Gulf Arab Reaction to the Iranian Revolution

From the very beginning, the Gulf Arabs’ reaction to the Islamic Revolution in Iran was a mixture of apprehension and anticipation. On the one hand, the Gulf Arabs, including Saudi Arabia, who resented the Shah’s at times patronizing attitude, were not unhappy about his departure. In fact, some of Saudi Arabia’s policies, especially its willingness to push down the price of oil significantly at the OPEC’s Bali Summit in 1976, caused an economic recession in Iran at a time when people’s expectations had sharply risen. This recession might have contributed to the success of the anti-Shah opposition by generating a broader sense of dissatisfaction among the ordinary people. The principal reason why the Gulf Arabs initially welcomed the Islamic Revolution was that they calculated that, for several years, Iran would be preoccupied with domestic problems related to regime change, and thus it would be forced to curtail its regional role and adopt a lower diplomatic profile. At the same time, however, they were concerned that the fall of the Iranian monarchy could set a bad example and endanger their own monarchical systems. However, because of the following reasons, by and large, the Gulf Arabs welcomed the Islamic Revolution:

  • 1. Iran’s domestic problems following the revolution;
  • 2. Reduction in Iran’s regional role;
  • 3. The expectation that the new regime would return the three disputed Persian Gulf islands—the Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa—which they claim belongs to the UAE;
  • 4. The belief that the elimination of the monarchy in Iran, which had good relations with Israel, would strengthen the Arab side in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Here, it is important to note that, at the time, the Gulf Arabs had not yet developed the understanding and the more cooperative relations that they now have with Israel. Therefore, they considered the shift in Iran’s position regarding Israel as positive; and
  • 5. The expectation that an Islamic and hence less nationalist regime in Iran might accept the change of the historic name of the Persian Gulf to the [Arabian] Gulf or at least compromise on the appellation of [Islamic] Gulf for this body of water.

The Iranian Islamists’ anti-nationalist tendencies, animosity toward Iran’s pre-Islamic culture and traditions, and their hatred of everything associated with the Pahlavi regime, to some degree justified the Gulf Arabs’ expectations. Moreover, even the more nationalist and relatively liberal groups, such as Mehdi Bazargan’s Freedom Movement, and such figures as Iran’s first President, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, and Bazargan’s Foreign Minister, Ibrahim Yazdi, like the Islamists advocated a more modest Iranian role in the Persian Gulf. In fact, a common refrain among all of the anti-Shah opposition was that Iran should not be the Persian Gulf’s gendarme, a position that suited the Gulf Arabs just fine.

However, the Gulf Arab States were soon disabused of such expectations. Despite its pretensions of Islamic universalism and its anti-nationalist tendencies, the Islamic regime proved as sensitive toward Iran’s place and role in the Persian Gulf and even toward its name as the monarchy had been. Moreover, during the first decade of the Revolution, the Islamic regime with its desire to export its revolution beyond its borders, and its dislike of monarchies, in general, and those of the Persian Gulf, in particular, proved a much more serious challenge to these monarchies than the Pahlavi regime had ever been.

Furthermore, by disrupting the regional balance of power and creating the perception of a power vacuum in Iran, the fall of the monarchy encouraged radical Arab governments, including Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, to flex their muscles. The perception of Iran’s weakness, in fact, played a decisive role in Saddam Hussein’s decision to attack it in September 1980. At the time, the Gulf Arabs saw Iran as the greater threat. Nevertheless, Saddam’s regional and Pan-Arab ambitions also were a source of anxiety to them although it lacked the immediacy of Iran’s revolutionary threat. Their concerns were proved to have been justified when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1991.

Meanwhile, the revolution fundamentally altered the ideological underpinnings of Iran’s foreign policy and the worldview of its leaders, and thus added a new source of tension to Iran-Gulf Arab relations. At the same time, the revolution produced a dramatic shift in the character of Iran’s foreign relations and the pattern of its international and regional friendships and enmities. These shifts, too, affected the evolution of Iran’s ties with the Gulf States.

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