Gulf States Navigate Rising Tensions: Assessing Iran, Israel, and Regional Dynamics

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Amid escalating tensions between Iran and Israel, much attention is focused on the stance of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. The GCC nations’ positions on the crisis and their potential actions in the event of further escalation are of significant interest.

Iran’s support for proxies hostile to GCC nations has eroded trust in its intentions within the region. Consequently, the GCC states may increasingly align with a US-led defensive alliance against Iran, despite criticisms of Israel’s actions.

Israel’s actions in Gaza, coupled with its failure to advance a two-state solution in Palestine, are deeply concerning to Saudi Arabia. Progress toward resolving the Palestine question is seen as vital for improving relations between Riyadh and Tel Aviv.

GCC countries have learned to scrutinize Iranian actions rather than rely on its words when assessing its behavior. Iran’s ambitions for regional dominance, coupled with its support for proxies in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, reinforce perceptions of its malign intentions.

Iran’s purported support for the Palestinian cause is viewed in the Gulf as a strategic maneuver aimed at expanding its influence rather than genuine solidarity. Recent events, such as Hamas’ actions in Gaza, underscore Iran’s role in exacerbating tensions and undermining peace efforts.

Ultimately, GCC states perceive Iran as a threat to regional stability, seeking to challenge the existing order and establish hegemony over the Gulf. Until Iran demonstrates tangible changes in its behavior, such as ceasing support for groups like the Houthis in Yemen, its overtures of friendship toward the Gulf will be met with skepticism.

GCC states are likely to strengthen ties with the US-led alliance to counter perceived threats from Iran and safeguard their national security interests.

As Iran and Israel enter an era of direct confrontation, a lot of attention is now being paid to the position of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council states, particularly to where they stand on this crisis and how they will behave if it escalates, as it may.

The Iranian regime, with its ongoing support of proxies hostile to the Kingdom, has failed to build trust about its good intentions in the GCC. Because of this, it cannot expect the GCC states to avoid further integration into a US-led defensive alliance against Iran, despite serious criticism of Israel’s actions.

Israel, with its horrific behavior in Gaza and its shortsighted failure to put in place any building blocks toward a two-state solution in Palestine, is a source of grave concern for the Kingdom. Unless material progress is made toward a peaceful settlement of the Palestine question, it is difficult to imagine a breakthrough in relations between Riyadh and Tel Aviv.

GCC countries have long since learned to watch Iranian actions, not listen to its words, when judging its behavior

Ali Shihabi

At the same time, Iran is an aspiring regional hegemon that is very difficult to trust despite a recent diplomatic detente that saw a Chinese-sponsored reestablishment of relations between the Kingdom and Iran. Iran has worked since the revolution in 1979 to export its ideology and expand its influence throughout the region. It has had the GCC in its crosshairs despite public claims to the contrary.

GCC countries have long since learned to watch Iranian actions, not listen to its words, when judging its behavior. And Tehran’s actions in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and particularly in Yemen, even after the reestablishment of diplomatic ties, have confirmed its malign intentions toward the Gulf. Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei have often and directly criticized the governments of the GCC as being illegitimate, as do their proxies across the Arab world.

Moreover, Iran’s pretensions of supporting the Palestinian cause are recognized in the Gulf for what they are: a naked attempt to grab Sunni market share in public support, while enabling Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to act as continuous spoilers (with the tacit cooperation of Israel’s right wing) of any attempt by the Palestinian Authority to move forward on a two-state settlement.

Iran does not want to, and it knows it can never, ‘liberate’ Palestine, as it loudly and noisily claims

Ali Shihabi

Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7 — one it knew would rain terror and destruction down on Gaza’s unprotected and exposed population by an Israeli government that has no compunction about committing war crimes or even ethnic cleansing — is just the latest example of Iran empowering spoilers that gain nothing for the Palestinians but misery and suffering.

Ultimately, the Kingdom and the other GCC states see Iran as a dangerous adversary that dreams of bringing down the ruling order in the Gulf, establishing its hegemony over the region and cynically using the Palestinian cause to foment instability and anger throughout the region toward that final objective. Iran does not want to, and it knows it can never, “liberate” Palestine, as it loudly and noisily claims. Rather, it cynically wants to liberate the GCC of its US presence and establish its own hegemony over the Gulf and its oil wealth.

Until Iran’s actions show otherwise — such as, for example, its complete termination of support for the Houthis in Yemen — all its pretensions of friendship and cooperation toward the Gulf will be taken for what they are: cynical attempts to disguise wolfish behavior in sheep’s clothing. As it does this, Iran should expect the GCC states to move ever closer to the US-led alliance, with all that that entails. They will do so to protect themselves from what they see as Tehran’s malign intentions and to ensure their own national security.

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