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US Pressure Builds on Iran, With Gulf States' Backing

The wreckage of a bus remains at the site of an airstrike in Saada, Yemen, on Aug. 10, 2018. Yemen's Shiite rebels are backing a U.N. call for an investigation into a Saudi-led coalition airstrike in the country's north that killed dozens of people the previous day, including many children.

New U.S economic sanctions took effect against Iran this week, targeting the Islamic Republic's automotive industry as well as its ability to purchase U.S. dollars and trade in gold.

The European Union, Russia, China and Iraq broadly criticized the new sanctions, while Iranian neighbors Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, which have backed the Trump administration's more confrontational approach with Tehran, remained largely silent.

Yousef al-Otaiba, UAE's ambassador to Washington, told VOA that Iran needs to be shown that its actions have consequences.

"Iran's behavior has to be associated with consequences," he said. "What are these consequences? That's something we should figure out together."

Al-Otaiba added that Iran's proxies in the region were acting based on its interests and advancing its regional goals and ambitions.

"Iran has consistently supported and funded terrorist groups and proxies throughout the Middle East," he contended. "The one thing all those groups have in common is their goal to destabilize the region."

Gulf reaction

Sunni Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have been at odds with Shiite Iran for decades, engaging in a complex proxy war that has influenced conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

FILE - Saudi-led coalition spokesman, Colonel Turki al-Malki, displays Iran-aligned Houthi drones, brought down April 11 over Jizan and Abha, during a news conference in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, April 16, 2018.
FILE - Saudi-led coalition spokesman, Colonel Turki al-Malki, displays Iran-aligned Houthi drones, brought down April 11 over Jizan and Abha, during a news conference in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, April 16, 2018.

As those conflicts play out on battlefields, the three countries have backed the Trump administration's tightening measures on Tehran.

Last month, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir voiced concerns about Iran's support for sectarian strife and terrorism in the region.

On the sidelines of the eighth session of the China-Arab Cooperation Forum in Beijing, al-Jubeir told Asharq Al-Awsat, a London-based pro-Saudi newspaper, that Iran is actively interfering in the affairs of Arab countries.

"We believe in the sovereignty of states and therefore reject Iran's interference in the affairs of Arab countries, in addition to its support to sectarian strife and terrorism," al-Jubeir said.

Following the U.S. designation of Bahrain-based al-Ashtar Brigades as a global terrorist organization, Bahrain welcomed the decision and vowed support for U.S. efforts to undermine Iranian-backed terror groups in the region.

"The Kingdom of Bahrain welcomes the decision of the United States Department of State in designating individuals affiliated with al-Ashtar Brigades as Specially Designated Global Terrorists," a statement by the kingdom's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

Iran's reaction

Iran denies charges that it is sponsoring terrorism and supporting terrorist groups in the region.

The country's president, Hassan Rouhani, told Iranian state TV this week that his country was working to decrease tensions in the region.

"We are willing to decrease tensions in the region and our goal is to bring back peace and friendship," he said. "We always maintain good relationships with our neighbors and we want to remove tension generated within the region. ... Iran has never instigated a war and has always championed for peace and calmness in the region."

Gulf lobbying

Some Iranian analysts maintain the U.S.-led efforts to pressure Iran are a direct result of strong lobbying by Gulf states in Washington.

"The coalition between Bahrain, UAE and Saudi Arabia has long lobbied against Tehran in Washington, and is pushing the Trump administration toward a harsher policy against Iran," said Ali Sarraf, a Tehran-based Persian Gulf region analyst.

Shuaib Bahman, a Tehran-based Middle East affairs analyst, echoed Sarraf's assessment but argued that Gulf states are not as united as they portray themselves to be.

"Due to the territorial dispute among the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC, they couldn't stand a unanimous stance against Iran and limited the action to release [a] proclamation," Bahman said.

Meir Javedanfar, an analyst on Iran at the Interdisciplinary Center, an Israeli-based research institute, said he believed Iran's power projection beyond its borders had indeed united the Gulf states.

"Gulf states are worried about Iran reaching Yemen," he said. "They are concerned that the trade route through Bab el-Mandeb will be disrupted if Iranian-backed Houthis get a stronger stance in Yemen, which can impact the security and the stability in the entire region."