Relations with Regional Powers

Relations with Regional Powers

Although the shah had been unpopular among the rulers of the six states on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf, the Revolution in Iran, nevertheless, was a shock to them. Iran under the shah had been the main guarantor of political stability in the region. Under the Republic, Iran was promising to be the primary promoter of revolution. All six countries--Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)--were ruled by hereditary monarchs who naturally feared the new rhetoric from Tehran. Indeed, during the first year following the Revolution, throughout the Gulf region numerous acts of political sabotage and violence occurred, claiming inspiration from the Iranian example. The most sensational of these was the assault by Muslim dissidents on the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Other clashes occurred between groups of local Shias and security forces in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain.

The outbreak of war between Iran and Iraq further alarmed the Persian Gulf Arab states. In 1981 they joined together in a collective defense alliance known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Although the GCC announced its neutrality with respect to the Iran-Iraq War, Iran perceived its formation as part of the Iraqi war effort and generally was hostile toward it. The GCC for its part suspected Iran of supporting antigovernment groups throughout the Persian Gulf. These concerns were heightened in December 1981, when authorities in Bahrain announced the discovery of a clandestine group that had plans to carry out sabotage and terrorist acts as part of an effort to overthrow the government; several of the plotters had links to Iranian clerics. In December 1983, a series of bombings occurred in Kuwait, including incidents at the American and French embassies; the Arab nationals who were captured and charged with these acts of terrorism were members of an Iraqi Shia movement, Ad Dawah, that was headquartered in Tehran. In May 1985, a suicide driver unsuccessfully tried to kill the ruler of Kuwait.

Despite GCC suspicions of Iranian involvement in subversive activities, until 1987 more cooperation than confrontation was found between Iran and the GCC members. In general, Iran avoided dealing with the GCC as an entity, preferring to ignore its existence and to treat each country separately. Iran's relations with the six component states varied from friendliness to hostility. For example, Iran and the UAE maintained relatively cordial relations. The political ties between the two countries were reinforced by economic ties. An Iranian mercantile community in the UAE was concentrated in Dubayy, a city that emerged--following the destruction of Khorramshahr--as an important transit center where international goods destined for Iran were offloaded into smaller boats capable of entering small Iranian fishing towns that served as ports of entry despite their lack of docking facilities. In Bahrain, where the ruling family was Sunni Muslim and a majority of the population was Shia, lingering suspicions of Iranian intentions did not inhibit the government from improving diplomatic relations with Tehran. Because there were no outstanding issues between Iran and Qatar, relations between them were generally correct.

Iran's relations with the other three GCC members--Kuwait, Oman, and Saudi Arabia--have been more complex and, throughout the early and mid-1980s, have been characterized by alternating periods of tension and mutual accommodation. For example, immediately after the Revolution, Iranian propaganda singled out the sultan of Oman as an example of the kind of "un-Islamic tyrant" who should be overthrown. This hostility sprang from the revolutionaries' perception of the Omani ruler as having been a close friend of the shah. Iran's view had developed in the 1970s when the shah sent military assistance, including an Iranian military contingent, to help the sultan crush a long-term rebellion. More significant, however, the Iranian leaders regarded the sultan as subservient to the United States. They denounced his policies of supporting the Camp David accords, providing facilities for American air crews who attempted the unsuccessful rescue of the hostages in April 1980, signing an agreement for American military use of the air base on Masirah Island, and discussing with the United States construction of an airfield on the Musandam Peninsula overlooking the Strait of Hormuz. Oman generally refrained from responding to Iranian charges and consequently avoided an escalation of the verbal barrages. Despite the many areas of friction, tensions between Iran and Oman gradually abated after 1981. The movement toward more correct diplomatic relations culminated in 1987 with a state visit of the Omani foreign minister to Iran. Iran's relations with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were strained because both of these countries provided major financial support to Iraq after the Iran-Iraq War began. In addition, Iran accused them of providing logistical assistance for Iraqi bombing raids on Iranian oil installations. For their part, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait believed that Iran supported subversive activities among their Shia minorities. They also resented Iranian attacks on their shipping. Saudi Arabia annually confronted embarrassing incidents during the pilgrimage season when Iranians tried to stage political demonstrations. Nevertheless, both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait made efforts to seek a rapprochement with Iran in 1985 and 1986. The Saudi efforts were more successful and resulted in an exchange of visits of the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers in 1985. The Saudis and Iranians also began to cooperate in some areas of mutual interest, such as international oil policy. In contrast, relations between Kuwait and Iran did not improve significantly. In the fall of 1986, Iran began to single out Kuwait's ships for retaliatory attacks, and this led to a worsening of diplomatic relations.

Political tensions between Tehran and Kuwait increased significantly after the United States agreed to reflag Kuwaiti oil tankers. Iran accused Kuwait and its neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia, of being mere puppets of the "Great Satan." During the pilgrimage to Mecca in the summer of 1987, Iran encouraged the pilgrims--150,000 of whom had come from Iran--to demonstrate against the United States and the corrupt rulers of the Gulf. More than 400 pilgrims, including at least 300 Iranians, were killed in a stampede in Mecca when Saudi security forces attempted to break up a demonstration.

Turkey, Pakistan, and Afghanistan

Relations with Turkey and Pakistan since the Revolution generally have been amicable and without any major issues. Before the Revolution, Iran had joined both countries in a defensive alliance (that included Britain with the United States as an observer), the Central Treaty Organization, and in an economic agreement, the Regional Cooperation for Development. Iran withdrew from both agreements after the Revolution. Nevertheless, Iran's economic ties with Pakistan and Turkey have expanded significantly. Both countries have become important trade partners of Iran. Turkey also has become the major transit route for goods traveling by truck and rail between Europe and Iran. The increased volume of trade with Turkey and Pakistan has been facilitated both by their location and by the ideology of "neither East nor West," which advocates reducing imports from the industrialized nations in favor of importing more from Muslim and Third World countries.

Although Iran maintained diplomatic relations with Afghanistan in 1987, Iran was critical of both the Marxist-Leninist government in Kabul and the presence of Soviet troops in the country. Although distrustful of the ideologies of most groups, Iran's leaders generally supported the cause of the Afghan resistance. Iran provided financial and limited military assistance to those Afghan resistance forces whose leaders had pledged loyalty to the Iranian vision of Islamic revolution. Iran also hosted about 2.3 million refugees who had fled Afghanistan.

Israel and the Non-Gulf Arab States

Prior to the Revolution, Iran and Israel had been de facto allies in the Middle East. One of the very first acts of the provisional government was to denounce that relationship and to turn over the former Israeli mission in Tehran to the Palestine Liberation Organization. All trade with Israel was banned, especially the sale of oil. Iranian leaders contended that Israel's existence was illegitimate, because it came about as a result of the destruction of Palestine. Therefore, Iran advocated eradicating Israel and reconstituting Palestine. Those Arabs who advocated compromise with Israel, such as Anwar as Sadat of Egypt, were excoriated as traitors. In general, Iran's relations with the Arab states have been based on perceptions of each state's relations with Israel. Thus, Iran has been hostile toward those states it regarded as willing to accept Israel's existence--Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia--and friendly toward those it regarded as sharing Iranian views--Algeria, Libya, and Syria. Despite its uncompromising position, however, Iran is known to have purchased weapons clandestinely from Israel as recently as 1985.

Syria has been revolutionary Iran's principal ally in the Middle East. This relationship involved both political and economic ties. The de facto alliance between the two countries emerged at the beginning of 1982. At that time, Iran supported the government of Hafiz al Assad against the Muslim Brotherhood, which had risen in rebellion against the secularizing policies of the ruling Baath Party. Iran's backing of the Syrian government was significant because the Muslim Brotherhood was the first Islamic political group to claim the Iranian Revolution as the primary inspiration for its rebellion. Soon after the Muslim Brotherhood had been crushed, Damascus shut down the pipeline through which Iraqi oil crossed Syria to reach Mediterranean ports. This action against another Arab state, which also was ruled by a Baath party, was an important gesture in support of the Iranian war effort. The action was also a hostile blow against Iraq because Iraqi Persian Gulf ports had been blockaded since the beginning of the war, and the only other exit route for its oil exports was through a smaller pipeline traversing Turkey. Iran had agreed to provide Syria 20,000 barrels of oil per day free of charge as compensation for the transit fees Syria would lose by closing the pipeline. Iran also agreed to sell Syria additional oil it required, at a heavily discounted price. In 1987 this agreement was again renewed. Syria also provided Iran arms from its own stock of Soviet- and East European-made weapons.

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