Sénateur Goulet
Sénateur membre de la Commission des Finances
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Billet de blog 23 déc. 2013

Iran and the Gulf countries towards a marriage of reason?

Relations between the Gulf States[1] and Iran offer a concentration of major diplomatic, strategic, economic and energy issues.

Sénateur Goulet
Sénateur membre de la Commission des Finances
Abonné·e de Mediapart

Ce blog est personnel, la rédaction n’est pas à l’origine de ses contenus.

Relations between the Gulf States[1] and Iran offer a concentration of major diplomatic, strategic, economic and energy issues.

The modest objective here is to provide a cleare understanding of this poorly understood and often subject to amalgam.

There is no doubt that Iran with a population of 70 millions educated people (3 times Saudi Arabia, 20 times Qatar) is the major envied and feared regional power.

Its isolation and the maintenance of the status quo appear in the eyes of its neighbors as a guarantee of their prosperity under the benevolent umbrella of the United States and by having impressive military arsenal.\

Jealousy, mistrust, linguistic and semantic conflict  are causes amid huge energy resources and territorial disputes, relations between the countries of the region are also marked by a power struggle between Sunnis and Shiites and the fear of a democratic contagion.

Litigation begins with the semantic approach:

Is the Gulf Persian, Arabian-Persian or Arab? Beyond mere semantics, there is a highly significant political issue.

From a scientific and historical perspective, this gulf is called, since Alexander the Great, the Persian Gulf. This name is retained in the history books and by Arab historians, like Ibn Khaldun and Ibn al-Athir. It also appeared in the treaties signed between the governors of the Gulf and the British, who ruled the region in the early twentieth century.

At the beginning of Nasser's mandate, a popular slogan said: "One nation from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf," the rise of Arab nationalism has led them to use the name "Arabian Gulf" - on the basis of connoted interpretations. The Romans never used this term, only the Greek historian Strabo in the first century after Christ used the name 'Arabian Gulf' speaking of the body of water that is called today the Red Sea.


Would history and geography overcome the interests of both sides and the susceptibility of the author of this very modest contribution? The final word goes to the Anglo-Saxons who called gulf Persian Gulf.

There is also a problem of territorial sovereignty, the control of the islands of Great and Little Tomb and Abu Musa

This ancient and complex dispute opposed Iran and Great Britain as protector of the emirates of the Trucial Coast first, and to the same emirates following their federation and attainment of full independence in 1971.

These islands (Abu Musa: 800 people and Tomb islands: 150) are of limited strategic interest, that of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz (40 km wide).

On November 30, 1971 a few days before their independence (2 December 1971), the Iranian army invaded and occupied the two Tomb islands owned by the Emir of Ras-el-Kheyma, and took possession of the Abu Musa but this with the consent of the Emir of Sharjah. Historically Checks were vassals of the Shah of Iran (The Persian Gulf Pilot (1st ed., 1864, and 2nd ed., 1883) mentions that the sheikh Lingah pays tribute to the Persian government and has authority over the islands of Sirri, Tomb and Abu Musa).


This conflict still pollutes relations, but the Iranian President recently declared that a solution of appeasement was being formulated.

Once these context elements are established, one must wonder about the limits of a potential Iranian "confessional strategy" and the hypothetical creation of a "Shiite arc" in the Middle East, between fantasy and reality

Ayatollah Khomeini had vainly attempted to export the Islamic Revolution after 1979, marking with the seal of defiance the relations with its neighbors.

The fear of exporting a denominational strategy remains particularly strong in the petro-monarchies of the Gulf where large Shiite minorities live:

- in Iraq the Shiites are in power since the Iraqi elections of January 30, 2005;

- in Bahrain where they are the majority (nearly 70% of the population);

- in Saudi Arabia, they represent 10% of the Saudi population and more than one third of the inhabitants of the strategic province of Hassa which contains almost all of the Kingdom's oil resources.

Saudi leaders fear that part of this population, which is the most impoverished, might be tipped over towards a form of "Shia" revolution, which had its success in the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Among many Arab Sunnis, Iran and Hezbollah are, rightly or wrongly, perceived as the only credible forces likely to frontally oppose the United States and Israel.

The emergence of a current of conversions (tashayyu) to Shi'ism among some Arab Sunnis follows in fact a largely political identification with the Islamic Republic and Hassan Nasrallah’s Hezbollah, who however, denies instrumentalizing this issue. This is an additional reason for concern in Saudi Arabia and perhaps an explanation for its benevolent policy of support for some jihadists.

The Arab Spring has given a new urgency to the management of active minorities, and even if the climate seems appeased, problems remain especially in Bahrain.

In the other Gulf monarchies, the promises of democratization made under the influence of emotion have lasted a spring.

From the point of view of institutions, Iran has, as I said in the introduction, an aspect of democracy totally unknown in the Gulf countries.

Although the term democracy is far from our Western conception, Iran knows a regime under constitution since 1906, amended many times until the constitution of the Islamic Republic in 1979 and thereby elections by universal suffrage.

Regarding candidates for presidential elections, it will be objected that they must be approved by the Gardian Concil, but it is an Islamic Republic version of the 500 signatures required for candidates in the presidential election in France.

Except for the election of President Ahmadinejad in June 2009, largely marred by irregularities, the elections are democratic as evidenced by the June 2013 ballot which saw the election in the first round of the President Rohani.

Compared to its neighbors, Iran therefore appears more democratic.

These few lines attest, if it were necessary, the urgent need to monitor closely, day by day, relations between these countries; the visits and diplomatic exchanges have increased at a rapid pace since the signing of the Geneva Accord. The situation appears to go toward appeasement and it is certain that the Gulf States will move towards a marriage of convenience with their powerful and unavoidable neighbour.

We understand also the stakes of normalization and the challenges it will involve.

Iran has provided in recent years a hateful and degraded image that served the prosperity of its neighbours.

It was always easier to throw this country a critical look, forgetting the situation of women in Saudi Arabia, major customer of France, or the construction workers in Qatar, a great patron and donor to our country.

Forgetting intentionally or not, that under the glitz of Dubai, Doha and Riyadh, remains an Islam just as practicing in the application of Sharia and the death penalty.

The stakes of the coming weeks and months are of major importance for the world and the Persian Gulf region. Everyone has an interest in the status quo, everyone has an interest in normalization, and the nuclear issue is only the visible side of the iceberg.

As everyone is trying to burnish their weapons and to prepare their arguments, let us be attentive, very attentive, this area is - you guessed it - a major player in global stability.





[1] By Gulf countries, we should understand the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar

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