Gulf States Caught in Middle of Iranian-Saudi Cold War

Menaced by Iran, smaller Arab Gulf states are driven into Saudi Arabia’s arms.

Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, in Athens, Greece, October 1, 2011
Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, in Athens, Greece, October 1, 2011 (Prime Minister of Greece)

Gulf foreign minister rallied behind the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday in their island dispute with Iran and condemned the “provocative” visit by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of tiny Abu Musa last week.

Ahmadinejad’s was the first visit to the island by an Iranian leader since the Islamic country conquered the archipelago near the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz in 1971, when the United Arab Emirates were founded.

Ahead of the Gulf Cooperation Council summit on Tuesday, Ahmadinejad said that Iran was “ready to protect its existence and sovereignty” and threatened military action if foreign powers tried to reclaim the islands.

The cooperative body of Arab Gulf states, in turn, announced that a violation of the sovereignty of any of their members would be regarded as an encroachment against all GCC nations.

Before the ministerial conference, the secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Abdul Latif Bin Rashid Al Zayani, had urged member states to increase military cooperation between them. Specifically, he recommended the development of a joint missile defense system to respond to Iranian ballistic missile threats.

Such a shield, said Al Zayani, could be “backed by the United States and Western allies.” The Americans are major arms suppliers to Saudi Arabia and its neighbors.

The Sunni monarchies of the Persian Gulf are American and Saudi allies but their relations with Iran are more complicated than the kingdom’s. Where Riyadh is waging a cold war with the Islamic republic across the Middle East, countries like Oman and Qatar have historically maintained amicable relations with Tehran.

Qatar has tried to position itself as a middleman in the Middle East in recent years but its feverish support of the “Arab Spring,” including the uprising in Syria, has alienated the Iranians. Ahmadinejad even canceled a planned trip to Doha in November 2011.

Qatar’s sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who finances the highly influential Al Jazeera television station, told CBS News in January that “to stop the killing” in Syria, “some troops should go.” His prime minister, Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, walked back on that statement on Tuesday, saying Qatar is not arming the Syrian rebels but opposition groups should be able to defend themselves if President Bashar al-Assad does not honor a ceasefire. Assad is an Iranian ally.

Relations between Iran and Qatar are complicated by their joint ownership of a natural gasfield in the Gulf. Tehran has recently accused the Qataris of pilfering the field while Iranian media regularly denounce Qatar’s ruling family as illegitimate and in league with the West. The louder Iran espouses such condemnations, the more the emirs will be driven into Saudi Arabia’s warm embrace.