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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Rising Tension between Iran and the Gulf States

Filed under: Hizbullah, Iran, Saudi Arabia, The Middle East
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Vol. 9, No. 25    May 14, 2010


    • The Gulf states are conducting an appeasement policy toward Tehran while with increasing dread they helplessly follow the nuclear crisis, epitomized by Iranian determination and aggression in the face of American weakness.
    • In the last fewweeks we witnessed a number of acrimonious exchanges between the Gulf states and Iran following the exposure of an Iranian clandestine network in Kuwait and renewed tension between the UAE and Iran over the continuous occupation by Iran of three islands belonging to the UAE. An Iranian spokesperson said that the Emirates states belonged to Iran and when the time came, they would come under Iran’s control.
    • The official Iranian news agency warned the Gulf states against pursuing confrontation: “There is no lion in the region save for the one that crouches on the shore opposite the Emirate states. He guards his den which is the Persian Gulf. Those who believe that another lion exists in the vicinity (meaning the U.S.) – well, his claws and fangs have already been broken in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Palestine.”
    • It is Qatar, which hosts large American military bases, that maintains the most cordial relations with Iran. Qatar is also influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite the fact that the Brotherhood members are Sunni, they have elected at this juncture to support Iran in its conflict with the United States.
    • The provocative naval maneuvers that Iran continues to conduct are indeed intended as a warning to the United States and Israel, but they also convey a clear message to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states: “We are here alongside you and we have massive power. Do not dare to provoke us.”

The Impotence of the Gulf States

Relations between Iran and the Gulf states are more strained than ever. Iran is issuing threats and working non-stop to undermine their stability. It repeatedly declares that these countries are part of its historic territory and it will take them over at the appropriate time.

In the meantime, Iran is exploiting their territory and services to circumvent the sanctions that were already imposed on it over the last two years. Straw companies were established in Dubai and apparently in Bahrain and Kuwait as well to purchase sophisticated products on Iran’s behalf that were needed to advance its nuclear program. The banks in these countries also provide a smokescreen for illicit transactions and money-laundering by Revolutionary Guard leaders. The Gulf states are aware of what is going on, but in the meantime, they are conducting an appeasement policy toward Tehran – even if they themselves have no confidence in it. All this is occurring while with increasing dread they helplessly follow the nuclear crisis, epitomized by Iranian determination and aggression in the face of American weakness.

Iranian Subversion and the Gulf States

The tension level in the region has increased in recent days as once again a measure of Iranian subversion in the Gulf states came to light.1 In Kuwait a spy network acting on behalf of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards was uncovered; it intended to establish the infrastructure in anticipation of a takeover of the country: to incite the Shiites against the regime, establish sleeper cells to act when the time came, and provide support for illicit
economic activity.2

This time parliament members insisted that Kuwait not back down from confronting Iran, and the attorney general has already submitted an indictment to the courts. Kuwait, located between Iraq and Saudi Arabia on the Gulf shore, is considered a stable and moderate country, with close ties to the United States. It provides strategic depth and a lifeline for the American army in Iraq. American soldiers on their way to and from Iraq pass through Kuwait, and the U.S. Army’s weapons and munitions are funneled via Kuwait.

Tension with the Emirates over the Occupied Islands

The confrontation between Iran and the United Arab Emirates escalated as UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan compared the continuous occupation by Iran of three islands belonging to his country to “the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian lands.”3 Iran conquered these islands (Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunb) during the time of the Shah in 1971, the year that the Emirates gained independence from British rule. In recent years Iran has settled the islands and established military camps there. The rulers of the Emirates, on the other hand, continue to reiterate their demand that Iran restore the islands or agree to international arbitration. Iran refuses. The issue is also on the Arab League agenda, and at every senior-level conclave the demand to restore the islands to their legal owners is emphasized.

Iran Responds to Kuwait with Derision and Menace

The Iranian response to Kuwait and the UAE was as brutal as ever. Iran totally denied that spies acting on its behalf were operating in Kuwait and warned the entire regional
media “not to take lightly their responsibility to publish credible information and particularly [avoid] baseless information.” This affair recalls the exposure of a Hizbullah cell in Egypt whose members were placed on trial and sentenced to long prison terms.4 In this case, Hizbullah conceded its guilt, but explained that the intention was to assist Hamas in Gaza against Israel. Nevertheless, everyone knows that Hizbullah was operating in the service of Iran to strike at Egyptian stability.

In a response to the declaration by the UAE foreign minister, the charge’ d’affaires of its embassy in Iran was summoned to the Foreign Ministry where he was read a protest, whose main points were that “the Iranian people considered itself aggrieved by the foreign minister’s declaration and that the response to these declarations would be severe.” An Iranian spokesperson even said that the Emirates states belonged to Iran and
when the time came, they would come under Iran’s control.

The Lone Lion in the Gulf

With these incidents in the background, the official Iranian news agency published a notice warning the Gulf states against pursuing confrontation in the following picturesque language:

There is no lion in the region save for the one that crouches on the shore opposite the Emirate states. He guards his den which is the Persian Gulf. Those who believe that another lion exists in the vicinity (meaning the United States) – well, his claws and fangs have already been broken in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Palestine. No good can be expected of him or his hunting sorties. Today he is counting the days until he finds a way out that will allow him to escape by the skin of his teeth. Iran, the Emirates, and the other countries in the region will remain, by
dint of geography, neighbors forever.5

This is indeed an interesting and realistic expression of the condition in the region as long as the West does not alter its weak policy.

A Rise in the Level of Escalation with Bahrain

Iranian confrontation with Bahrain made recent headlines when the director of the Bahraini anti-drug trafficking apparatus, Mubarak bin Abdallah al-Marri, said at a regional conclave in Riyadh that Iran operated directly to smuggle drugs into Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and that both countries had thwarted many smuggling attempts by sea in Iranian vessels coming from Iranian territory.A year ago, one of Khamenei’s advisors announced that Bahrain was the 14th district of Iran, an announcement that triggered severe responses in the Arab world. Egyptian President Mubarak immediately flew to Bahrain to express his support. Intermittent reports are published about Iranian subversion in Bahrain with the assistance of Shiite citizens who constitute about 60 percent of the population.7

It is to be recalled that the Bahraini authorities produced intelligence for the Clinton administration in the mid-1990s that Iran was behind a subversion campaign to overthrow the Bahraini government. In 1995, Tehran acquired a new incentive: the U.S. upgraded its naval presence in Bahrain to become the headquarters of the newly-created U.S. Fifth Fleet. Successful Iranian subversion in Bahrain would also have a major strategic consequence by forcing the withdrawal of the U.S. Navy from its main base in the Persian Gulf, just as Iran seeks to establish itself as the hegemonial power of the entire region.

Qatar – The Odd Man Out in Its Support of Iran

It is precisely Qatar, which hosts large American military bases, that maintains the most cordial relations with Iran. This policy apparently derives from the desire of Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, who is engaged in a protracted dispute with Saudi Arabia, to flaunt his independence as compared with the other Gulf states which efface themselves before Saudi Arabia. Qatar is also influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, which maintains a large and influential presence there. Despite the fact that the Brotherhood members are Sunni, they have elected at this juncture to support Iran in its conflict with the United States.

Two years ago, the Qatari ruler invited Iranian President Ahmedinejad to a summit meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council without informing his colleagues, who expressed
their displeasure. He also sent his chief of staff to Tehran to examine options for military cooperation.8 During Israel’s Gaza Operation, he even convened an Arab summit, together with Syria, that called for severing relations with Israel, thus arousing Mubarak’s ire.

The Qatari shift occurred right after the Bush administration released its 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran that suggested the Iranians had suspended key aspects of their nuclear weapons program back in 2003. From the perspective of the Persian Gulf states, this was the first indication that they might not be able to rely on U.S. determination to block Iran’s quest for regional hegemony, and the Qataris sought a rapprochement with Iran instead.

Oman, situated astride the exit from the Persian Gulf, attempts to maintain balanced relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, and recently refused to join a convention for a monetary union of Gulf states.

Saudi Arabia’s Plight

Saudi Arabia, the largest Sunni state and the caretaker of Islam’s holy places, is worried. Despite the fact that it has expended prodigious sums on the purchase of American weapons and equipment, its small army is incapable of deterring or even contending with Iran. It is doing its utmost to assist Sunni forces struggling against the spread of the Shiite wave under the baton of Iran, as we have witnessed in Iraq, Lebanon, and most recently in Yemen with the Houthi revolt that is supported by Iran. Eastern Saudi Arabia, where the country’s largest oil reserves are located, contains a sizable Shiite minority. Their incitement by Iran could trigger a civil war and inflict mortal damage on Saudi oil resources and exports, the cornerstone of the Saudi economy and the royal family’s power.

At this stage, although Saudi Arabia is in the same camp with Egypt versus Iran, Riyadh prefers to maintain relative calm in its communications, to avoid provocation and
aggravated tension, in the belief that its friend the United States will protect it. Yet Saudi-owned media outlets openly admit the magnitude of the Iranian threat. For example, Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed, director-general of the Saudi Al-Arabiya network, wrote in the Saudi London daily Asharq al-Awsat that nuclear weapons in Iran’s hands would help it dominate the Middle East region through subversion: “We fear the logic of the current regime in Tehran, which spent the country’s funds on Hizbullah, Hamas, the extremist movements in Bahrain, Iraq and Yemen, and the Muslim Brotherhood, and supported every extremist in the region. The Ahmadinejad regime aspires to expansion, hegemony, and a clear takeover on the ground, and to do this he needs a nuclear umbrella.”9

Given the failed attempts by the West to impose sanctions on Iran, and the voices emerging from Washington that diplomacy is the way to solve the crisis and that the military option is off the table, Ahmedinejad has nothing to fear, at least at the current stage. He feels he can advance his subversive plan and strike at the countries of the region. The provocative naval maneuvers that Iran continues to conduct are indeed intended to deter the United States and Israel, but they also convey a clear message to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states: “We are here alongside you and we have massive power.
Do not dare to provoke us.” Meanwhile, the United States offers no response.

*     *


1. Iran has trained secret
networks of agents across the Gulf states to attack Western interests
and incite civil unrest in the event of a military strike against its
nuclear program, a former Iranian diplomat has told the Sunday Telegraph.
Trained by Iranian intelligence services, they are also said to be recruiting
fellow Shias in the region, whose communities have traditionally been
marginalized by the Gulf’s ruling Sunni Arab clans. The claims have
been made by Adel Assadinia, a former career diplomat who was Iran’s
consul-general in Dubai and an adviser to the Iranian foreign ministry.
Colin Freeman, “Iran Poised to Strike in Wealthy Gulf States,”
Sunday Telegraph
(UK), March 4, 2007.

2. In the wake of the arrests,
Bahraini authorities said they had arrested a Bahrain national suspected
of links to the Kuwait spy operation. “Gulf Leaders Back Kuwait in
Alleged Iran Spy Case,” AFP, as reported in Asharq al-Awsat,
May 12, 2010.

3. “Iran Occupation of UAE
Islands like Israel’s: FM,” Al Arabiya, April 21, 2010,

4. Miret El Naggar, “Hezbollah
Spy Cell in Egypt Found Guilty of Terror Plots,” McClatchy-Christian
Science Monitor
, April 29, 2010,

5. IRNA news agency, as reported
in Asharq al-Awsat (UK), May 2, 2010.

6. “Iran Accused of Money
Laundering, Drug Trafficking,” Arab Times (Kuwait), May 7, 2010,

7. While it’s unclear whether
the Kuwaiti cell indeed extended to Bahrain and the UAE, Bahrain has
also been subject to subversive activities in recent years. On the eve
of the Gaza war of 2008-2009, the Bahraini authorities announced the
arrest of a group of Shia militants who had received training in Syria,
accusing them of planning terrorist attacks during Bahrain’s national
day celebrations. As for the UAE, it followed Kuwait’s lead by deporting
foreigners, especially Lebanese Shia. Starting in summer 2009, scores
of Shia were suddenly expelled. Tony
Badran, “The Shape
of Things to Come with Iran,” Now Lebanon, May 13, 2010,

8. “Iran, Qatar Sign Defense
Cooperation Agreement,” Tehran Times, February 25, 2010,

9. L. Barkan, “Reactions
in the Gulf to Tension over Iranian Nuclear Issue,” MEMRI, April 8,

*     *

The writer, a former Israeli
ambassador to Egypt and Sweden, is a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center
for Public Affairs. This essay reflects the view of the author alone.