The Impact of International Political System

The foregoing has already demonstrated how since the dawn of the Modern Era and the revolution in maritime communications leading to increasing presence of extra-regional, notably European powers, in the Persian Gulf, Iran’s position in the region has been largely determined by the dynamics of international politics and the character of the international political system and their impact on regional sub-systems. This reality has meant that the character of Iran’s and the Gulf Arab States’ relations with the dominant international actors has also largely determined the state of their relations irrespective of other factors, including ethnic and sectarian divisions. Between 1945 and 1991, this meant the US and the USSR, and since 1992 the US, with Europe, Russia and China playing secondary roles.

Iran-Gulf Relations During the Monarchy

Until the Post-Second World War period, Iran’s relations with the current Gulf States were subsumed under its relations with the Ottoman Empire and the British government, because the current states were under either the Ottoman or British rule. Moreover, until the establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925-1926, Iran’ s control over its own southern shores was rather tenuous, as Britain through influence over tribal groups and by using its paramilitary “South Persia Rifles” severely undermined the ability of Iran’s central government to extend its writ to the region.

The first official relationship that Iran established with a Gulf state was with Saudi Arabia. Iran did so even before the official creation of Saudi Arabia in 1932. However, because of sectarian differences, especially the anti-Shia Wahhabi beliefs of the Kingdom’s new founders, and both countries’ domestic priorities bilateral relations remained limited, albeit non-hostile.

By the 1950s, socialist inspired revolutions in Egypt and Iraq, the rise of Arab Socialism and nationalism, and the growing influence of the USSR in the Arab World brought Iran and Saudi Arabia closer. However, their fundamental differences and their latent rivalry for regional influence remained unchanged. Throughout the 1960s and the early 1970s, Iran and Saudi Arabia cooperated in order to check the influence Arab radicals and other pro-Communist forces. Thus, they cooperated in Yemen in support of the Imamate, which was challenged by the Nasserite officers, and together with Tunisia, they worked for Islamic unity as a counter to Arab Socialism; their efforts culminated in the foundation of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

The British withdrawal from the East of Suez in 1968, and the unwillingness of the Nixon Administration to fill the vacuum left by the British departure, unleashed a competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia as the most influential regional player. This development, coupled with Saudi Arabia’s growing wealth and with its regional ambitions, sowed the seeds of its competition with Iran not only in the Persian Gulf but also in South Asia. By 1968, Saudi Arabia was competing with Iran in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The two countries’ interests further diverged over oil prices and production levels, and Saudi Arabia grew increasingly suspicious of Iran’s efforts to upgrade its defense forces, although this was justified by the fact that the USSR was arming the Ba’athist Iraq to the teeth, and was also posing a potential threat to Iran along its northern frontiers.

Furthermore, Iran and Saudi Arabia came to compete for America’s affection and to some degree or the position of its favorite ally in the region. The Saudis used the Shah’s hawkishness on oil prices to his detriment with the Americans. This led some American officials, such as the Nixon Administration’s Secretary of Treasury, William Simon, to call the Shah a jerk. It might also have contributed to the Carter Administration’s coming to see the Shah more as a liability than an asset. Let us not forget that in the late 1970s no one thought that the Shah’s departure would result in the kind of government that was finally established in Iran. They only thought that a republican and more pliable version of the monarchy would emerge in Iran following the Shah’s departure.

Even Iran’s relinquishing of its historic claim to Bahrain, as part of the overall settlement in the region which allowed Iran’s taking possession of the three Persian Gulf islands and thus allowed the formation of the UAE, did not satisfy Saudi Arabia. The Shah’s policy in dealing with the issue of Bahrain and the three islands was extremely inept. By relinquishing its claim to Bahrain without getting a clear decision on the islands from Britain, Iran created the current problem. After all, Iran’s dispute over the ownership of the islands was with Britain and not with individual Sheikdoms which form the UAE. Since then the islands have become a battle cry for all Arabs and not just the Gulf States. Even Iran’s closest

Arab allies like Assads—Hafiz and Bashar—of Syria and the post-Saddam Iraqi government support the UAE’s claim to the islands.

Meanwhile, Iran’s relations with Kuwait after it became independent in 1962 were basically good, despite pressures from Iraq, Egypt and the Palestinian groups on the Kuwaiti government to limit its ties to Iran. Nevertheless, their pressures meant that economic and other relations between the two states did not fully develop. During the 1970s, Iran’s relations with the UAE, despite the islands issue, and even with Bahrain were relatively good. This might have been because the UAE was still a new and inexperienced state finding its way in international and regional politics.

Iran’s best relations at this time were with Oman. There, Iran played a pivotal role in helping to defeat the Dhofari rebels, which were threatening the Sultanate, although there was considerable domestic opposition to these operations. The Shah’s opponents portrayed this act as sign of his imperialism and his wasting of national treasure and Iranian blood in order to satisfy his own megalomania.

In short, the determining factors in Iran’s relations with the Gulf States during the monarchy were the nature of international and regional politics, the degree of foreign presence in the region, the character of intra-Arab politics and rivalries, and the evolving politics and ambitions of regional states, especially Saudi Arabia.18 In particular, because despite some emerging tensions in Iran’s relations with the US, both Iran and the Gulf Arab States within the West’s orbit of influence their disagreements and rivalries were somewhat contained.

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