President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal prompted reactions from the Gulf States ranging from enthusiasm to regret. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members’ divergent responses reflect the GCC’s disunity on Iran, highlighting challenges Washington may face in its quest to re-isolate the Islamic Republic.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain emerged as the most vocal advocates of the American decision. This bloc’s antipathy towards the nuclear deal is well known; it feared that Iran’s windfall from sanctions relief would enable Tehran to increase its support for militant Shiite forces, such as Houthi rebels in Yemen and a network of terrorists in Bahrain.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry issued a statement of support less than an hour after President Trump’s announcement of the withdrawal. Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. and younger brother of the crown prince, tweeted in support of the decision, observing, “we always had reservations with regards to sunset clauses, ballistic missiles [sic] program, and Iran’s support for terrorism in the region.”
The UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, tweeted that Trump’s decision was “the correct one” and “the veneer of Tehran’s compliance contradicted its bellicose policies.” Bahrain’s foreign minister, Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, added that the deal was “crippled” and had given Iran a “hand to tamper with the region’s security.”
In contrast, statements from Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar expressed reservations. Kuwait’s deputy foreign minister, Khaled al-Jarallah, commented that “having this agreement is better than no agreement at all.” Oman’s foreign ministry blandly said it “followed the developments of the U.S. decision to withdraw,” but “appreciates the stance of the other five [P5+1] partners, which preserved the deal.” Qatar emphasized that it, like the other GCC members, was not party to the deal but would directly feel the impact of Trump’s decision, given its ties to all parties to the deal.
Uniting Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar is their concern about the impact Iran sanctions will likely have on their economies. All three have attempted to preserve ties with Iran for economic reasons, not to mention political ones.
Qatar hopes to become Iran’s preferred hub for Iranian foreign exchange transactions, signaling deeper financial ties between Doha and Tehran. Qatar’s Al-Jazeera television network even reportedly inked an agreement with Iran’s IRNA to deepen ties and “create an atmosphere of peace, friendship, and convergence.” Doha has denied this, despite the report.
Oman, which played a major role in the nuclear deal negotiations, had an ulterior motive: It inked a deal for a major gas pipeline to import Iranian natural gas, which is lately in shorter supply for the Gulf nation. It is unclear how new sanctions will impact this arrangement.
Kuwait is friendly to Washington but has historically prided itself on its neutral position vis-à-vis Iran, and it is loath to be dragged into a regional dispute. It also has sought economic benefits from ties with Iran.
The Trump administration should be aware of the GCC’s internal fault lines as it turns up the economic pressure on Iran. The temptation to engage in sanctions evasion may be high among some GCC members, given the proximity, history, and political leanings of these countries. Washington should prepare for that eventuality by stating clearly the consequences and by enlisting Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and UAE to monitor Iran-GCC sanctions violations more carefully.
Varsha Koduvayur is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she focuses on the Gulf. Follow her on Twitter @varshakoduvayur.
Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.