Analyzing and forecasting the Gulf Cooperation Council's geopolitical environment

The Potential Impact of Iranian Politics on Future Iran-GCC Relations

By Ali G. Scotten
April 12, 2016

The results of Iran’s February 26, 2016, parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections could prove to be an important turning point in the history of the Islamic Republic. Coming on the heels of the implementation of the nuclear deal, the election served as a referendum in favor of President Hassan Rouhani’s moderating approach to international affairs. What this means for the future of Iran’s relations with its Persian Gulf neighbors depends largely on the durability of the broad-based pro-Rouhani coalition and its ability to maintain the upper hand against hardline factions close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, which prefer to keep Iranians in perpetual confrontation with the U.S. and its regional allies as a means of preserving the fervor of the Islamic revolution.

During the run-up to the Iranian elections, tensions were high between Iran and most of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. In January, hardline Iranian youths had set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran in retaliation for Saudi Arabia’s execution of the dissident Shi’ite cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain responded by severing diplomatic ties with Iran, while Qatar and Kuwait recalled their ambassadors and the UAE downgraded relations with Tehran. Oman was the only GCC member that did not take any diplomatic action against Iran.

The diplomatic spat occurred within a region already rife with sectarianism, fed in large part by the Saudi-Iranian cold war being waged throughout the Middle East. While the conflict is primarily geopolitical in nature — Iran and Saudi Arabia claim the mantle of leadership for the Shi’ite and Sunni communities, respectively — it has led to a hardening of sectarian identity among many of the regional players. This is especially the case with regard to the proxy war being fought in Syria between what many characterize as an Alawite-Shi’ite alliance, led by Iran, fighting against Sunni opposition forces backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. The Saudi war in Yemen also has sectarian overtones, with Riyadh justifying its intervention there as a means of countering the Houthis, whom it has long painted as Iranian proxies due to their Zaydi Shi’ite faith.

Meanwhile, with Iran emerging from years of sanctions, GCC leaders are concerned by what they see as U.S. naiveté regarding Tehran’s regional behavior.

Iranian Foreign Policy Decision Making

To assess the potential impact that the election results could have on Iran’s foreign policy, it is necessary to understand the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy decision-making process. Although Supreme Leader Khamenei is the commander-in-chief and has veto authority over all decisions, he cannot simply dictate the outcome of policy disputes. This is because power in the Islamic Republic is dispersed among numerous factions connected through a multitude of political, familial, economic, and security networks. In order to maintain regime stability and to stay in power, Khamenei has had to balance the factions off of one another while also securing the interests of the most powerful among them.

Therefore, to pursue a consistent foreign policy strategy, Iran must achieve consensus among the various power centers. When this is not the case, Tehran can pursue contradictory ends. For instance, when hardliners became concerned in the early 2000s over the reformist President Mohammad Khatami’s “dialogue of civilizations”, which sought to moderate the Islamic Republic’s relations with the West, Khamenei undermined his efforts by pursuing parallel, hardline foreign policies through defense attachés abroad as well as cultural institutes attached to Iran’s embassies. Indeed, foreign policy disputes in Iran often revolve around factional competition rather than the specifics of the policies themselves. One striking example came in 2009, when reformists opposed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s attempt to pursue a nuclear fuel swap deal, which would have eased tensions with the West, because they did not want the hardline president to benefit from such a landmark deal.

The Supreme Council on National Security (SCNS) serves as the clearinghouse for policy arguments throughout the system, and is the official arena in which elected officials can lobby for their preferred policies. Historically, Khamenei has gone along with most of the SCNS recommendations. Both the president and the speaker of parliament hold permanent seats in the SCNS, alongside the ministers of foreign affairs and intelligence, the judiciary chief, the leaders of the regular military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and a representative of the supreme leader. Therefore, when the heads of the executive and legislative branches are aligned on the same side of an argument – as is currently the case – their voice is amplified. Moreover, during the run-up to the SCNS deliberations, the president and parliament have the capacity to issue public pronouncements, which can serve to shape public opinion and set the conditions within which a decision is made. It is important to note, however, that the IRGC and members of the supreme leader’s personal office are also able to lobby Khamenei directly, providing them with an advantage over the other SCNS members.

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Ali G. Scotten is a Truman National Security Fellow and founder of Scotten Consulting LLC, a company specializing in sociocultural and geopolitical analysis of the Middle East.