Iran and (in)security in the Gulf

This post is based on a paper of the same name delivered as part of the Regional Security Research (RSRC) panel titled ‘After the Arab Spring: Regime Security in the Arabian Gulf’, on September 27, 2017.


Iran’s presence and involvement in the Gulf continues to impact security in the region. In a recent paper presentation, I argued that the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) regime has had a hand in security and insecurity concerns amongst its neighbors in the region, and beyond. This argument is conveyed through four examples concerning the Gulf, namely; the IRI’s involvement in the fight against DAISH, attempts (successful and otherwise) to achieve regional influence through and with Shia and Shia-aligned actors, the economic and strategic potential of Iran’s ‘re-entry’ into the global energy market, and the heightening international community’s concerns over the country’s nuclear program. Each of these four examples are taken in turn to convey just how much of a role Iran plays in Gulf security matters. Further, and perhaps most importantly, Tehran’s involvement in each of these matters is embedded in a pragmatic sense of ensuring the IRI regime’s survival. With this, comes a dedication to the Middle Eastern state’s constitutional dedication to the ‘elimination of imperialism … prevention of foreign influence … [and] a foreign policy based on Islamic criteria, fraternal commitment to all Muslims, and unsparing support to the freedom fighters’ (Iranian Constitution, 1989, Article 3, Point 5 and 16).

Fighting DAISH

The terrorist organization poses a potent and convenient threat to the IRI. On the one hand, Iran has dedicated a large number of forces, capabilities, intelligence, and support for the fight against DAISH. This has been evidenced to be effective with the ground made by Iran against the terrorist organization, with the Iranian Supreme Leader or Ayatollah’s supporters denoting how the country’s alignment with Russia, Syria, Iraq, plus Hezbollah make up the most effective ‘4+1’ coalition against DAISH, in lieu of the ‘US-led-from-behind coalition [being] mostly for show’.

On the other hand, the presence of DAISH has successfully managed to steer the international community’s concerns away from Iran’s own security issues, to a certain extent. Indeed, the former US Ambassador to Iraq (in role from 2007-09), Ryan C. Crocker noted that if the US leaves the region after DAISH defeated ‘it would be effectively just giving the Iranians a free rein’, with some believing that this is already the case.

Consequently, DAISH has an almost oxymoronic utility to the IRI, in that it is characterized as a security concern for, and a convenient distraction from Tehran’s actions. This latter element has been as a result of the IRI’s moves to gain regional influence.

Regional (Shia) influence

This quest for regional influence has been a consequence of being surrounded by rivaling non-Shia states and actors. Further, in the IRI’s endeavor to espouse the constitution-laded revolutionary mantra, it is only natural that Tehran looks to shore up its interests and regime security. A recent Parliament Report (downloadable from this link) noted how the IRI support for Hezbollah, militias in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, and Bashar al-Assad in Syria, amount to attempts to gain influence over fellow Gulf countries’ domestic affairs. This has become most evident in neighboring Iraq, where the majority of Iraqi market produce comes from Iran, a number sympathetic TV channels air in the country, in the Iraqi city of Najaf a private Iranian company provides rubbish disposal services, and Iranian-sponsored militias have provided the means to transfer men and guns to proxy forces in Syria and Lebanon. Further, the fact that most senior Iraqi Administration cabinet officials are supported by IRI has raised concerns of Iranian dominance over Iraq’s political system. This is a notion that has been exacerbated by Iranian TV channels in Iraq pointing at US interference a reason to support Tehran-backed politicians – again, linking in to the Iranian constitutional rejectionist sentiment.

Energy Market (Re)Entry

The potential for Iran’s impact on global energy is weighing heavily on regional and wider concerns. Indeed, the fact that Iran has the 4th largest proven crude oil reserves in the world (10% of the total, and 13% of OPEC), and the 2nd largest natural gas reserves prove this point, as reported by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). That being said, the combination of years of international sanctions leading to a fall in production and the fact that the Iranian constitution prohibits the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) from including private contractors in oil and gas projects has meant that production fell from 3.7 million barrels per day (mbpd) in 2011 to 2.7 mbpd in 2013. That being said, given the fact that the concern here is with a finite resource, and with yet-to-be-found viable alternatives, the potential for Iranian energy to offset the global market is ever present. Furthermore, the NIOC’s mandate provides a further example of the IRI’s dedication to the constitution and refuting external influence over Iranian affairs.

The Nuclear Program

Recent developments have highlighted the issues still lingering over Iran’s nuclear program. Indeed, the US Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, signed on 24 July 2017, denoted that the US president ‘shall impose’ sanctions on the IRI and Iranians to ‘deter conventional and asymmetric Iranian activities and threats that directly threaten the US and key allies in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond’. The Act is to be evaluated on October 15, 2017, when US President Donald Trump is to decide whether to certify Iran is keeping its end of the bargain. Highlighting the fact that the deal may still be revoked, as promised by Trump during his presidential campaign. However, the fact that the September 14, 2017 US Congressional deadline to renew the sanctions passed without action is a sign Trump may be stepping back from his threat to abandon JCPOA.

Each of these examples demonstrate the importance of Iran’s presence and actions when considering the security of the Gulf region, and further afield. Questions now hang over how this shakey pseudo-alignment fares against increased Arab Gulf State and Sunni actor rhetoric and Trump’s haphazard calls for isolation.

Image: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Arak. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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