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Iran-GCC ‘naval alliances’ could put maritime security at risk

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The most likely outcome to anticipate is the establishment of procedural arrangements centered around regulatory agreements and understandings.

The announcement made by Iranian Navy Commander Admiral Shahram Irani stirred up a significant debate regarding the formation of a new naval alliance between the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and Iran. 


The alliance would involve Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Iraq, in addition to Iran. The admiral emphasized the growing consensus among regional nations that security in the area can only be achieved through collaborative efforts and mutual cooperation. A crucial aspect of his statements was the assertion that the region would soon witness the removal of unnecessary foreign forces, allowing the local population to take charge of their own security by utilizing their own military personnel.


In the initial response from the United States, Commander Tim Hawkins, the spokesperson for the US Fifth Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces, criticized Iran’s plan to establish a naval alliance with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, deeming it devoid of logical reasoning. He pointed out that Iran bears the primary responsibility for regional instability and is aiming to form a security alliance to safeguard the waters it threatens.


Furthermore, certain Israeli media reports have expressed apprehension regarding the evolving relations between Iran and the GCC countries, particularly Saudi Arabia. This concern arises at a time when Israel is actively pursuing an agreement to normalize relations with Riyadh.

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Undoubtedly, the Iranian statement has caught observers and experts off guard as the potential implementation of this step signals a major shift in the regional security dynamics. It will undoubtedly have some consequences and implications for the role and influence of the US in the Gulf region. However, before delving into an analysis of a step that has not yet been officially taken, it is important to highlight several key factors that govern and shape regional and international dynamics in the Gulf.

Adherence to foreign policy

Firstly, the GCC countries adhere to a foreign policy that avoids entangling themselves in alliances targeting other regional or international entities. Therefore, in my opinion, it is challenging for any form of maritime security cooperation in the Gulf waters to transform into a full-fledged naval alliance. The closest scenario one can envision in this context is the possibility of reaching an agreement or understanding that precisely defines the rules and roles for the naval forces of the participating parties within a specific arrangement.


The primary objective of that is to prevent the recurrence of incidents where Iranian naval forces frequently detain ships and boats in the Gulf waters, often with the clear intention of conveying specific messages – some of which challenge the presence of American naval forces in the region. 


Consequently, the most likely outcome to anticipate is the establishment of procedural arrangements centered around regulatory agreements and understandings, rather than a formal alliance as declared by Iran.


The second point to consider is that the GCC countries are fully aware that entering into a security “alliance” with Iran carries the risk of straining their relationship with the US. This tension could arise either due to their direct involvement in such an alliance or because it is universally recognized that any naval force associated with this “alliance” might end up engaging in clashes or maritime confrontations with the US forces stationed in the area. This would adversely impact the relationship between the GCC countries and their American ally.


THE THIRD aspect to consider is that the GCC countries are well aware that Iran’s strategic objective – since the inception of the Khomeini revolution in 1979 – has been to remove or expel foreign forces (specifically referring to US forces) from the Gulf waters. They also recognize that Iran seeks to achieve this objective by establishing a regional security alliance that undermines key justifications for the American presence in the region.


Given the current foreign policy orientations of the GCC countries, it is hard to assert that these nations’ capitals share the same goal as Tehran – even in light of the existing challenges faced by their alliances with Washington.


Furthermore, it contradicts these countries’ inclination to avoid joining alliances that would undermine their strategic interests, including the interests of certain countries with regard to Israel. These interests should not be disregarded, particularly in the event of a significant political breakthrough in addressing the Palestinian issue and achieving a political resolution.


The sixth aspect to consider is that Iran is primarily concerned about preventing the signing of any security cooperation agreements between Israel and certain GCC countries, particularly in formulations that could potentially lead to an Israeli presence in the Gulf waters. 


Hence, such statements highlight Iran’s efforts to create distance between the GCC countries and Israel and to thwart any preemptive discussions regarding security collaboration between the two parties.


For some time now, there have been speculations and media reports about the formation of a Gulf-Israeli alliance aimed at countering Iran’s nuclear ambitions. However, as the days pass, these reports have yet to be substantiated, further emphasizing the GCC countries’ determination to refrain from participating in any alliance that targets another regional party.

I believe that this situation is no different. The policies of the GCC countries remain unchanged, and Iranian behavior has not transformed in a manner that justifies accepting and embracing the statements made by the Iranian official.


This raises the question: Why haven’t the GCC countries refuted the Iranian statements if they are untrue or inaccurate? The simple answer is that these statements actually serve the interests of the GCC countries. They send a message to their hesitant American ally, who has failed to fulfill its role and commitments in the Gulf, that the continuation of this policy necessitates seeking alternative options.


Lastly, considering the US’s intention and commitment to avoiding military escalation with Iranian naval forces in the Gulf, it seems probable that the GCC countries will pursue arrangements and understandings to safeguard their ships and naval assets from occasional targeting and detention incidents carried out by Iran.


Specific measures and procedures may be agreed upon as a display of joint cooperation. Some anticipate that this could potentially escalate to the extent of conducting joint naval exercises – although, in my opinion, this is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future. 


However, none of these arrangements are likely to evolve into the declaration of a comprehensive maritime security alliance across the Gulf.