Iran’s relations with the Persian Gulf states from the perspective of the Syrian-Iraqi crisis

Isfahan in Iran.

Article by our corresponent KJ


MEDIA WORKGROUP SYRIA – 27th August 2014 – The Islamic Republic of Iran gives priority to its relations with the other states in the region and with the rest of the Islamic world. This includes a strong commitment to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Non-Aligned Movement. Relations with the states of the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have improved in recent years. 

Iran is seeking new allies around the world due the various economic sanctions and the EU oil embargo that have been implemented in response to questions that have been raised over the Iranian nuclear program. 

Iran is also pursuing a policy of stabilisation and cooperation with the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia, whereby it is seeking to capitalise on its central location to establish itself as the political and economic hub of the region. 

On the international scene, it has been argued by some that Iran has become, or will become in the near future, a superpower due to its ability to influence international events. 

Iran – Saudi Arabia relations 

Saudi Arabia and Iran have, over time, clashed over different geo-political issues such as the interpretations of Islam, aspirations for leadership of the Islamic world, oil export policy, relations with the U.S. and the West. Although both countries follow and rule through Islamic Scripture, Saudi Arabia represents a “Wahhabi” Sunni Islamic government, whilst Iran represents a Twelver shi’a government. 

Both countries possess a different vision of stability and regional order. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran got confronted by the hostile attitude of the Unites States and the Western powers towards the young Islamic Republic, out of revenge of losing its regional ally Shah Pahlavi and Iran becoming really independent, while Saudi Arabia ensured close relations with the United States and the West in general. On one hand Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy can lead it to be seen as an agent of the U.S. in the Persian Gulf region, representing U.S. interests. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia suspects Iran of desiring to export its revolution and to expand its influence within the Persian Gulf region. 

1980’s Iran–Iraq War 

During the Iran–Iraq war Saudi Arabia gave US$25 billion of aid to the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein despite the tense relations between Baathist Iraq and Conservative Saudi Arabia. In doing so, Saudi Arabia made it clear that in its view it saw revolutionary Iran as a far greater threat to its survival. Saudi Arabia also encouraged other Arab states of the Persian Gulf, including Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, to do the same by giving financial support to Iraq. 

Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 2, 1990 

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Iran criticised and condemned the invasion. This stance from Iran, in favour of the Kuwaitis, and the anti-Iraqi coalition of the Persian Gulf states helped to improve relations between Iran and the GCC, namely Saudi Arabia. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia opposed the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. Iran viewed the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait as a serious threat, considering it the first step towards its expansionist mindset. During the war, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia thawed considerably. 

Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United States of America 

As far as the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. is concerned, both countries have been strategic allies for more than sixty years. Saudi Arabia sees itself as a firm and generous partner of the U.S. During the cold war and also in other international conflicts. 

In 2009, Saudi Prince Faisal said in a press conference with Hillary Clinton that the “threat posed by Iran demanded a more immediate solution than sanctions.” This statement was condemned by Iranian officials. 

Israel-Hamas conflict 

Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad urged King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to speak out against Israel’s attacks on Gaza. Iran asked that all the Arab countries cut their direct or in-direct ties with Israel. Iran has always supported the Hamas movement while the majority of the Arab States, besides Syria, betrayed the Palestinian people by doing nothing or even siding along with Israel. 

On 10 December 2013 Hamas announced that they have resumed ties with Iran after a brief cut off over the Syrian conflict. 

Sanctions against Iran 

In 2012 Turki Al Faisal, former head of Saudi General Intelligence, suggested that Saudi Arabia would support the U.S. led sanctions against Iran. 

Old street in the Syrian capital Damascus.

The Syrian crisis 

According to a Financial Times report published in May 2013, Saudi Arabia was becoming a larger provider of arms to the rebels. Since the summer of 2013, Saudi Arabia has emerged as the main agent to finance and arm the rebels in Syria. 

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad pointed at Saudi Arabia as the major supporter of terrorists and “leading the most extensive operation of direct sabotage against all the Arab world”.

(“Assad: Our Battle With Saudi Is Open-Ended”, Alakhbar – Lebanon, November 30th 2013). 

Iran – Bahraini relations 

Following the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Bahraini Shi’a activists in 1981 attempted a failed coup attempt against the Bahraini government. Bahrain regarded the coup as Iran attempting to overthrow their Sunni government. Iran denied all knowledge saying the fundamentalists were inspired by the Iranian revolution but had received no support from Iran. Fearing a recurrence Bahrain crack down on its Shi’a population putting thousands into jail and by doing so souring relations with Shi’a Iran.

Iran – Kuwaiti relations 

Kuwait and Iran share close diplomatic and economic ties. In 1990, following the first Persian Gulf War (1980-1988) Iraqi–Kuwaiti relations broke down and consequently Kuwaiti–Iranian relations flourished. Bilateral relations were gradually strengthened, with exchanges of Iranian and Kuwaiti political and economic delegations leading to the signing of several economic and trade agreements. 

Iran – Qatari relations 

Throughout the Iran–Iraq War Qatar supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq financially by providing large loans. In 1991, following the end of the Persian Gulf War, Qatar build cordial relations with Iran and the former emir of Qatar Hamad bin Khalifa welcomed Iranian participation in Persian Gulf security arrangements. However, due to resistance from other Persian Gulf Arab States, specifically Saudi Arabia, these never realised. Nonetheless, Qatar maintains security cooperation with Iran through bilateral ties. 

Concerning the Syrian crisis, the Financial Times reported that Qatar had funded the Syrian rebellion by “as much as $3 billion” over the first two years of the civil war. Every indicator points to the fact that this support has not diminished till now and is still going on. 

Iran – United Arab Emirates relations 

Both the UAE and Iran adopt the principle of not interfering in the internal affairs of each other.

The UAE has officially stated that it prefers not to interfere with Iran’s nuclear program as long as Iran continues to reassure the international community that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. 

The UAE also maintains close economic ties with Iran. Iranian businesses have a major presence in the UAE. 

Iran – Omani relations  

Oman and Iran share close diplomatic and economic ties. 

Unlike the majority of its Gulf neighbours, Oman uphold diplomatic relations with both sides during the Iran-Iraq war from 1980-1988 and strongly supported UN Security Council resolutions to end the conflict. 

In addition to strong diplomatic and political ties, Iran and Oman cooperate economically on several fronts, including energy. 

The Omani government encourages a direct dialogue between Iran and the West to resolve the crisis over the Iranian nuclear program. 

The Iraqi capital Baghdad.

Iran – Iraqi relations

Iran–Iraq War 

In September 1980, under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, Iraq attacked Iran counting on the fact that Iran, shortly after the Islamic revolution of 1979, was too weak to resist the Iraqi offensive.

This was a huge miscalculation. Eight years of fighting left more than 1 million people dead and caused huge damages and suffering on both sides. The United Nations issued Resolution 598 in July 1987, demanding an unconditional ceasefire between the two nations. Iraq and Iran later accepted the resolution and the war ended in August 1988. 


When the U.S.-led war on Iraq in 2003 broke out, Iran strongly opposed the invasion, as Iran wanted the United Nations to play the main role in resolving the crisis. 

After the war Iran offered assistance to Iraq’s post-war reconstruction and bilateral relations began to improve drastically. 

In May 2005, a transitional government led by Ibrahim al-Jaafari of the pro-Iran Islamist Dawa party was established in Iraq. In mid May, Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharazi visited Iraq and Ibrahim al-Jaafari paid a visit to Iran in July. In November, former Iraqi president Jalal Talabani visited Iran. He was the first Iraqi head of state to visit Iran in four decades. 

Iran – Iraq relations have flourished since 2005 and bilateral cooperation boomed in all fields with Iran playing an important role in the Iraqi reconstruction. The main areas of trade between the two countries are the construction, food and industrial sectors. 

Iran–Syria relations 


Syria and Iran are strategic allies although their ideological fundamentals differ. Syria’s ideology is build on Arab nationalism with the secular Baath party being predominant in society while the Islamic Republic of Iran is build on a pan-Islamist ideology. Iran and Syria have had a strategic alliance ever since the Iran–Iraq war, when Syria sided with non-Arab Iran against its fellow Baath-ruled neighbour Iraq. Therefore Syria was isolated by some Arab countries. Iran and Syria also coordinate with regard to the United States and Israel. 


Iran – Syria relations changed dramatically after the Islamic Revolution in Iran of 1979. Then Syrian President Hafez al-Assad found in Iran a new counterweight to Israel and Iraq, Syria’s regional foes, while Iran saw Syria as a conduit to the Shia community in Lebanon. 

The relationship between the Iranian and Syrian government and Lebanese Hezbollah can be described as the Axis of Resistance. Syria was the first Arab state and the third in general, after the Soviet Union and Pakistan, to recognise the Islamic Republic on 12 February 1979. 

It is important to realise that relations between the two countries are not build on religious grounds because Syria is a secular state while Iran is an Islamic republic. Instead, their ties are driven by common political and strategic points.

One of the first major fronts of the Iran – Syria alliance was Iraq. During the Iran–Iraq War, Syria sided with non-Arab Iran against Iraq and was isolated by Saudi Arabia and some of the other Arab countries. 

During the war, Syria shut down Iraqi oil pipelines to deprive the Iraqis of revenue. In return for Syria’s war support, Iran provided Syria with millions of free and discounted barrels of oil throughout the 1980’s. 

The second major area of cooperation between the two countries was in Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War (1975 – 1990). Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, with Syrian assistance, established and trained the Hezbollah group to repel the 1982 Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon. Iran and Syria view Hezbollah as a useful lever against Israel. 

Nevertheless, Iran and Syria had occasional differences in policy. One example is the U.S.-led intervention to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait (1990 – 1991). Although Iran was deeply critical about the American-led intervention, Syria participated in the coalition of nations to fight Iraq. Still, these disagreements never threatened to derail the strong relationship between Iran and Syria. 

1990’s – 2000’s 

The alliance between Iran and Syria deepened in 2000 when Hafez’s son Bashar al-Assad took over as President of Syria. Subsequent events like the 2003 Iraq War, the fabricated “Cedar Revolution” and the 2006 Lebanon War, when Hezbollah defeated Israel, brought the two countries even closer together. 

On 16 June 2006 the defence ministers of Iran and Syria signed an agreement for military cooperation against what they called the “common threats” presented by Israel and the United States. Details of the agreement were not specified, however then Iranian defence minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar said “Iran considers Syria’s security its own security, and we consider our defence capabilities to be those of Syria.” The visit also resulted in the sale of Iranian military hardware to Syria. In addition to receiving military hardware, Iran has consistently invested billions of dollars into the Syrian economy. 

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani stated on 3 August 2013, his inauguration day, that Iran’s alliance with Syria would continue. (Gulf News, 4 August 2013) 

Iranian support for Syria in the Syrian Civil War 

Iran and Syria are close strategic allies and Iran has provided significant support for the Syrian government in the Syrian Civil War, including logistical, technical and financial support. Iran sees the survival of the Syrian government as being crucial to its regional interests. 

Lebanese Hezbollah fighters backed by Iran have taken direct combat roles since 2012. In the summer of 2013, Hezbollah provided important battlefield support for Syria, allowing it to make advances on the opposition and recapture the strategic town of al-Qusayr near the Lebanese border. 

In 2014, coinciding with the peace talks at Geneva II, Iran has stepped up support for Syrian President Assad. Syrian Minister of Finance and Economy announced that the “Iranian government has given more than 15 billion dollars” to Syria. (Syrian Economic Forum, 20 January 2014) 

In April 2014, Hossein Amir-Abdolahian, Iranian deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, said “we aren’t seeking to have Bashar al-Assad remain president for life. But we do not subscribe to the idea of using extremist forces and terrorism to topple Assad and the Syrian government. ” (The Daily Star – Lebanon, 4 April 2014)



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