TSG IntelBrief: GCC Summit: Iranian Counter-Moves
May 14, 2015

GCC Summit: Iranian Counter-Moves

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• The primary purpose of the May 13-14 Washington summit between the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman) is to reassure the GCC that the U.S. is committed to containing Iran’s regional influence

• The GCC countries fear that a nuclear deal between Iran and the six negotiating powers (P5+1: United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany) will increase Iran’s capacity to assist its regional allies and proxies such as Lebanese Hizballah, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iraqi Shi’a militias, and the Zaydi Shi’a Houthi rebels in Yemen

• The GCC states perceive the United States as failing to counter Iran’s regional strategy, which is succeeding in some theaters—such as Iraq and Yemen—while faltering somewhat in Syria

• To intimidate the GCC states and show strength to the United States, Iran has sought to assert its naval prowess by harassing some commercial shipping operations in the Gulf.

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In his April 2 announcement that a framework for a comprehensive nuclear agreement between the P5+1 and Iran had been reached, President Obama stated that he had invited the GCC leaders to a summit, which will take place at the White House and at Camp David today and Thursday. The intent of the summit is to reassure GCC leaders that the United States continues to see Iran as exerting “malign influence” in the region—and not as a potential ally—and remains committed to defending the GCC states from that regional threat. The significance of the meeting has been reduced somewhat by the fact that only two of the six GCC heads of state—the rulers of Kuwait and of Qatar—will be attending, although top decision-makers of the other four are to attend.

The summit convenes as Iran, despite negotiating a nuclear deal with the P5+1, expands its influence in the region and exerts force in the waters of the Persian Gulf. The GCC leaders assert that the easing of sanctions that will accompany a nuclear deal will replenish Iran’s financial resources just when Iran’s funds are stretched by regional engagements. A nuclear deal will enable Iran to more than double its exportation of oil, which is capped by sanctions at a relatively low one million barrels per day.

Some of Iran’s regional actions represent an attempt by Iran’s leaders to reassure domestic hardliners that the nuclear compromises Iran is offering will not produce broader Iranian retrenchment. In April, Iran’s naval forces diverted a Marshall Islands-flagged commercial ship transiting the Strait of Hormuz over a purported commercial dispute. The U.S. Navy approached Iran’s coast to investigate the seizure and subsequently accompanied commercial ships transiting the Strait for several days. Iran backed down at the show of U.S. strength, released the ship, and tensions eased as of early May.

Even if Iran’s naval maneuvers failed to intimidate the U.S. Navy, Iran’s regional strategy is succeeding on several fronts, particularly in Iraq and in Yemen. A UN study publicized in May indicates that Iran has provided the Zaydi Shi’a Houthi rebel movement in Yemen with modest quantities of weaponry since 2009. The aid contributed to success of the Houthi offensive that ousted the elected government of Abdu Rabbu Mansur al-Hadi in March. Perceiving the Houthi victories as extending Iranian influence into the Arabian peninsula, Saudi Arabia assembled an Arab coalition that has intervened militarily with airstrikes but has failed to restore Hadi’s presidency. The United States has supported the Saudi-led operation logistically and U.S. deployment of significant naval force off Yemen prevented a large Iranian ship convoy from resupplying the Houthis in April.  However, the United States has not joined the Saudi-led action with direct U.S. military action against the Houthis, who are major opponents of the Yemeni affiliate of al-Qaeda called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

The GCC leaders are similarly frustrated with what they perceive as a U.S. failure to prevent Iran from extending its influence in Iraq. The GCC countries have never fully accepted the accession of Shi’a factions to power in such a key Arab state after Saddam Hussein was overthrown. Yet, in the interests of combating the Islamic State, U.S-led bombing of the group’s strongholds in Iraq has enabled Iraqi government forces and their Iran-trained Shi’a militias allies to advance. The head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, is widely seen on social media on various Iraq fronts advising Iraqi forces and commanding Iraqi Shi’a militia forces, as well as assisting the Kurdish peshmerga militia forces. The Iranian assistance and Iraqi Shi’a militia forces were crucial in the initial stages of the Iraqi government’s recapture of the key Sunni city of Tikrit in April. However, the U.S.-led military help has not prevented the Islamic State from continuing to advance in parts of the overwhelmingly Sunni province of al-Anbar, including its capital Ramadi.

The one regional theater where Iran’s strategy is faltering is Syria, where Iranian military equipment, funds, and advice have been crucial to Assad’s surviving a four-year old armed rebellion. Iran’s aid to Assad, as well as its role in facilitating the direct intervention on Assad’s side by thousands of Lebanese Hizballah fighters, has helped secure the Syria-Lebanon border areas and push rebels further away from central Damascus. These Assad gains are crucial to Iran’s own strategy in Syria, which is to maintain a corridor for arming Hizballah, Israel’s key adversary. However, the far greater financial resources of the GCC states—coupled with the renewed dedication to the Syrian front by Saudi King Salman—are helping Islamist (but not Islamic State) rebels advance in the north and south. Hizballah and other foreign Shi’a recruits do not appear numerous or committed enough to fully bolster the shrinking Syrian Arab Army, the core of which are from Assad’s minority Alawite community (which is only about 12% of the Syrian population). The U.S. and GCC objective—which now appears more obtainable than it has in several years—is to induce Iran to accept a political solution that includes Assad’s departure from power.

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