Fifth Columns in the Gulf?


May 24, 2010

This commentary originally appeared on on May 24, 2010.

The discovery in Kuwait earlier this month of an alleged spy cell working for Iran's Revolutionary Guards has sent tremors throughout the Gulf, raising fears of Iranian meddling in the region's domestic affairs to near hysteria. At the GCC summit in Riyadh following the incident, Gulf leaders quietly deferred to Kuwait to handle the incident. But in the Gulf and pan-Arab press, the Arabian Peninsula is widely portrayed as under siege by a network of Iranian subversives and local proxies, stretching from north Yemen to Dubai to Manama. Comparisons to Iran's revolutionary adventurism in the 1980s abound.

While the full extent of Iran's current clandestine influence remains murky, the "proxy narrative" is instructive more for what it reveals about Gulf insecurities—both domestic and regional—than any truths about Iran's capabilities or intentions. And perhaps more importantly, it shows that the Iranian threat to the Gulf—while certainly potent in terms of naval warfare and ballistic missiles—is ultimately ideological, symbolic, asymmetric, and not easily contained with conventional arms.

During our recent travel in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, we found that many of these fears are closely related to the impending U.S. pull-out from Iraq and the belief that the resulting vacuum will empower Iran to maneuver more freely in Gulf affairs. Even with U.S. forces still in Iraq, regional leaders have grown increasingly alarmed over Iran's influence and reach since the removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003, which regional actors perceive as upsetting the regional balance of power. Even though Iraq's ability to balance Iranian influence during the 15 years before the 2003 invasion was always doubtful, the demise of a once powerful Sunni-led Arab state and its replacement with a Shi'a dominated government with longstanding ties to Iran has had a dramatic psychological impact. What is particularly troubling to Arab leaders is that Iran's influence has not only increased in its near abroad (Iraq), but also is believed to stretch across the broader region to the "shores of the Mediterranean," as one former Egyptian diplomat told us. In conversations with Gulf leaders we found a good deal of resignation that Iraq had effectively "fallen" to Iran, leading some to focus instead on Yemen, Lebanon, and Gaza as more hopeful arenas to roll back Iranian influence.

The reality of Iranian power is actually far more limited than such perceptions suggest. For one thing, Iran's weak conventional military and political and economic unrest at home limit its ability to project influence. Iran's 2009 presidential election and subsequent domestic turmoil may have also provided an internal distraction from Tehran's regional agenda and tarnished Iran's rejectionist luster among Arab publics. Moreover, Iran faces pushback even from its staunchest allies in Iraq and certainly from its other state and non-state allies, which are pursuing local agendas not entirely aligned with Iranian interests.

Nonetheless, perceptions often drive policy in the Middle East, and Arab fears of Iran are compounded by the perceived erosion of U.S. power—a perception little changed by U.S. military successes in Iraq after the surge and al-Anbar Awakening. Added to this is the growing disappointment with the Obama administration's peace process diplomacy, which is viewed as critical in undermining Iranian influence. In the UAE and Saudi Arabia, there was widespread consternation about the lack of viable levers against Iran; officials opposed military action as destabilizing to the broader region, yet also criticized sanctions as ineffective. At the same time, they view U.S. engagement efforts with Iran suspiciously, fearing the United States will cut a deal with Tehran at the expense of Arab partners—but then are at a loss when pressed to suggest alternatives. One member of the Saudi royalty opined that it was simply a matter of waiting for generational change in Iran. "After all," he said, "it took us 50 years to defeat the Soviet Union." The result is that Gulf regimes are engaged in a careful balancing act that avoids antagonizing Iran even while accepting a steady supply of U.S. military assistance.

Given their paralysis on external policy, the Gulf states have turned inward, seeing the hidden hand of Iran behind a broad spectrum of local dissent, political opposition, and insurgency. Whether justified or not, the climate of fear has had a toxic effect on domestic politics, particularly with regard to the integration of local Shi'a and political reform more broadly. It has provided grist to hard-line voices, particularly in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, who oppose concessions to Shi'a identity and who have used the specter of Iranian influence to cast doubt on the nationalist bona fides of local Shi'a. In Bahrain, for example, Salafi parliamentarians recently attacked the main Shi'a bloc for clandestinely supporting the Huthis of Yemen and being agents of Iran. In Saudi Arabia, this atmosphere has put the Shi'a community on the defensive; forcing Shi'a leaders once again "prove" their loyalty to kingdom and fend off accusations about their divided loyalties.

The domestic and regional political reverberations from the Iraq War are likely to affect perceptions of Iran's ascendancy for years to come. While U.S. policymakers are understandably focused on the nuclear challenge, the regional alarm over Iran is often much more closely linked to Iran's political and ideological agenda. Missile defense and arms sales may be a critical element of preparing for a future with a nuclear-armed Iran, but the most effective way to contain Iranian influence may be on the political, not military, battlefield. Movement on Arab-Israeli peace, preventing failed states and encouraging better governance may prove more successful in diminishing both Iranian penetration and the ability of Arab regimes to exploit the specter of Iran for domestic, parochial purposes.

Frederic M. Wehrey is a senior policy analyst and Dalia Dassa Kaye is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. They are co-authors of The Iraq Effect: The Middle East After the Iraq War.

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