Iran and the Persian Gulf
Many elements arguably gave birth to the TERRITORIAL DISPUTES between Iran and the Arabian states. Natural resources, geopolitics, socio-political components, history and many more are just examples. That is because these disputes have local, regional and international issues at stake. As a direct consequence, people may think of Iranians and Arabs being the only parties concerned about (and interested in) a solution.
This is over-simplistic (and over-optimistic, even naïve). There are many powers alien to the dispute with a variety of interests. Moreover, they are more interested in keeping the dispute on a status quo (ongoing) basis than achieving a solution because this situation offers them a better return, a higher payoff (for example, arm trafficking, terrorism, prestige).
The political competition between Iran and the Arab states, particularly Iraq, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the al-Khalifa ruling dynasty of Bahrain, continues to play a major role in regional and wider geopolitics, and specifically in countries such as Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Lebanon, and Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Although today, this competition is often seen as being the result of the conflicting political ambitions of Iran’s Shi’a Islamist government and Saudi Arabia’s officially Salafi/”Wahhabi” Sunni monarchy and official religious establishment, its roots go deeper, and in the modern period, date back to the nineteenth century, well before the 1979 Iranian Revolution and its Islamization by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his supporters.
The reasons for territorial disputes often extends far beyond the specific historic, geographic, and functional details of the territory in dispute. Indeed, territorial disputes often have important emotive and symbolic dimensions that often play a major role in driving them.
Among these is the concern and desire of rulers and governments for “prestige” and power, or the appearance of power, vis-à-vis regional rivals. This was an important factor in Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s foreign policy, for example, as well as that of Iraq during its multiple disputes with Iran over the Shatt al-Arab.
The interest in achieving political prestige is not only an emotive desire, but also has important political aspects — namely the enhancement of national and personal power and influence — which in turn is meant to decrease domestic and external challenges to the ruling government by serving as a means of domestic diversion and regime legitimization.
The territorial disputes between Iran and certain Arab states are also influenced by historical and contemporary political contestations and rivalries over regional influence.
As British imperial power and influence declined in the MENA generally and the Persian Gulf region specifically, Pahlavi Iran sought to fill the vacuum by increasing its own regional political power and influence, which in turn was met by resistance to “foreign Iranian meddling and expansion” by Arab states, particularly those, such as Saudi Arabia, that see themselves as regional hegemons.
The next posts will introduce overviews of the Iranian-Arab disputes over Bahrain, the Greater and Lesser islands of Tunbs, the island of Abu Musa, and the Shatt al-Arab waterway between Iraq and Iran.
Arab-Iranian Rivalry in the Persian Gulf: Territorial Disputes and the Balance of Power in the Middle East
Jorge Emilio Núñez
14th November 2018