Iran and the GCC: Russia’s Possible Option for an Indirect Confrontation With the US?

As part of the ongoing efforts in countering Iran’s growing threat, senior officials of the United States and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) met in Riyadh on Feb. 15. The meeting that was comprised of the defense working group, focused on the increasing Iranian regional threat and denouncing Iran’s destabilizing policies. The GCC, comprising of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman, has long been a region of strategic significance in the Middle East, due to the presence of vast amounts of natural resources. Recently, though, the region has become a subject of contention due to the destabilizing actions of Iran. Furthermore, Iran’s nuclear ambitions constitutes a major factor in its regional and global threat. Despite numerous resolutions from the United Nations Security Council to stop the process, Iran has been accused of developing nuclear weapons. Thus, putting Iran in direct violation of the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, which would give it the power to potentially launch nuclear attacks. Especially that it has been recently reported that Iran’s uranium enrichment have already reached higher levels that is almost near to that of a nuclear weapon development. Additionally, the presence of Iranian proxy militias in neighboring countries across Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, have given Iran a direct military presence close to the GCC region, allowing them to threaten the region with increased capabilities. Although, the Iranian threat has been always present for the past four decades and further amplified by Iran’s support for the Houthi’s in Yemen, yet the currently increasing Russian-Iranian relations may further pose a more serious threat to the GCC region.

In recent years, the relationship between Russia and Iran has become increasingly important. While tensions in the region have risen due to the growing geopolitical power of both countries, the two have also formed strong strategic and economic alliances with each other. However, with the ongoing Russian aggression in Ukraine and Iran’s ongoing public unrest, both countries relationship and alliance appear to be intensifying more and more. Especially, with both countries growing global isolation and imposed international sanctions. It is argued that the deepening relations between Moscow and Tehran is benefiting both countries strategically on different fronts. This includes but not limited to, the potential for a prolonged and increased aggression by Russia towards Ukraine because of the Iranian support. The latter has been evident by Iran’s supply of drones to Russia which since then have been used by Russia in launching attacks in Ukraine. In return, it can be hinted that Russia may have been supported Iran in suppressing public protests. What is more concerning is the increasing defense cooperation between both countries which will further increase Iran’s threat in the Middle East.

Although military ties between Russia and Iran have been already present, yet recent reports show an increasing shift in the military ties and advancements in Russian arms sale to Iran. Reports have shown that Iran is in the process of receiving 24 Russian made Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets by March 2023. In this respect, the Su-35 would be the most advanced combat aircraft Iran would possess in its air force. In addition, the multipurpose Su-35 is more versatile than the currently operating fleet of MiG-29 in Iran’s air force, where the Su-35 is designed mainly for intercepting other aircraft, and overall suitable for both, ground-attack operations, and air superiority. Furthermore, it is shown that Iran is currently in talks with Russia with regards to acquiring the latter’s most advanced attack helicopters Mi-28 and Ka-52. In this respect, while on a visit to Tehran in January 2023, the chairman of Russia’s Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin was quoted by Iran’s Tasnim News Agency that increased trade between Russia and Iran is extremely important in light of the sanctions. Despite that Russia’s defense cooperation and recent arms sale to Iran may appear as a “normal” cooperation between two sanctioned countries, yet it presents the Middle East and regional US allies with a new unprecedent risk and a direct threat.

Firstly, it further enhances Iran’s military capabilities which have always been a threat to regional stability in the Middle East, and with Russia’s supply of advanced military articles, such threat is only growing. Such rising threat is nothing more than a group of underlying compounded threats. This includes the possibility of Iran’s direct offensive use of Russia’s supplied advanced armaments in the region, the indirect offensive use via proxy militias in Yemen, Syria, and/or Iraq. Finally, the enhancement of Iran’s military capabilities will in return allow it to strengthen its defensive capabilities and thus, allowing it to progress with its “grand” aim of developing its nuclear program.

Secondly, Russia’s move towards supplying advanced fighter jets to Iran can be viewed as strategic move for Russia with regards to developing an indirect confrontation with the US and Western nations via Iran and its possible attempts in destabilizing the region. Especially when considering the US and Western nations’ leading role in imposing sanctions on Russia because of its war on Ukraine. The potential for a war confrontation between Russia and the US has been on many people’s minds. From conflicts in the Middle East to rising tensions in the Baltic states, it appears as though the risk of a confrontation is overall increasing. Though it is argued that there is much misunderstanding and miscommunication between the two nations, the potential for a war confrontation remains a viable threat. However, Iran’s leaning towards Russia for military supplies provides the latter with the possible mean of pressuring and/or indirectly confronting the US and Western nations. This may appear to be in line with calls for the US to counter Russian threats in the Middle East.

Policy Recommendation

The US and the Middle East already share a strong relationship, yet the defense and security cooperation between the two is more vital than ever before. The United States has long been a guarantor of peace and stability in the region, and as the region is entering a period of increased instability, it is more important than ever for both sides to cooperate and embrace their strategic partnership. For the US, Middle East defense and security cooperation is seen as an essential component of their national security with regards to combating regional threats. The presence of terrorist organizations and proxy militia groups have all made their mark on the region, necessitating US intervention. The US Armed Forces have long been engaged in a variety of operations to degrade and ultimately defeat these groups, which makes defense cooperation with the Middle East a vital component of US policy. This indeed appears to be in line with the visit of the US Secretary of Defense to the Middle East with the aim of reassuring the security of the US regional partners.

From the Middle East’s perspective, defense and security cooperation with the US has long been seen as a critical tool for managing their relations with the US and their countries’ security. For many Middle Eastern nations, the US has become the main source of military technology and training, as well as the main source of foreign military assistance. Therefore, deepening security and defense ties with the US, is as important for many Middle Eastern nations as it is for the US. Especially, as global threats are becoming ever-more complex such as Russia’s war on Ukraine and its currently emerging implications for the Middle East’s security, there is a clear need for enhanced defense cooperation between the US and the Middle East.

The two sides have the capability to face these challenges together through enhanced military collaboration and an understanding of their shared security needs. This could include expanded intelligence sharing, joint counterterrorism, and military operations, as well as increased engagement in regional security and defense dialogues. In this respect, it can be argued for the need for and importance of the US to enhance the GCC’s defense capabilities. This can include the need to move ahead with the sale of F-35 fighter jets to some GCC allies in response to Iran’s ongoing progress in acquiring Russian Su-35 jets. Furthermore, in response to Iran’s ballistic missile developing capabilities, the US should further support the GCC with regards to supplying anti-ballistic systems such as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and Patriot to enhance the GCC’s capabilities in countering any Iranian missile threat. Especially that the use of such anti-ballistic defense platforms have been proven effective for UAE countering launched missiles from Houthis as well as enhancing Saudi Arabia’s defensive capabilities. It is also important to consider the criticality of further expanding cyber intelligence cooperation and cyber defense capabilities given that Iran has a long history of launching cyberattacks on GCC entities and such risk is only expected to rise.

Accordingly, it is clear that the US and the Middle East need to strengthen their defense and security cooperation in order to face the regional and growing challenges ahead. Their partnership is now more important than ever. The Middle Eastern nations, particularly GCC nations’ close relations with the United States have incurred Iran’s ire, as these countries are often seen as antagonists to Iran’s revolution. Iran has repeatedly threatened and expressed aggressive attitudes towards GCC governments.

Finally, considering the depth of the divide between Russian and US relations, and the potential for a conflict in light of the ongoing war in Ukraine, it would seem that a war confrontation between the two countries is a theoretical yet a realistic possibility. The need for increased communication and diplomacy is of the utmost importance to ensure that whatever conflict there is between the two countries does not escalate to a point that could be catastrophic which can have direct implications for US regional allies including those in the Middle East. While it is unknown if a direct war confrontation will occur between Russia and the US, the reality of such a conflict cannot be overlooked.

[Photo by Mehr News Agency, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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