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Iran: Gulf Security Proposal Unlikely To Be Realized

  • Charles Recknagel

Prague, 6 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Iran this week has once again put forward a long-standing proposal for a Gulf security pact that would end the West's military presence in the region. But the idea has little chance of becoming reality.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami on Monday called for the creation of a joint Muslim defense force with Saudi Arabia during a state visit to Tehran by Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan ibn Abdel Aziz.

Khatami said that Iran, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region share the same security concerns and, in his words, "we do not need foreign forces for that."

The Iranian president's call for a military alliance with the Saudi Kingdom echoed an earlier overture by Iran's Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani to Prince Sultan shortly after the Saudi official arrived Saturday for a five-day visit.

The Iranian defense minister told Prince Sultan that Tehran would, to quote, willingly offer its defense capabilities to Saudi Arabia toward building a single defense force for the Muslim world.

Prince Sultan appeared to reject the offer by the Iranian defense minister. The official Saudi Press Agency quoted the prince as saying that the question of military cooperation between the two countries is not an easy one and that any cooperation should start with economic, social, and cultural subjects.

Riyadh has yet to formally reply to the still higher-profile offer by Khatami. The Iranian president is due to visit Saudi Arabia later this month in what will be the highest-level visit to the kingdom by an Iranian since the Islamic Revolution. Khatami will visit Riyadh as part of a week-long regional swing beginning May 13 with Syria -- Iran's closest Arab ally -- and including Qatar.

Iran is pursuing the idea of a defense pact as part of a general warming of ties between Tehran and the Gulf Arab states which Khatami has made a hallmark of his presidency since taking office in 1997. That policy has paid off in a recent stream of senior Gulf Arab visitors to Tehran, including Bahrain's Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammad ibn Mubarak al-Khalifa earlier this week.

But analysts say that despite the warming ties, any Iranian initiative for a regional defense pact has almost n-o hope of eventually winning the support of Saudi Arabia or most of the other Arab Gulf states.

Chas Freeman, president of the Middle East Policy Council in Washington and a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, says the reason is that Iran and Saudi Arabia hold very different strategic goals:

"Saudi Arabia's principal concerns historically in the Gulf have been to maintain a balance such that neither Iran nor any other larger country such as Iraq could hope to dominate the Gulf. So what we have between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a sort of dtente, a relaxation of tensions, not an opening for an alliance or some kind of mutual security pact." Freeman says that Riyadh closely cooperated with Iran during the reign of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi but such cooperation is unlikely with the Islamic Republic. Relations between Saudi Arabia's conservative and western-leaning Sunni monarchy were badly strained when the Islamic revolution installed a radical clerical Shiite government in Iran in 1979 and significant tensions remain.

For the last two decades, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been in a dispute over Iran's insistence on demonstrations against the United States and Israel at the Haj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to holy sites in the western Saudi city of Mecca. Riyadh calls political rallies inappropriate during the Haj and in 1987 the dispute led to the deaths of more than 400 mainly Iranian pilgrims in clashes with Saudi security forces.

That incident led to a break in Saudi-Iranian diplomatic ties which lasted until 1991. In the last seven years, the rallies have been held peacefully inside tents belonging to the Iranian delegation.

Other Arab Gulf states have also been wary of the Islamic revolution. Bahrain continues to regard Iran with caution even as its foreign minister arrived in Tehran this week. Bahrain in 1996 accused Tehran of masterminding a foiled coup plot by Shiite Muslims to topple the island's ruling Sunni family. Anti-government unrest by members of the island's majority Shiites seeking political and economic reforms troubled the island for four years before abating last year.

Meanwhile, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Saudi Arabia, is pressing Iran to settle a sovereignty dispute with the United Arab Emirates over three islands near shipping lanes in the Gulf. The six GCC states have condemned Iran's control of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs as an occupation. Tehran has controlled the islands since Britain in 1971 ended its protectorate over both of them and the coastal sheikdoms which became the UAE.

Freeman says for such reasons most of the Arab Gulf states which have defense pacts with Western powers have previously declined Iranian offers of military cooperation. Any pact with Iran would force them to break existing treaties with the West, which they have long relied upon for their security in face of regional threats.

One of these treaties, between Washington and Riyadh, allows the stationing of U.S. troops and warplanes in the Saudi kingdom, from which they patrol Western-declared no-fly zones over Iraq and monitor Iran.

But analysts say that even as the Gulf Arab states appear likely to continue to reject Iran's military cooperation proposals, they do welcome Tehran's offer of greater cooperation in other fields, particularly in oil.

The Arab Gulf states have been hard hit by low oil prices since the beginning of last year. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), to which many of them as well as Iran belong, has sought to boost prices through voluntary production outputs.

Freeman says that for the near future, Saudi Arabia and Iran are likely to try to work more closely to raise the price of oil. But he says that their long-term price interests are different and may make cooperation difficult to maintain over the long term. Chas Freeman says:

"Saudi Arabia's reserves of petroleum are effectively inexhaustible. Iranian oil reserves, while they are very substantial, are not anywhere near as large as those of Saudi Arabia. So you have a situation where Saudi Arabia approaches the oil market trying to keep prices high enough to fund government operations but not so high that consumers begin to turn to other sources of energy. The Iranians take a more short-term view and would prefer to see prices much, much higher than Saudi Arabia would."

The analyst says the differences in Saudi Arabia's and Iran's strategic and commercial interests may make the current warming of ties a limited event rather than a pattern for their future.

Freeman also says that an important variable in determining where the two countries' relations go in the long term is how soon Iraq is reintegrated into the region. He says that should Iraqi President Saddam Hussein be replaced by another leader, Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf countries would quickly return to their historical pattern of cautiously balancing their relations between Iraq and Iran.