awkwardly confirmed this belief in calling for more of an equilibrium in the region. It is also wrapped up in doubts of the US commitment to them. It is wrapped up in conspiratorial rhetoric—the United States somehow in league to place Shias in power all over the region.

It is at a time when our friends in the region forget that the military balance is vastly in favor of the Gulf. Vastly. I mean we think of these Iranian revolutionary guards as supermen striding across Iraq and Hezbollah striding through Lebanon like junior supermen. These guys are basically guerilla fighters using the tools they have to disrupt the current order. They do not represent an existential threat to anyone in the Gulf or outside the Gulf. They have not been able to acquire in Iran any sophisticated weapons since 1980. They have no air force. In 2009, our beloved General Petraeus said the UAE air force alone could wipe out the Iranian air force in an afternoon. We dumped billions of dollars’ worth of sophisticated equipment into the Gulf over the last ten years, some of which is finally getting used. This dissonance between reality and perception is startling. If an Iranian defense planner looks across the Gulf he sees Star Wars. He sees all this sea and air coverage by the US umbrella. He sees all these planes and ships. What does he have? He has some decent rockets and some good speedboats. His advantage as a defense planner is the ability to fight. That may be an important advantage—the ability and willingness to send IRGC into conflicts and to actually have them fight and die. I think this dissonance is growing, but it could be perhaps diminished by the willingness of the Saudis and others to use force and have the confidence to use force on their own—not with our permission or our full acquiescence—to defend themselves in the way they see fit.

I am not worried about their actions in Yemen and I am not the least bit concerned when they let us know they were going to do this. As if that were important. Did they call us at 11 or did they call us yesterday and tell us they were going to do this? How this becomes a press story, I do not know. They decided as Saudis that they had an interest that they were going to defend, they went out and did it, and they asked for some help. I think that is a story, but I do not think it is a story about the lack of US influence. I think it is a story about the exact opposite. We helped these countries get themselves capably armed; now they are and they are using those arms to defend their interests. We are shocked, shocked! A new defense arrangement is evolving. The United States will continue to be involved heavily and our partners will grow more mature and hopefully more confident. Some say it is time to think about formal alliance with these countries. I disagree with that. These are countries with which we share interests; not values. I do not think we share the kinds of values that are necessary to form a formal alliance.

Finally, a complaint, then a plug. I get so tired of the term reassurance: that the United States has to do more to reassure our Gulf allies. The president, his national security apparatus, and the national security leadership of five presidents back goes to Riyadh to pay respects—and they are still not reassured! They did not go to Tehran; they went to Riyadh! The call for greater dialogue, which I have sometimes made, is also not an answer.  I have been part of these dialogues. Dialogue in the kingdom is between the king and his counterpart foreign leader. If you have been in these military dialogues, the military man in the Gulf does not say anything. He smiles. He does not have any authority to talk about policy options or contingencies because he has no idea what those might be until the leader tells him. The notion that dialogue is going to solve our problems in the Gulf is nonsense. But mature leadership in the Gulf that empowers people at lower levels to lead will solve some of the problems.

To close let me give a little push to my pet project, I am tired of talking about Middle East leaders and Middle East problems. Just sick to death of it. We need to talk about people. We need to spend. We need to spend less on defense gadgetry and more on people. For example, for a pittance, we could double our exchange programs now. We know they work and have a long-term influence. We have to really start over and start learning about all the things we forgot when we went into Iraq, when we talk about Iran, and when we conduct our policy in a blind alley of press clippings and what happened in the headlines today.

Thank you.

Richard LeBaron is a retired career diplomat and a Nonresident Fellow at the Hariri and the Scowcroft Centers of the Atlantic Council.

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Image: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks at the United Nations during the Opening Meeting of the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) at United Nations headquarters in New York, April 27, 2015. (Reuters)