The New Confrontation Between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council

By: Shujauddin Amini

The agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to resume diplomatic relations had led to the creation of the impression that the relationship between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Tehran would improve compared to the past, but this did not come true. This is because the territorial and border conflict between the parties has just risen. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), with a harsher tone than in the past, proclaims the occupation of the three islands against Iran, with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia considering the Arash/Al-Dara gas field as their exclusive property avoiding giving Iran a share.

GCC convened its 157th meeting in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, on September 7th this year. The final statement of the meeting was aimed at canceling Iran’s ownership claim on the Arash/Al-Dara offshore gas field: “Only Saudi Arabia and Kuwait reserve the right to use the resources of the Arash gas field.” Additionally, the islands of Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa were called occupied by Iran, with the country being asked to resolve the issue through direct negotiation or referral to the international court.

A day before, Cairo, the capital of Egypt, hosted the third round of Arab-Japanese political negotiations. In that meeting, the foreign ministers of Arab League member countries discussed with the Japanese delegation. The final statement of that meeting was also issued in support of the position of the United Arab Emirates regarding the three islands. That statement is important because Japan has adopted a position against Iran in support of the GCC, sparking the reaction of the Iranian side: “The three islands are an integral and eternal part of the territory of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the recent statements lack any political and legal value.”

There are three points to discuss in this regard:

1- Susceptibility of the Relationship Between Tehran and Riyadh

The relationship between Riyadh and Tehran, which has just been restored at the mediation of China, is likely to be disturbed by taking a stance on border disputes. The Arash/Durra offshore gas field remains a controversial issue between Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iran, with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait being on one side and Iran on the other side. Iran calls this field “Arash” and Saudi Arabia and Kuwait call it “Al-Dara”. Riyadh and Kuwait do not consider Iran entitled, but Iran considers it a common property between all three countries. The dispute over the exploitation of the natural resources of the Arash field has caused it to remain untouched. The gas of this field is 20 trillion cubic feet and its oil is 310 million barrels.

In March 2022, Riyadh and Kuwait signed an agreement for the development of the Arash field, which was met with Iran’s response: “Tehran will start drilling unilaterally.” In August of this year, in a statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia, the Arash/Al-Dara gas field was called the exclusive property of Riyadh and Kuwait proclaiming the full exploitation of its natural resources to be their inalienable right.

In the context of these three islands, which is a disputed issue between Iran and the UAE, Riyadh supports Abu Dhabi’s position. The three islands are currently under the sovereignty of Iran. The UAE and other members of the GCC consider them occupied areas by Iran. The members of this council demand direct negotiations between Abu Dhabi and Tehran to solve this problem, or they want the matter to be postponed to the international court. However, Iran does not accept it and considers it a finished issue.

Iran’s position regarding the Arash/Al-Dara gas field is softer than its position regarding the three islands. For example, Iran issues statements about the necessity of negotiations regarding this gas field, but not regarding the three islands.

2- Reintegration of GCC

This council was basically established to contain the Islamic Republic of Iran. Had the kingdom system not collapsed in Iran, this council would not exist either. The slogan of issuing the revolution by the Islamic Republic was annoying for the members of this council, who were all governed in a royal manner. Therefore, six Arab countries united under the name ” The Gulf Cooperation Council” on May 25, 1981, with the United States playing a role in the creation of this council and supporting its members well so far.

In 2017, there was a breach in the ranks of the council members. Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain sanctioned Qatar due to supporting terrorism, making this country turn towards Iran and Turkey. Additionally, Oman has tried to maintain its relationship with Iran at a normal level, to the extent that this country and Qatar are trying to warm Iran’s relationship with the US.

When Riyadh and Tehran tried to normalize the relationship, the activities of the GCC and its confrontation with Iran were questioned. This was because Saudi Arabia forms the backbone of the council and its statements hold importance for the rest of the members. For example, when Riyadh severed its diplomatic relationship with Tehran, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, and Qatar also reduced the level of their diplomatic relationship with Iran. Similarly, following the agreement between Riyadh and Tehran, Kuwait also entered into diplomatic relations with Iran. Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian visited Kuwait on June 21 of this year and this country has also sent an ambassador to Tehran.

It seems that this council can continue its life better in the face of Iran because its existential philosophy is to curb Tehran’s influence in the Middle East. Regardless of how much the differences between the GCC and Iran escalate, the unity of this council will be preserved more. Perhaps, Riyadh will consciously highlight the issues of dispute with Iran to enable GCC to maintain its previous coherence.

Furthermore, the Iranians are trying extensively to overthrow some members of the council. For example, not long ago, Naser Kanaani, the Spokesperson of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, spoke about the dire situation of the prisoners in Bahrain, which was met with a sharp reaction from the Bahraini authorities. Additionally, condemning the statements of Iranian officials, the final statement of the council meeting in Riyadh called it an interference in Bahrain’s internal affairs. It is worth noting that in Bahrain, the Shia population constitutes the majority with the power being in the hands of Sunnis affiliated with Riyadh. Therefore, Iran’s relations with Bahrain are not good.

3- Great Powers Support the Position of GCC

The United States, Britain, France, and Germany apparently support the member states of the GCC. In December 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping, during his visit to Riyadh and talking to members of the council, expressed his support for Abu Dhabi’s position regarding the three islands which was met with Iran’s reaction leading to the summons of the ambassador of China.

Meanwhile, Russia, which hosted the officials of the member states of GCC in July of this year, supported Abu Dhabi’s position regarding the three islands, which led to Iran’s strong reaction resulting in summoning that country’s ambassador.

Now, it’s Japan’s turn. This country is also an important power in East Asia holding a prominent position in the United Nations and the bloc between countries. In a meeting held in Cairo, Yoshimasa Hayashi, the Japanese Foreign Minister, supported Abu Dhabi’s position regarding the occupation of the three islands.

This shows that the UAE and the rest of the Council members are in a superior position to Iran and have been able to draw the great powers of the world to support their position. Abu Dhabi knows that Iran is not ready for a face-to-face dialogue regarding the three islands, thus trying to refer the issue to the International Court of Justice or the United Nations Security Council. If the issue is placed on the agenda of the UN Security Council, since its permanent members have supported Abu Dhabi’s position, it is likely that this country will benefit more.

The question is, why do the great powers of the West and East support Abu Dhabi’s position? A vital factor that made Abu Dhabi popular among these countries is trade. The members of the GCC, especially Abu Dhabi, take the lead in the field of trade in the Middle East. Large oil and gas reserves are also hidden in the soil of these countries. This has caused even Russia and China to support the UAE instead of Iran.

GCC members have more pressure tools against Iran as evidenced by efforts to normalize relations between Riyadh and Israel. In August 2020, the UAE and Bahrain engaged in the normalization of relations with Tel Aviv. Similarly, the United States has recently increased its military presence in the Persian Gulf. It is clear that the current situation leads to strengthening the position of this council and weakening the position of Iran in the region.