Agence-France Presse quoted May as saying that she is “clear-eyed about the threat that Iran poses to the Gulf and to the wider Middle East.” It also reported that Britain and the GCC had issued a joint statement after the meeting, promising the development of a strategic partnership spanning politics, defense, and trade. The statement declared that Britain would maintain a presence throughout the region, with some defense staff being stationed in Dubai, on the Persian Gulf coast opposite to Iran.
In this sense, the joint statement may be seen to function as a partial or initial step toward reestablishing Arab confidence in Western support or leadership. Various reports have indicated that that confidence has wavered in the wake of recent Western policy changes surrounding the June 2015 Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. That agreement has been widely regarded as signifying a change in the stance of the US and its close allies toward the Islamic Republic of Iran. Although close encounters between the US Navy and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps have actually increased since the conclusion of the negotiations, the Obama administration has tended to downplay these incidents and the associated Iranian rhetoric.
The relative absence of US-led pressure on Iran has contributed to a situation in which the Gulf Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, have engaged in rising levels of self-directed action against the Iranians and their foreign proxies. This includes direct action by a Saudi-led coalition against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen – action that was initially taken over the objections of Obama administration officials.
The American approach to Iran is expected to change once again once presidential power transitions from Barack Obama to his Republican successor Donald Trump. On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly decried Obama’s nuclear agreement as one of the worst agreements in US history, as well as harshly criticizing other supposedly weak aspects of Obama’s foreign policy.
But more than a month remains before Trump takes office, and as the GCC waits for the promised shift, Prime Minister May’s promises could serve as an early boost to their hopes for more assertive Western backing. But this is not to say that May’s contribution to the GCC meeting was entirely one-sided. In fact, on the crucial topic of the nuclear agreement, she effectively broke with President-elect Trump by insisting that the deal must be preserved. As the Telegraph noted, May upheld the talking point that the deal could serve as an important tool for the international community to engage with the Islamic Republic over its aggressions.
Whereas Trump initially promised to tear up the JCPOA, he has more recently appeared to accept the notion that this would be difficult to do with such a multilateral agreement. Subsequent to the election, his commentary on the nuclear deal has focused on the notion of renegotiation, while some analysts have simply urged him to enforce the existing terms more strictly than the Obama administration had done.
It remains to be seen where May and other world leaders will stand when it comes to these possible measures. At the same time that some such leaders view the JCPOA as grounds for constructive interaction with the Islamic Republic, it is certain that many also see potential benefits for their own countries in the oil investments and trade agreements that it enables. Such leaders may push back against efforts to undermine the deal, but may also be willing to work together with the Trump administration to make sure that Iran is fully held accountable.
As a matter of fact, the Telegraph points out that May has indicated that she considers the US President-elect to be “very easy to talk to” and keenly interested in preserving the special relationship between Britain and the US. On the other hand, some commentaries on Trump’s prospective Middle East policy have suggested that he may not value the same sort of special relationship with the Gulf Arab kingdoms, which he has suggested should be made to “pay” for continued American support.
Nevertheless, if the Trump and May administrations cooperate closely over Middle East policy, they may still jointly reassure the Saudis and their allies over the prospects for long-term Western support against Iran. In other words, May’s assurance of support for the GCC goes hand-in-hand with Trump’s comparatively hardline approach to Iran policy, even if these two trends are backed up by slightly different motives.
Still, there are lingering dangers that Trump will clash with May and other European leaders, considering that he is regarded as a threat to investments that those countries hope to make in Iran. This threat was highlighted on Wednesday by the Wall Street Journal, in a report on an agreement between the Islamic Republic and the British-Dutch energy giant, Shell.
It has been suggested that Trump may intensify sanctions on Iran. But even if this is not the case, stringent enforcement of sanctions that are currently in place would continue to make it difficult for Western companies to do business with Iran, or for Iran to obtain Western financing for collaborative projects. Despite this, and despite Iranian contracts that still strive to constrain foreign influence, Shell is gambling on the prospect of Iranian trade relations expanding rather than contracting after Trump takes office.
Notwithstanding the threats of more hardline Western policies being led by President Trump, the British Prime Minister’s comments to the GCC seem to be a source of encouragement for Shell and other actual and prospective investors. Indeed, Shell is far from the only company that has shown an apparently eager response to the vigorous international defense of the JCPOA.
On Wednesday, a report by UPI pointed out that a delegation from the Austrian energy company OMV was on its way to visit Tehran, where it would discuss strengthening energy ties. The report claims that Iranian openings to Europe had made OMV the latest in “a string of companies knocking on Iran’s door.”
It remains to be seen whether this pattern will continue into the Trump era. But if it does, May’s visit to the GCC underscores the next challenge: to balance this pursuit of trade ties with the commitment to limiting Iran’s destabilizing influence over the Middle East. Meanwhile, the Gulf Arab states can be expected to continue vying with the Islamic Republic over their respective shares of the struggling global oil market. Lately, Iran has seemed to acquire the upper hand in this economic struggle, but if Iran’s growth can be constrained by other means, the GCC may be much more willing to accept some of the geopolitical consequences of the Iran nuclear deal.