Like Oman and Qatar, Kuwait has opted to hedge its relationships with regional and international partners. Although Kuwait has publicly expressed support for Iran’s right to maintain a peaceful nuclear programme, it has so far agreed to comply with all sanctions the United States and the United Nations Security Council have levied on Iran. Kuwait has also participated in the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen against Iranian-backed Houthis, but has denied its allies permission to use its territory as a base for airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Saudi Arabia believes that Iran’s growing assertiveness has – as some European states have acknowledged – revealed its true role in the region. This assertiveness has bolstered the Trump administration’s arguments against the Iran nuclear deal, and led to a consensus between Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other states on the importance of checking Tehran’s influence in the Middle East. But there is no coherent regional anti-Iran alliance; only consensus and clarity on the nature of the Iranian threat.
Under Sultan Qaboos, Oman’s foreign policy strategy has been to maintain equilibrium between major powers in the Middle East, avoiding conflict and interference in other states’ domestic affairs, while offering to act as a mediator in regional disputes and stressing the need for dialogue. However, with Saudi Arabia now pressing all smaller GCC states to fall in line and oppose Iran, the political space for Omani mediation is fast shrinking.
Doha views Tehran’s perceived attempts to incite sectarian discord in the region as less of a threat than some other GCC states. It also views its relations with Iran as essential to its economic and security interests. The June 2017 Gulf embargo on Qatar provided Iran with an opportunity to drive a wedge between members of the GCC. Tehran supported Doha in the dispute and the two countries restored full diplomatic relations. But Qatar conducts its relations with Tehran in a calculated and careful manner, so as not to unduly upset its GCC neighbours or, indeed, a Trump administration bent on a showdown with Iran.
Israeli leaders perceive Iran as the greatest threat to Israel in more than two decades. For Israel, events in Syria – including Iran’s and Hezbollah’s highly effective combat operations in support of the Assad regime – have created a complex national security threat of the first order. At the same time, a quieter strategic shift has been taking place in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Cairo revealing key components of a potential new regional security architecture which may provide Israel with a unique opportunity to both address the Iranian threat and move towards normalising its relationships with Sunni Gulf states
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, and Morocco have formed an alliance to counter the challenges that Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood pose. As the nucleus of this alliance, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have the opportunity to create a new regional order. They are intent on restoring an Arab-led security architecture, free from interference by outside actors, and on fighting extremism and terrorism. the alliance sees arguments that Iran or political Islam could have a constructive role in the region – put forward by the previous US administration and several European countries – as naïve.
Riyadh and its Gulf allies view Cairo as a pivotal security partner. With the largest – and, arguably, most effective – standing military in the Arab world, Egypt has offered to become the ultimate bulwark of Gulf Arab national security. At a time when the Saudis and the Emiratis are focused on checking the expansion of Iranian and Sunni Islamist influence across the Middle East, the offer forms part of an opportunistic policy designed to guarantee inflows of Gulf aid. But, while it has provided wide-ranging support for the campaign against Sunni Islamists and their state sponsors, Cairo has refrained from substantive commitments to a dangerous confrontation with Iran.
As Iranian leaders see it, Saudi Arabia created an anti-Iran coalition to exaggerate the danger Tehran’s growing power poses to stability in the Middle East. Tehran sees the anti-Iran coalition as a means of creating a regional and global consensus to weaken Iran politically and economically, particularly by persuading European countries to adopt their positions. Confident of its ability to withstand regional pressure, Iran will also harden its regional posture – but in doing so will reduce the sides’ room to de-escalate any conflict between them.
Ankara is traditionally wary of Tehran’s ambitions in its immediate neighbourhood. But despite experiencing occasional shifts, their relationship has long been relatively stable. Since neither country views the other as posing an existential threat they have struck a modus vivendi as neighbours. This has enabled them to maintain political and economic ties even as they engage in proxy wars in Syria and competition in Iraq. Ankara’s and Tehran’s ability to compartmentalise their bilateral relationship has also allowed for continued cooperation in areas such as trade, energy, and tourism. However, there is a limit to how close they can become given their different political regimes and conflicting geopolitical ambitions.
Lebanon has remained resilient throughout the seven-year conflict in neighbouring Syria. However, the country once again finds itself caught in the winds of dangerous regional rivalries, not least that between Israel and Iran. Given the fragility of the Lebanese state, any escalation of hostilities in Lebanon – intended or otherwise – threatens to have a devastating impact.
Syria is at the centre of the major battle lines that cross the Middle East. A series of recent clashes in the country highlights the risk that the war there will develop into a wider regional conflagration. While Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may have established control over much of Syria, the country has become a theatre for increasingly overt confrontation between external actors.
In the aftermath of an election, Iraq enters unchartered territory that could intensify the struggle for influence between competing domestic factions and external players. Iraq’s stability now depends on the formation of a new political coalition. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has so far made careful attempts to ensure the country maintains a balanced position between international actors. This delicate balance may well be undone by a successor. Such a development could fuel the rivalry between Tehran and Washington in Iraq, while also unravelling Riyadh’s recent policy of re-engagement
The formation of an anti-Iran alliance comprising Saudi Arabia, Israel, and other states has dramatically changed the Middle East order. The alliance has sought to enlist the help of the United States, convincing President Donald Trump that the campaign against Tehran can only succeed if it marginalises Qatar. One of their key demands has been that Doha end its relationship with Tehran. However, the sea, land, and air embargo imposed against Qatar has been counterproductive, boosting Iranian influence, further polarising Gulf Arab states, and destabilising the region.
The Saudi-led coalition’s ongoing military operation against Houthi rebels in Yemen forms a key front in Riyadh’s wider battle against Iranian influence. Yet the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is just one of the many facets of Yemen’s increasingly complicated conflict. In some regards, the focus on Iran’s role in the war has distracted from many local drivers of conflict. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to ignore or minimise Tehran’s relationship with key Yemeni factions, particularly the Houthis.