In today’s Middle East, the Arab Gulf States stock up on flashy aircraft while Iran dominates the ground in conflict zones. That, at least, was the message from US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter in an interview with the Atlantic last week.
Carter said, “If you look at where the Iranians are able to wield influence, they are in the game, on the ground.”
He compared the United States’ regional Arab allies, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council that includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar, unfavorably.
“There is a sense that they are up there at 30,000 feet they have weighted having high-end air force fighter jets over the hard business of training and disciplining ground forces and special operations forces,” he said.
While the United States, the United Kingdom, and other western powers have long supplied their Gulf Arab allies with the latest military hardware, Carter’s comments highlight long-standing American frustrations.
“He was blunt about it, I was surprised,” says Martin Reardon, a Doha-based consultant for the Soufan Group. “But it’s fairly accurate.”
In Iraq, Reardon says, the Qods Force — Iranian special forces — serve as advisors to Shia militias, while in Syria, there are estimated to be between 2,000 and 4,000 Iranian troops. Iran has also lost senior military officers in the fighting.
Iranian commander Brigadier General Hossein Hamedani, who was killed in Syria by ISIS
Lebanese Hezbollah, which depends on Iran, has also deployed thousands of fighters in Syria.
In Yemen, Reardon says, Qods Force and Hezbollah advisors are believed to be providing a degree of assistance to the rebel Houthi movement fighting GCC-backed government forces.
The Arab Gulf States, meanwhile, are frustrated with what they see as a lack of US and western resolve to tackle Iran’s use of force and influence in the region.
“The Gulf States feel that the West is not invested in the security of the Gulf,” says Michael Stephens, a researcher for the London-based defense think tank, the Royal United Services Institute.
“Our response to that has been, ‘Look, we have sold you various types of weapons systems, we have provided training, we have provided logistical support. If you are not happy about the state of the region, you also have to step up and take a role.’"
A Gulf with the Gulf
One source of friction between the US and its Gulf allies is their divergent perception of the main threats in the region. While the US has made destroying ISIS, or the Islamic State, its priority, Gulf States continue to see Iran as their main enemy.
The ongoing civil war in Syria, and this year’s nuclear agreement between Iran and the world powers, have both widened the gap between the US and the Gulf States.
“There is a huge difference in outlook,” Stephens says. “The west views fundamentally a region in which Iran is engaged and to some extent contained by diplomatic engagement.”
The Gulf States, he says, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, see Iran as the main destabilizer in the region, and Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as the main cause of Sunni extremism, including the rise of ISIS.
“The Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia but also the United Arab Emirates, want Iran to lose influence in Syria completely,” says Alireza Nader of the Rand Corporation. “A lot of them probably want the United States to go all out against Iran.”
The Gulf States also worry that this year’s nuclear agreement, which involved unprecedented diplomacy between Iran’s post-revolutionary government and the US, will open up cooperation between the US and Iran.
“The US is in a tricky position,” Nader says. “It has to keep its allies comfortable, but at the same time engage with Iran, a major regional competitor, in resolving regional crises, whether in Syria or Iraq.
The Gulf States’ military intervention in Yemen’s civil war has also caused frustration among its western allies.
Saudi-led airstrikes caused considerable damage in Saada, northwest Yemen, May 26, 2016
Since March, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States have launched air strikes against the rebel Houthi movement, which they perceive to be backed by Iran. But their attacks have proved both needlessly destructive, and militarily indecisive.
In his interview with the Atlantic, Carter said that buying advanced aircraft from the US “doesn’t do you any good when the Houthis are overrunning Yemen.”
The Gulf States’ western allies, Stephens says, did not want the Gulf States to deploy the way they did in Yemen. “What you are seeing now is a humanitarian catastrophe.”
The Gulf States also likely have an exaggerated view of Iran’s involvement in the country. “There is no evidence to suggest that Iranian fighters are on the ground in Yemen,” he says.
Ineffective Saudi-led airstrikes may even have worked in Iran’s favor. “Iran’s influence has been overstated, but the Iranians have capitalized in terms of their use of propaganda to have a pop at the Saudis and paint them as incompetent.”
Joe Snuffy is not from the Gulf
While Carter criticized the Gulf States for not pouring enough resources into capable special forces and ground forces, he did single out the UAE for praise, noting that it had lost 45 troops in one day of fighting in Yemen.
“You need to have a ground army,” Reardon says. “It's a given that there is only so much that air power can do. You are not going to win a campaign with air power. You've got to have somebody on the ground to hold the terrain, and to go from house to house and get close up. That is what they are not willing to do.”
Special operations units, he says, can also be very effective, and provide a good alternative to putting battalions or brigades on the ground.
And while the UAE may have good special forces, he says, many Gulf Arab States prefer to let others do their fighting.
US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan discuss security in the Middle East
“Ground troops in Yemen, they are led by Saudis, led by Emiratis, led by Qataris, but the actual Joe Snuffy who is going to get in a fire fight, he is not from the Gulf.”
“Those weren't affluent Emirati families that had these young soldiers in Yemen, because that's not who is in their military,” he says.
Instead, he says, Qatar and the UAE have deployed troops of Yemeni descent, as well as other third country nationals. “Hey, anybody will go there for the money.”
And money — namely oil wealth that, unlike in Iran, has not been subject sanctions or spread out over a large population — may be one of the main reasons the Gulf States are no match for Iran.
“A lot of this has to do with class, or social status,” Reardon says. “When you have a country where there is just an upper class, and that's pretty much it, it does not lend itself to a strong ground force. The level that they've been living at for the past two generations does not dispose itself well to an effective military.”
Iran, Nader says, simply has capabilities the Gulf States do not have. It acts through “proxies” more effectively, and is willing to take casualties on the ground.
“Iran is willing to take bigger risks,” he says. “Is that necessarily a wise decision? That is open to question. It has a direct role in Syria, but it is also losing its own people and spending a lot of money.”
And while the US and the Gulf States may make awkward allies, it is Iran’s role in the region that will continue to bind them together.
“As long as there is a revolutionary government in Iran which is opposed to US interests, then the US will need regional allies to counter Iran,” Nader says.
“Can there be a future in which Iran is a lesser threat to US and allied interests? I think it's possible, but it will take time and a change in Iran's leadership.”