April 8, 2010 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 603

Reactions in the Gulf to Tension over Iranian Nuclear Issue

April 8, 2010 | By L. Barkan*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 603

In late January 2010, as the U.S. media was reporting on the background to the tension between Iran and the West over Iran's nuclear issue and on U.S. attempts to draw up sanctions to be implemented against Iran, the U.S. was stepping up its deployment of defense systems in the Gulf region – including Patriot missile batteries, warships, and fighter planes.

In response, Iran sent some threatening messages and other reassuring ones. Iranian Ambassador to Qatar Abdollah Sohrabi warned the Gulf against allowing the U.S. to attack Iran from their territory, saying that "when there is war, no one knows who is attacking whom, and the fire scorches everyone in its path."[1] Likewise, the conservative Iranian daily Qods warned that if attacked, Iran would immediately strike the Gulf states, and not only the U.S. forces on their soil – and that the results of this attack would be unbearable for these states. [2]

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad likewise warned the Gulf states about the U.S. presence in the region.[3] However, on other occasions he said that the deployment of defense systems by the U.S. was a routine matter that did not bother Iran, because no country dared attack it.[4] Iranian Ambassador to Kuwait Ali Jannati also took a reassuring line, making it clear that Iran had no intention of attacking the Gulf states.[5]

Official Reaction of the Gulf States: Reinforcing Inter-Gulf Cooperation and Activity vis-à-vis Iran

The Gulf states did not hide their apprehension at the possibility of a military conflict, and acted in two main directions. They sought to strengthen cooperation among themselves – for example, on March 2, 2010, they declared that security cooperation was being stepped up and joint armored forces were being strengthened, and that joint naval forces would be established.[6]

At the same time, they engaged in diplomatic activity vis-à-vis Iran in accordance with that of the Western countries; on March 9, they declared that they were working to persuade Iran to cooperate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency, but that if their efforts failed, they would act to impose sanctions on Iran.[7]

It should be noted that the Gulf states have chosen almost overwhelmingly to ignore the news about the deployment of defense systems in the U.S. bases in their countries; isolated responses were heard from Bahrain, whose foreign minister, Khalid bin Ahmad, clarified that the missile deployment was strictly a defensive move that threatened no one.[8]

Alongside the joint Gulf activity, individual countries also held contacts with Iran that sometimes seemed not in synch with official Gulf activity. The most prominent of these countries was Qatar; it expressed its full confidence in the peaceful intent of Iran's nuclear program, and moved towards closer relations with it via a security cooperation agreement and reciprocal diplomatic and security visits.[9]

Also, Iran stated that it had signed nonaggression pacts with three Gulf countries – Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait. While elements in Kuwait hastened to deny this, they stressed that Kuwait was adhering to the principle of not serving as a platform to attack neighboring countries.[10]

While the official Gulf position is in accordance with the West's stance in all things concerning Iran's nuclear issue – i.e. diplomatic activity and support for sanctions when necessary – the Gulf media has been singing a different, and more aggressive, tune. Publicists and columnists have expressed fears of an upcoming war and of Iran's nuclear aspirations, and have proposed ways of dealing with the situation. The discussion has centered on the question of cooperation with the U.S. – whether the Gulf countries should prepare to defend themselves against Iran by cooperating with the U.S., or to abandon the alliance with the West and form a uniform Gulf front against Iran.

Following is a summary of reactions, as they appeared in the Gulf press:

I. Apprehensions about Iran's Nuclear Program

Al-Arabiya Director: An Iranian Bomb Will Help Iran Take Over the Region

'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, director-general of the Saudi Al-Arabiya network, wrote in the Saudi London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that nuclear weapons in Iran's hands would help it take over the region: "We are not afraid of an Iranian bomb. This weapon will not be put to military use; it will be used as a way to change the rules of the game.

"What we are afraid of is Iran's policy, that uses all means to force its existence [as a regional power], and nuclear weapons is only [one of these] means. If Saddam [Hussein] had had a nuclear bomb when he invaded Kuwait, it would have remained occupied to this day, because the superpowers would not have risked war with a state with nuclear weapons. If [a nuclear] Iran tomorrow takes over Bahrain – something that is altogether possible – or if its militias take over southern Iraq, no superpower will dare to use military means to stop it. The international community will [only] have the options of conducting negotiations and bargaining with Iran, or of implementing economic sanctions against it – [tactics] that everyone knows never deterred any occupier in the past, and will certainly not deter Iran...

"We fear the logic of the current regime in Tehran, which spent the country's funds on Hizbullah, Hamas, the extremist movements in Bahrain, Iraq and Yemen, and the Muslim Brotherhood, and supported every extremist in the region. The Ahmadinejad regime aspires to expansion, hegemony, and a clear takeover on the ground, and to do this he needs a nuclear umbrella to protect him from deterrence by [any] superpower.

"The Gulf states, that built giant cities and factories all along the coast, will, when Iran possesses nuclear weapons, become hostage to the caprices of Ahmadinejad and his extremist government...

"The region cannot be left to the test of reality. When we find out that the reality is painful, we will have already missed the chance [to change it]."[11]

Editor of Kuwaiti Daily: Imperialist Iran – An Existential Threat to the Gulf

Ahmad Al-Jarallah, editor of the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa, explained that Iran's efforts to obtain nuclear weapons threatened the existence of the Gulf states, and called on the international community to curb these efforts: "...Iran thundered about the deployment of the missile defense system in some Arab Gulf countries as a precaution to any unexpected instance; at the same time, it announced that this system did not threaten it, and that it knows how to jam it. If so, why did it thunder?...

"The Iranian arrogance rejects any opposition to building nuclear reactors near the borders of these states, and poses an existential and environmental danger for them... The entire region has become hostage to fears of [possible] rash actions by Iran that could cause nuclear catastrophes that neither Iran nor the world will be able to bear. After all, examples of such catastrophes, some of which were the result of unexpected events, are still etched in memory, and the world continues to pay for them."

Al-Jarallah compared Iran's actions to those of Saddam Hussein, saying: "The current Iranian position is reminiscent of the stands taken by Saddam, particularly in all things concerning his [threat to] burn half of Israel with chemical [weapons]... We have seen how this murderer's life ended on the gallows... Now the Iranian symphony is playing the same tune, and carrying out deceptive political maneuvers that could lead to disasters – which [Iran] is preparing without even a minimal sense of human responsibility.

"Clearly, the political path taken by the Tehran regime is controlled by imperialist aspirations; this inspires much fear. [This is worrying] not only due to [Iran's] support for several extremist groups of various kinds, but also due to the nuclear issue and the real intentions that the Iranian leadership is concealing. This evasion and deception hint that Iran is not interested in a reactor for peaceful purposes but aspires to produce nuclear weapons with the aim of becoming the new empire in the region...

"Now more than ever, the entire international community must stop Iran's rashness and bring it back to the right path – particularly in light of the obvious signs of the beginning of a nuclear arms race in the region. Beyond the economic cost, this race will affect all areas of life, and will drown the region in a quagmire of chaos and [evoke] reactions that none can predict."[12]

Kuwaiti Columnist: Iran Is Warmongering

Kuwaiti columnist Mutlaq Musa'id Al-'Ajmi explained that the U.S. bases in the Gulf had never posed a threat to Iran, but that nevertheless Iran is amassing arms in order to attack them and the Gulf states: "We are under direct threat by Iran, and [we are] within the range of its missiles. I do not believe that Iran is designating its missiles [for targets] beyond the Gulf. [Iran] claims that the Western military bases in the Gulf states – and now also Iraq – pose a threat to its security. But these bases have existed for a long time, and the Islamic Revolution in Iran has coexisted with them for 30 years, without them causing it any harm... These bases are there in order to strengthen the security and stability of the Gulf region, and to ensure the flow of oil, especially since this region is situated within the burning Middle East, whose fires Iran is fanning and stoking... [For their part], the Gulf states have always made sure not to threaten Iran from their territories..."

II. The Gulf States Must Defend Themselves While Cooperating with the U.S.

In the same article, Al-'Ajmi justified the deployment of defense systems, writing: "The deployment of a U.S. defense shield in the Gulf is intended to reassure the countries in the region, and to deter Iran, not to threaten it or attack it. It is also intended to reassure Israel, which is threatening to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. These goals are consistent with the interest of regional stability, including stability in Iran, and they achieve the balance and the calm necessary [in order to reach] a solution to the problems of the Middle East. If Iran views this as igniting an arms race in the region, it should know that it was [Iran itself], not the Gulf states, that started the race and got onto the racecourse before anyone else!"[13]

Kuwaiti MP: The Gulf's Military Development Is Strictly Defensive

Kuwaiti MP Ma'suma Al-Mubarak was of a similar opinion; in the Qatari daily Al-Watan, she wondered at Iran's response to the strengthening of the Gulf defense systems: "In light of U.S. and Israeli threats against Iran, the Gulf states must develop their own security systems, so as not to become caught in the vise [created by] the U.S. and Iran. Therefore, these countries have declared their intention to develop their own military capabilities, particularly their bases' Patriot missile systems, as a precautionary means against any development or military confrontation that would have consequences for the countries in the region, as has happened under previous circumstances...

"However, the Islamic Republic's response to the announcement of the development of special defense [systems] in the GCC countries – that is, that this development was aimed against Iran, its sovereignty, and its stability – was surprising and unrealistic, because all the Gulf countries had clarified that they were acting for the sake of calm, and calling for self-restraint, and that their lands had not and would never be used as a launching pad for missiles directed against Iran..."[14]

Saudi Daily: The Gulf States Must Prepare for War

In an editorial, the Saudi daily Al-Jazirah criticized Iran over its provoking of the international community, and clarified that the Gulf states must plan for a possible war: "...In our region, or to be more precise, in the Arab Gulf region, the Iranian regime is not stopping its provocation of the international community, or to be more precise, of the five great powers and the industrialized and influential countries. Iran has focused the enmity of these countries on it, to an extraordinary degree. They hastened to respond to its provocation and sent forces and warships to fill the Gulf with all the elements of war and destruction, threatening the Gulf states and their residents. This is the result of the power madness of the Tehran regime – which is insignificant next to the forces that it is provoking.

"The Arab Gulf states found themselves between two evils – the provocation and the response to it. Each of the sides is gathering its forces and getting equipment ready for a duel that will certainly harm the Arab Gulf states – particularly in light of the proliferation of threats [by Iran] to strike at Western interests in the region.

"Preparations [for the duel] have been stepped up, as warning signs of a new war about to break out in the region proliferate. This means that the Gulf countries must plan, and their governments must prepare, so as to protect the people and repel any attack on their soil.

"Therefore, all the Arab Gulf countries are hastening – and a good thing too – to complete the efforts for effective self defense, as manifested in the deployment of batteries of interception missiles (Patriot), and additional military equipment that defends the Gulf states' land, air, and sea. These measures are purely defensive and legitimate, in order to defend the sovereignty and security of the Gulf states, which are not party to a conflict in which even the victor has nothing to gain. These measures must not worry Iran or anyone else."[15]

Qatari Liberal: No Choice But to Cooperate With U.S.

Qatari cleric and liberal journalist 'Abd Al-Hamid Al-Ansari referred to statements made by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her February 2010 visit to the Gulf, regarding the Gulf states' options. He called for cooperating with the U.S., even though, he said, Iran's nuclear program cannot be stopped: "If Iran obtains nuclear [weapons] it will not use them against Israel or against us... On the one hand, [it] will exploit its possession of them in order to take over the Gulf and to dictate to us; at the same time, it is likely to push the countries of the region into a nuclear arms race...

"Iran's nuclear program threatens not only the Gulf but also national Arab security – after Israel, of course, which is the greatest danger – and whoever does not see this must uncover his eyes and [start] worrying...

"The American administration has reached a dead end, and there is no reasonable chance for war because America is at a political, economic, and military ebb. If Bush the fighter did not launch [a war], his peace-seeking successor [certainly] cannot be expected to do so – not to mention that that the countries of the region reject a military solution for fear of harming their interests.

"Economic sanctions will not prevent Iran from moving ahead with its [nuclear] program... It will continue on its way to becoming a nuclear state – whether we want it or not – and we must prepare to coexist with it. Nothing is left for us but to pray [to Allah] the Supreme, the Omnipotent, to protect the Gulf from nuclear dangers.

"Clinton presented [us with] three options: submit to the Iranian threat, act to build our [own] nuclear capabilities, or ally with the U.S. to defend ourselves. It seems that we have no choice but the third option, Allah help us."[16]

III. The Gulf States Should Abandon Alliance with U.S., Form United Front

A different opinion was voiced by Kuwaiti columnists who called to stop the cooperation with the U.S. Columnist Ibrahim Al-Hadban called to stop purchasing American weapons because they will not help to defend the Gulf: "...The Gulf must prepare for many conspiracies and upheavals that the Americans and Zionists will cause, especially if they attack Iran and expose us to retaliation on its part. We must stop purchasing American weapons. [These weapons] will not help us anyway in case of a confrontation between the U.S. and Iran, for we are within the range of Iran's missiles, and Iran can destroy us with its conventional and chemical weapons, without needing nuclear weapons."[17]

Columnist Mash'al Al-Nami wrote that the West was collaborating with Iran out of its own interests, and that the Gulf states should therefore stop cooperating with the U.S. and form a united front in order to pressure Iran. "...Iran's ongoing effort to obtain nuclear weapons is fueled by Western aspirations, or rather by American ones – because a nuclear Iran will prompt the Gulf states to seek America's approval by any means, in order to obtain its protection...

"Iran is disregarding the Gulf states because they are not making serious efforts to prevent it from spreading its influence throughout the countries of the region... The Gulf states can cause [Iran] to change its plans if they stand united and reach a mutual understanding regarding [their] relations with Iran – something that is currently not happening. At present, one Gulf state is engaged in a heated media war with Iran, while the head of another Gulf state is exchanging mutual friendly visits with Iran...

"After [the Gulf states] reach a mutual understanding, they will be able to consolidate their [status] in the region by pressuring Iran [and threatening it] with their weapons. They will also be able to hobble Iran, first by banning Iranian imports – which will economically burden the Iranian regime – and later on by stopping the import of labor from Iran.

"In the second phase, the pressure on Iran will be intensified by means of expelling [its] intelligence elements deployed in the region, and at the same time cultivating and supporting the [groups] struggling against the Iranian [regime], such as [those in] Baluchistan and Ahwaz, in response to Iran's blunt intervention in the internal affairs of many countries in the region...

"The Gulf states must create for themselves a foothold in the heart of the current struggle over the spread of influence in the Gulf region. If they continue to ignore the problem that is directly harming their security, American control of the region will be stronger than it was after the war to liberate Kuwait – and then regret will be useless."[18]

*L. Barkan is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Al-Watan (Qatar), February 1, 2010.

[2] Qods (Iran), February 21, 2010.

[3] Al-Arab (Qatar), March 12, 2010.

[4] Fararu (Iran), February 3, 2010.

[5] Al-Rai (Kuwait), February 9, 2010.

[6] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), March 3, 2010.

[7] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 10, 2010

[8], February 4, 2010.

[9] Al-Watan (Qatar), March 10, 2010.

[10] Al-Rai (Kuwait), March 6, 2010;, March 5, 2010.

[11] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 21, 2010.

[12] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), February 7, 2010.

[13] Awan (Kuwait), February 2, 2010.

[14] Al-Watan (Qatar), February 8, 2010.

[15] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), February 5, 2010.

[16] Al-Watan (Qatar), February 22, 2010.

[17] Al-Rai (Kuwait), February 3, 2010.

[18] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), February 16, 2010.

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