Impact of the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War on Bilateral Relations

Whereas the negotiations over the domestic ‘rules of the game’ had absorbed the attention of the rulers of the seven emirates in the 1970s, the decade ended with the Iranian Revolution and the outbreak shortly thereafter of the Iran-Iraq War. These two developments ‘concentrated the minds of UAE decision-makers’ on ‘the external dangers threatening the country’ and, for Heard-Bey, represent a ‘turning-point’ for the subsequent political consolidation of the emergent federation.10 As in other Gulf capitals, ruling elites in Abu Dhabi viewed the Islamic Revolution in Iran as a threat to regional security, especially during its initial phase when Iranian leaders proclaimed their intention to export the revolution. The new Islamic Republic in Teheran rejected the regional status quo and challenged the legitimacy of the regimes in power in the Arab Gulf states. Ayatollah Khomeini himself stated that ‘Islam proclaims monarchy and hereditary succession wrong and invalid’ and argued that ‘the central task of a true Islamic government’ became the abolition of ‘the entire institution of monarchy.’11

The revolutionary upheaval in Iran in 1978 and 1979 carried for the Gulf States ominous overtones of the Iraqi monarchy’s own violent demise in Baghdad two decades earlier. The downfall of a second regional monarchical system ensured that the needs of regime survival and selfpreservation rose to the forefront of policy-makers in this volatile period. Thus, all six12 of the Arab Gulf States reacted to the outbreak of the Iran- Iraq War in September 1980 with varying degrees of support for Iraq. This was rooted in the conviction among rulers that there was no effective alternative approach to dealing with the revolutionary threat to Arab Gulf polities.13 Threats that were seen to operate at the trans-national and the inter-cultural as well as at the traditional inter-state levels thus influenced the Gulf States’ subsequent careful balancing of internal and external policy during the eight years of war that followed.14

In the case of the UAE, this process of cautious engagement began with the hosting of the meeting in Abu Dhabi on 25-26 May 1981 that created the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as a status quo entity intended to shield its member states and societies from trans-national or unconventional spill-over from the warring parties. The concept of a cooperative union had gone through several different stages that extended back to a meeting of the foreign ministers of all eight Gulf States (including Iran and Iraq) in Muscat in 1976. However, both Iraq and Iran were excluded from the regional organization that was launched at the InterContinental Hotel in Abu Dhabi five years later.15 Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla has drawn attention to the rapidity with which the GCC came together in the face of external threat to the regional stability of the Gulf States:

...the typically recalcitrant and normally conservative Arab Gulf states took less than 3 months (February-May 1981) to unanimously agree on the broad ideas and goals of the GCC, approve of its final charter, sign many intricate documents on rules and structures, and hastily announce its formal birth. Such extraordinary speed is practically unheard of in the history of regional integration and is particularly uncharacteristic of the rulers of the six Arab Gulf states whose normal tendency is to procrastinate on a decision with potential ramifications for their sovereignty. ..this speedy implementation of the yet-to-be-refined and comprehended ideas of cooperation only confirms the widely held belief that the GCC was more of a hasty reaction than a calculated initiative.16

While the first Secretary-General of the GCC, Abdullah Bishara, quickly identified Iran’s quest for regional hegemony as constituting the major threat to Gulf stability, two camps nevertheless emerged, with the individual emirates of the UAE falling into both. Their geographical position in the northern Gulf and greater intermixing of Sunni and Shiite communities exposed Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia to a range of material and ideological threats to their security. Attacks (from both sides, Iraq and Iran) on oil infrastructure and commercial shipping passing through the Gulf demonstrated the vulnerability of the northern Gulf States arising from their proximity to the battlefield. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia therefore led the way in providing generous loans, financial assistance, and oil- and non-oil support to Iraq throughout the war, amounting to an estimated US$25 billion from Saudi Arabia alone and an additional US$13.2 billion in non-collectible ‘war relief’ loans from Kuwait.17

Conditions in the southern Gulf lacked the immediate threat to security found in the northern states, both externally and internally, leaving policy-makers freer to balance their limited extension of financial and declaratory (through GCC communiques) support for Iraq with their continuing commercial relations with Iran. Nowhere was this delicate balancing act more in evidence than within the UAE as the leaderships in the seven emirates pursued largely individual approaches to the conflict. While the UAE as a country remained officially neutral, Abu Dhabi, Ras al-Khaimah, Ajman, and Fujairah all sided with Iraq, with Abu Dhabi joining the Saudis and Kuwaitis in contributing financial support to Iraq and Ras al-Khaimah also offering Baghdad the opportunity to establish air bases on its territory. By contrast, Dubai, Sharjah, and Umm al-Qaiwain all gravitated more toward Teheran as they continued trading with Iran throughout the war with Dubai emerging as a key transit hub for war materials destined for Iran, and Sharjah seeking to maintain cordial ties and the agreement to share the oil revenues from Abu Musa. Dubai additionally derived significant benefit from damaged ships calling at the extensive dry-dock repair facilities and associated international shipping services at its major new port of Jebel Ali, which had opened, with fortuitous timing, in 1979, a year before the conflict broke out.18

Together with Oman, the UAE took the lead in calling for diplomatic mediation between Iran and Iraq and in exploring the basis for a settlement to the conflict, particularly after the internationalization of the war following the US reflagging of the Kuwaiti tanker fleet in 1987. The UAE hosted a number of Iranian delegations in 1984 and 1985, which provided an opportunity not only to discuss the war situation but also for

Iranian officials to engage in direct dialogue on sensitive matters. Thus, a delegation headed by Ali Shams Ardakani, the Head of the International Section in the Foreign Ministry in Teheran, visited Abu Dhabi on the first leg of a tour of GCC states in June 1985 to assure them that Iran had not been involved in the assassination attempt against Emir Jabir al- Ahmad Al-Sabah of Kuwait. The following month, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Ali Mohammad Besharati, used a visit to Dubai to express Iran’s willingness to respond to any credible mediation initiative that might be forthcoming. In November 1987, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, traveled to Abu Dhabi to discuss with Sheikh Zayed how United Nations Security Council Resolution 598 (calling for an end to the fighting between Iran and Iraq) could be implemented. At the annual GCC Summit in December 1987, the GCC agreed to negotiate with Iran and delegated the UAE as the mediator, in large part due to its constructive ties with Teheran. This led to the dispatch to Teheran of a UAE representative, Saif Said, contributing one piece to the eventual cessation of hostilities in August 1988.19

Emirati mediation may not have been the sole (or even the most important) contributing factor in bringing the Iran-Iraq War to a close, but it did reflect the UAE’s regional positioning under Sheikh Zayed. Borne in part out of the cautious maneuvering and the search for consensus among the seven constituent emirates of the UAE and, with the passage of time, by his status as an elder statesman, Sheikh Zayed became known for his mediation in regional conflict. His carving of a ‘niche’ for diplomacy predated by over a decade the later Qatari attempt to do the same under Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani and his foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani, in the late-2000s. Other examples of Emirati regional diplomacy came in 1998, when Sheikh Zayed mediated between Qatar and Bahrain in a successful attempt to reduce bilateral tensions over the disputed Hawar islands claimed by both countries, which, remarkably, had only established diplomatic relations the year before, 26 years after becoming independent. Later, in 2003, Sheikh Zayed made a last-ditch and unsuccessful effort to prevent the George W. Bush administration from invading Iraq. At the Arab League Summit in March, the UAE put forward a plan whereby Saddam Hussein would resign and move into exile in the UAE and a gradual transfer of power would occur in Iraq under the supervision of the Arab League and the United Nations.20

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