Theo FRANCKEN (Belgium) - REPORT

30 October 2023

The Gulf’s energy reserves, prodigious wealth, strategic location between Europe, Asia and Africa and relations with Iran are all factors of the region’s persistent geo-strategic relevance to NATO allies. Tehran’s offensive military posture and nuclear ambitions are drivers of tension, while its direct support for Russia’s war against Ukraine further underlines the challenge it poses to Euro-Atlantic security. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members exercise influence throughout the broader Middle East through formal diplomatic channels but also via sectarian and other networks. For its part, the Islamic Republic actively supports militia groups operating in the region and terrorist networks that extend into Europe to pursue its broader ambitions. Russia and China are also increasingly active in the Gulf and engage with the Gulf monarchies and Iran, in part, to undermine Western influence in the region. 

Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has reshaped Western energy ties with the Gulf as it has increased the relative weight of the Middle East and the GCC states in particular. While the continued presence of European and North American military forces in the region provides a degree of reassurance to the region, surprising changes in the strategic landscape are also afoot, creating diplomatic opportunities and posing strategic challenges for Western governments. These include the easing of long-standing tensions between Qatar and other GCC members, the normalisation of relations between Israel and several states in the region as expressed in the Abraham Accords, and a recent Chinese-brokered agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to re-establish diplomatic ties. 

Internal politics in the region are also changing. Since September 2022, Iran has been gripped by a popular uprising. Justifiable public anger with the regime and its harsh enforcement of Sharia law is mounting. Economic grievances, a lack of political freedom and perceived government incompetence have cascaded into an uprising that has galvanised Iranian society and that deserves all Western support and solidarity. 

The report concludes by suggesting that Allied governments and societies should look for ways to empower democratic voices in Iran and to support the achievement of their aspirations. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) should be listed as a terrorist organisation, unjustly detained foreign nations should be released and a new consensus must be forged on a shared approach to ending the military nuclear programme of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Were the regime to acquire a nuclear weapon, it would threaten regional stability and possible trigger a proliferation dynamic that would further imperil the region and allied countries. Allies must also deepen their engagement with Gulf partners to defend fundamental strategic interests while advancing important values such as human security and prosperity. 

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