IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2020


Panorama : The Mediterranean Year

Country Profiles

Geographical Overview

Strategic Sectors


Tensions Between the US and Iran and the Role of the Gulf States

Luciano Zaccara

Research Assistant Professor,
Gulf Studies Center, Qatar University

After the rupture of diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran in 1980 due to the occupation of the US embassy in Tehran,[1] the extremely poor bilateral relations between the two countries seemed detrimental to the evolution of relations between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.[2] Over thirty years later, in his second term (2013-2017), US President Barak Obama fostered a rapprochement with Iran that led to signing a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an agreement that garnered a very negative reception among the Gulf monarchies. This reception demonstrated that the dynamics of bilateral relations in the region were not necessarily determined by Iran-US relations, but rather followed their own regional logic, at times in contradiction to US interests. Therefore, improved Iran-US relations, which implied Iran’s normalization within the international community, would not necessarily translate to a reduction of tensions in Persian Gulf waters, but rather, as was demonstrated in the following years, quite the contrary. Moreover, the supposed unity of the GCC countries based on ethnic, social, religious, economic and political similarities, which contributed to the organization’s creation in 1981 to support the Iraqi war effort against Iran and co-ordinate security and defence policies, has also been called into question for the position each member country has held with respect to Iran; what it represents in the region; and the way they relate to this country. As has been clear for several years now, but accentuated above all as of the attacks on the Saudi embassy and consulate in Tehran and Mashhad in 2016,[3] and especially since the blockade against Qatar started in 2017, it has become increasingly difficult to find common ground among the six countries regarding their Iranian neighbour. Much to the contrary, Iran has been at the centre of controversies arising among the GCC members. Hence the fact that, from May 2018 to January 2020, various incidents arose that were about to spark a direct confrontation with the US on two occasions, as well as with Saudi Arabia.

The JCPOA as Catalyst of the New Saudi Foreign Policy

Recognition of its status as a “regional power”, which Iran has been seeking since the times of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1941-1979), should come, according to international relations theorists such as Detlef Nolte,[4] from both the world power dominant in the region, and the neighbours of the country aspiring to this regional status. By signing the JCPOA in 2015, the United States acknowledged Iran’s right to have a complete nuclear production cycle for civilian purposes within the frame of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and with the approval of the United Nations Security Council, the European Union and the P5+1.[5] This recognition guaranteed Iran’s (controlled) access to the select club of countries with a complete civilian nuclear programme, an essential element per se to consolidate its role as a regional power. Moreover, it announced the long-awaited normalization of Iran within the international community, although it did not entail the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the US. Nevertheless, its GCC neighbours rejected the possibility of recognizing Iran in that role and lifting the forced isolation to which Iran has been subjected since 1979. On the contrary, concern grew, mainly in Saudi Arabia, about the implications of the Iran’s being recognized by the US as a regional power and the lifting of international pressure and sanctions, in terms of the expansion of its influence in the spheres in which it competed with the Saudi Kingdom for regional leadership. It must be kept in mind, however, that not all the GCC governments reacted to the agreement in the same manner. Oman in particular had been a key actor in it, mediating between the US and Iran, supplying them with the essential connections and venue for the talks –at first unofficial, under the term of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), and later becoming official when Hassan Rouhani took up the presidency in August 2013–, where the signing of the JCPOA was agreed.

After negotiations leading to signing the nuclear agreement from 2013 to 2015 and the JCPOA’s effective implementation in January2016, primarily Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) perceived a change in the geopolitical balance in the Persian Gulf to their detriment and to Iran’s benefit. According to them, the US under the Obama Administration (2009-2017) had abandoned its traditional allies in the region, for which the US president would receive abundant criticism and accusations by key figures of the Gulf political élite. The cold reception given to Obama during his visit to Riyadh in April 2016 showed Saudi discontent.[6]

Concern grew in Saudi Arabia about the implications of Iran’s being recognized by the US as a regional power and the lifting of international pressure and sanctions

At the same time as the signature of the Iranian nuclear agreement, the monarchical succession took place in Saudi Arabia, with Salman bin Abdulaziz being crowned after the death of Abdullah on 23 January 2015. In only a few months, Salman was already implementing a much more assertive policy than his predecessor, getting involved in the Yemen war in March of that year, with the triple aim of reinstating President Abd-Rabbuh Mansour Hadi in Sanaa; eliminating the constant Houthi threat along its southern border; and reducing any possibility of Iranian influence in the Saudi Kingdom’s backyard. To concretize its objectives, Saudi Arabia created the Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition in December 2015 in order to combat groups considered terrorist, mainly in Yemen. From the start, this alliance officially consisted of 39 Islamic nations, among which Iran, Iraq and Lebanon were missing, which gave it a clear anti-Shiite sectarian bias in its composition. The fact that Saudi military intervention in Yemen began amid the nuclear negotiations that Iran and the P5+1were holding in Vienna cannot be a considered mere coincidence.

The assertiveness, or even aggressiveness, of new Saudi foreign policy was corroborated after Crown Prince Muhammed bin Nayef was replaced by Salman’s son, Muhammad bin Salman, on 21 June 2017, after the onset of the blockade against Qatar led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Many analysts consider since then, and especially after the tragic incident of the assassination of Saudi journalist Kamal Khashoggi, that Muhammad bin Salman had accumulated sufficient power to control both foreign policy and the Kingdom’s internal and external military and security apparatus.

Trump and his “Maximum Pressure” Policy

Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency in January 2017 demonstrated that the perception that the United States had abandoned its GCC allies was not quite true, since the new US policy recovered the idea of the main threat that his administration considers a baseline in the region: Iran. During his electoral campaign, Trump advocated revoking the JCPOA, citing it as the worst agreement ever signed and, basing himself on information from Israeli intelligence that even contradicted the US’s own intelligence sources, he ended up opting out of it in May 2018. The nearly immediate result was increased bilateral tension between the two countries, with the gradual implementation of sanctions against Iranians and third parties, using “maximum pressure” to choke Iran’s productive and commercial capacity. Trump thus hoped to bend Iran’s will and force the leader, Ali Khamenei to authorize direct negotiation with the United States, ruling out any current or future multilateral initiatives, and thus establish a new nuclear agreement that would cover certain aspects not included in the initial agreement, such as the production of long-range missiles and Iran’s intervention in regional conflicts.

The United States’ “maximum pressure” and Trump’s clear alignment with Saudi interests and his perceptions of threats emanating from the Islamic Republic did not, however, help to relax the tense relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. On the contrary, Muhammad bin Salman took advantage of the new correlation of forces, and until now apparent unconditional support for his management and foreign policy, to pressure his allies to cut ties with Iran and isolate it again, as had occurred in the 1980s. The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia on various regional stages –Yemen, Syria and Iraq, and even the Gulf waters–, together with the increasing confrontation between the United States and Iran, has returned the entire area to volatility, seeming about to break out into a war of unpredictable consequences between June 2019 and January 2020.

Trump’s victory revitalized relations with the Gulf monarchies, primarily Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. His first foreign trip as president was precisely to Saudi Arabia, on 22 May 2017. There, he participated in three summits: a bilateral one with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud; the United States-Gulf Cooperation Council Summit; and the Arab Islamic American Summit, in which 54 Islamic countries participated, with the exception of Iran. First of all, the summits served to heighten the perception of Iran as a threat both to the US and to Saudi Arabia and its allies in the region. Also, to reveal the main US strategic initiative in the region. And in the third place, to trigger the greatest confrontation between the GCC countries. Over the course of the three summits, Iran was repeatedly alluded to as destabilizing and promoting terrorism, accentuating the need to establish a new strategic containment front combining not only the six GCC states but also Egypt and Jordan. This containment would be materialized through the US proposal of a Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA, popularly known as the Arab NATO), which Trump presented at the summit on 20 May, when he was signing the greatest arms agreement in history with Saudi Arabia, amounting to 350 million dollars. MESA would consist of an anti-missile umbrella against the ballistic as well as conventional (non-nuclear) weapons threat that Iran allegedly represents for the region, the latter of which Trump considered an even greater threat than its nuclear programme -which was purportedly why he revoked the JCPOA-, demanding a new agreement that would include those aspects not covered in the previous pact.

In this manner, the United States was once again positioning itself as the defender of the Arab states in the region against a perceived expansionist threat from Iran, but as their main weapons supplier as well, a position that was being called into question by the entry of Russia, Turkey and the United Kingdom, among others, on to the GCC arms market. Long gone were the initiatives by the Bill Clinton, George Bush Jr. or Barack Obama Administrations, which included the goal of democratizing and stabilizing the region, if only as a justification for interventionism. Solely mercantilism and hard power appear on the Trump Administration’s foreign policy agenda for the Persian Gulf.

The new US policy recovered the idea of the main threat that his administration considers a baseline in the region: Iran

The Blockade against Qatar and the Role of Iran

The summits took place a day after presidential elections in Iran, where Hassan Rouhani was comfortably re-elected, basing his election campaign on the as-yet-unspecified benefits that the continuity of the JCPOA could bring the country if there were sufficient collaboration by the European Union and other countries signing the agreement, particularly China. After the summits, the greatest crisis in the GCC broke out, and Iran would play an instrumental role in triggering it. On 24 May, the Qatar News Agency website and its Twitter account were hacked, and statements were posted attributed to Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in which he called Iran an “Islamic power in stabilizing the region.”[7]On 5 June, as a consequence of an escalation of cross-accusations, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt (the “Quartet”) broke off relations with Qatar, establishing a land, aerial and maritime blockade lasting to the present. Iran’s instrumental nature in the onset of the blockade was clear when on 23 June, the Quartet countries jointly issued a list of 13 demands with which Qatar had to comply for the blockade to be lifted. The first of those demands explicitly referred to Iran as follows:

“1) Scale down diplomatic ties with Iran and close the Iranian diplomatic missions in Qatar, expel members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and cut off military and intelligence cooperation with Iran. Trade and commerce with Iran must comply with US and international sanctions in a manner that does not jeopardise the security of the Gulf Cooperation Council.”[8]

Although on 19 July, this demand was removed from the list of the “six principles” then put forth, the role played by the excuse of Iran in tensing the rope among GCC member states is undeniable. The fact that the initial demand explicitly mentioned US sanctions, and that it linked compliance with Gulf security, also showed the influence that collusion with the latest US Administration would have on the new containment of Iran and its allies.

Despite the differences that Iran and Qatar have had since the Arab Spring, as in the specific case of Syria, in which the emirate has supported the al-Nusra Front against the regime of Bashar al Assad, who is an Iranian ally, the Iranian government had a very clear stance with regard to the Gulf crisis. Less than 24 hours after onset of the blockade, Iran had guaranteed Qatar unrestricted use of its air space in order to break the aerial blockade, and it mobilized its entire productive capacity to serve the basic needs of the population under blockade. In less than two days, airplanes with basic supplies were landing in Doha, and over the following months, bilateral chambers of commerce were set up and agreements confirmed ensuring both Iranian supplies and transport from Turkey and Azerbaijan of products replacing the ones formerly coming from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In August that year, the Qatari ambassador, who had been recalled for consultations after the attack on the Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran, returned to his post, reinstating full diplomatic relations. Iranian support was rewarded by Qatari commitment, demonstrated on numerous occasions by Sheikh Tamim, who called for direct dialogue with Iran to settle regional conflicts in international forums such as the UN General Assembly.

The Gulf crisis seemed to delineate two sides: Iran, Turkey and Qatar on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel and the US on the other. Although in general terms, these sides seemed clearly defined, it is difficult to assert that new strategic alliances have formed in the region to replace the old ones. What the crisis did seem to demonstrate is the obsolescence of the GCC, which remained alive as long as it was fulfilling the objective of externalizing the Saudi threat perception and making it common to the rest of the members. Once the threats began coming from within the Council itself, as in the case of Qatar, the GCC lost its capacity to manoeuvre and its present and future usefulness. Moreover, the fact that neither Oman nor Kuwait accepted certain Saudi demands with regard to their relations with Iran and Islamist groups, revealed that groups within the GCC were the most well-defined. This was confirmed by the establishment of a Saudi-Emirates military security agreement that some considered the seed of a new regional organization replacing the GCC. Nonetheless, discrepancies between Saudis and Emiratis in the Yemen war would demonstrate that this alliance could not even last on the short term.

The ‘Almost’ 4th Gulf War and the HOPE Initiative

Increased tension in the Gulf waters had various high points between May 2019 and January 2020 that nearly unleashed a 4th Gulf War. On 12 May, four cargo ships flying Saudi, Emirati and Norwegian flags were attacked near the port of Fujairah, on the Emirati coast of the Gulf of Oman. On 13 June, two Japanese-owned oil tankers flying Panamanian flags were attacked in the Strait of Hormuz after loading fuel and other derivatives from Emirati and Qatari ports. In both cases, in which there were no victims, Iran was the accused as the main culprit, although this could not be fully confirmed, and the Emirati government even avoided making a direct accusation against Iran. On 20 June, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s air defence shot down a US drone that, according to the Iranian version, had violated its airspace. The US was about to carry out a retaliation operation, but according to President Trump, decided to suspend the operation at the last minute to prevent military escalation in the area, and because of the lack of mortal victims to that date. On 14 September, a co-ordinated drone attack struck the facilities of the Saudi oil company ARAMCO in Abqaiq and Khurais, in the eastern part of the country. Although Iran denied its involvement in the attack and the Houthi guerrilla claimed authorship, Saudi Arabia and the US accused Iran. As in the previous incidents, no mortal victims were caused in any of the attacks.

The lack of a direct reaction by the US, and the manifest inability of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to carry out any retaliation without the backing of this world power generated the perception, for some erroneous, that Iran had finally managed to gain control over Persian Gulf waters. Also, that Iran had sent a clear signal to its southern neighbours, that although it did not claim authorship of any of the attacks, with the exception of downing the drone, it did make clear the vulnerability of maritime routes and the Gulf’s oil industry to any Iranian attempt to harm them. With Iran convinced of the message’s reception by its southern neighbours, President Hassan Rouhani presented the Hormuz Peace Endeavour (HOPE) at the UN General Assembly in November 2019. This initiative aimed to build a new regional security structure that would take into account the threats and interests of all the regional stakeholders, and for the first time, considered that, at least in principle, the US should not be excluded if it helped ensure the security of the GCC countries.[9] The inaugural HOPE conference was held in Tehran on 6 January 2020, and was attended by the foreign ministers and senior officials of Oman, Qatar and Kuwait.

The Gulf crisis seemed to delineate two sides: Iran, Turkey and Qatar on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel and the US on the other

But the planning, expected speeches and specific proposals at HOPE were disrupted by the assassination of Qasem Soleimani on 3 January near the Baghdad airport by a US drone. According to various unconfirmed sources, Soleimani was in Iraq at the time for a possible meeting with Saudi officials in an attempt to ease bilateral tension after the ARAMCO and Gulf of Oman incidents. Soleimani’s assassination would destroy that possibility. According to this version, once again, Saudi and US interests were at odds. A sign of this clash was the clear message of the Saudi authorities, who denied preliminary knowledge of the operation to eliminate Soleimani. Five days later, on 8 January, a well-announced Iranian retaliation operation using medium-range missiles was carried out against two US military bases, in Al Anbar and Erbil, from which Iranian sources stated the drones employed to assassinate Soleimani had taken off.

The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in China, with Iran as the regional epicentre in the Middle East, also seems to have contributed to drawing attention away from the principal dispute between Iran and the GCC countries, allowing a certain thaw


Despite the controversies on the authorship of the attacks occurring between May and September 2019, as well as the fluctuating numbers with respect to the damages and injuries caused at the US bases, and above all on the proportionality or not of Iranian and US attacks, and their consequences in the region, what is certain is that the military escalation presaging a direct war between Iran and the United States did not reach the critical point. Both actors settled on their own narratives for public opinion, explaining the attacks as victories, and avoided engaging in a large-scale war that could have dire consequences for both countries. Regional actors such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also seem to have understood the need to avoid at all costs a new military conflict in early 2020. The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in China, with Iran as the regional epicentre in the Middle East, also seems to have contributed to drawing attention away from the principal dispute between Iran and the GCC countries, allowing a certain thaw that became evident, at least between Iran and the UAE, with the much-touted humanitarian aid that the Emirates gave the Islamic republic on various occasions.


[1] On 4 November 1979, some members of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line assaulted the US embassy in Tehran and occupied it for 444 days, holding 52 diplomats and civil servants hostage. Amid Iranian demands for repatriation of the deposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was temporarily exiled in the US, the occupation precipitated the rupture of diplomatic relations between the two countries on 7 April 1980, a situation which has lasted to the present.

[2] The Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, colloquially known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), is a regional governmental organization established on 25 May 1981, with headquarters in Riyadh and comprised by the monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

[3] On 2 January 2016, groups of demonstrators protesting against the execution of the Saudi Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, attacked the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Mashhad. As a result of the attack, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain cut diplomatic relations with Iran, while Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar and Oman reduced their delegations or called their ambassadors to consultations, but without going as far as cutting diplomatic ties as Saudi Arabia demanded.

[4] Nolte, Detlef. “How to Compare Regional Powers: Analytical Concepts and Research Topics”. Review of International Studies 36(4): 881–901, 2010.

[5] The P5+1 group includes the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and the United States) plus Germany.

[6] Contrary to common practice, Obama was received by the governor of Riyadh, Prince Faisal bin Bandar, and his arrival was not aired live on Saudi TV.

[7] Coates Ulrichsen, Kristian. “What’s Going on with Qatar?”, in The Qatar Crisis, POMEPS Briefings, p. 6, 2017.

[8] See

 [9]Haghirian, Mehran and Zaccara, Luciano. “Making sense of HOPE: Can Iran’s Hormuz Peace Endeavor succeed?”, Atlantic Council, 3 October 2019.