Concerns over Iran’s aggressive expansionist goals were the driving factor behind the 1981 creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a regional political, economic and security alliance comprised of six Arab monarchies—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman. Iran has viewed the region as a rich target for the export of its revolutionary ideology given the substantial Shi’a minorities in several of its member states, namely Saudi Arabia, which has a sizeable Shi’a minority concentrated mainly in its oil-rich Eastern Province; Bahrain, whose 70-75 percent Shi’a majority is ruled by a Sunni monarchy; and Kuwait, whose Shi’a population stands at 33 percent.
Iran’s attempts to exacerbate internal sectarian divides, foment unrest and topple the GCC monarchies date back to the establishment of the Islamic Republic following the 1979 revolution. The leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, claimed that hereditary monarchies such as the GCC states were illegitimate under Islam, and sought to become not just the leader of Iran, but of the entire Islamic world, threatening Saudi Arabia’s legitimacy as the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites.
Khomeini began stoking tensions with Saudi Arabia and the GCC nations immediately after taking power by backing Shi’a militias and political parties throughout the Gulf. In 1981, an Iranian and IRGC-supported proxy movement carried out a failed coup attempt in Bahrain, one of Iran’s first actions to export the Islamic Revolution. Iran also regularly engaged in incitement of Shi’a pilgrims to Mecca for the annual hajj throughout the 1980s. Growing increasingly more radical over time, Iranian pilgrims sought to propagandize and proselytize, spreading the principles of Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution directly to the pilgrims of other nationalities.
Midway through the 1980s, an organization called Hezbollah al-Hijaz, or Saudi Hezbollah, was formed in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and operating in Bahrain and Kuwait as well. Saudi Hezbollah was “inspired, supported, and directed by elements of the Iranian government,” with Iran providing training for the group’s affiliated clergy, as well as money and military training. The group’s potency grew as a reaction to Saudi Arabia’s Wahabbi regime’s harsh treatment of the Shi’a minority.
Saudi Hezbollah carried out terrorist activities during the 1980s and 90s targeting the ruling monarchy and U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf. The group carried out a number of attacks targeting Saudi oil and petrochemical facilities, and on June 25, 1996, bombed the Khobar Towers housing compound in Dhahran where U.S. and allied forces supporting air operations in Iraq were housed, killing 19 American servicemen and injuring hundreds of others.
Hezbollah’s recruitment of Gulf Shi’a centered around the Sayyeda Zainab shrine in Damascus. According to a 2001 indictment of the group for its role in the Khobar Towers bombing, “Saudi Hizballah drew its members primarily from among young men of the Shi'ite faith who resided in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, near the Persian Gulf. Those young men would frequently have their first contact with Saudi Hezbollah during religious pilgrimages to the Sayyeda Zeinab shrine. There, they would be approached by Saudi Hezbollah members to gauge their loyalty to Iran and dislike for the government of Saudi Arabia. Young men who wished to join Saudi Hezbollah then would be transported to Hezbollah-controlled areas in Lebanon for military training and indoctrination.”
Iran’s role in the formation and activities of Hezbollah al-Hijaz, as well as its support for subversive actions targeting the Gulf monarchies, show how it has sought to export the Hezbollah model to the GCC. Capitalizing on the grievances of Gulf Shi’a chafing under Sunni regimes wary of Iranian influence, Iran moved to embed militant proxies committed to weakening the ruling monarchies and propagating Iran’s Islamist ideology.
Iran’s sectarian meddling in the Gulf has been especially pronounced since the 2011 “Arab Spring.” Iran viewed the nascent wave of democratization spreading to countries such as Tunisia and Egypt as an opportunity to exploit in the Gulf nations with sizeable Shi’a populations. Acting as the “self-declared defender of Shi’a causes,” Iran embarked on a campaign to empower the Gulf region’s Shi’a and destabilize the Sunni monarchies by supporting Shi’a protest movements (especially in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and Bahrain), calls for reforms, political parties, and militias. Iran has also had a hand in a spate of terrorist attacks and assorted other subversive activities. Nevertheless, the Gulf nations have weathered the Iran- fueled breakdown of the regional order intact, largely through suppression, while warily viewing the carnage and increased sectarian tensions as a threat to their own regimes’ survival.
Iran has successfully been able to increase its regional influence at the expense of its geopolitical adversaries by exporting the Hezbollah model, cheaply and effectively anchoring loyal terrorist proxies in neighboring countries. Iran has complemented its proxies’ military activities with educational, charitable, and media campaigns geared toward creating patronage networks and parallel state structures that serve to weaken central governments. Iran’s subversive outreach has enabled it to become the dominant political and military player in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, and to wield significant influence in the Palestinian territories and the Gulf.
In its bid to export the Islamic Revolution throughout the Middle East, Iran has created “a vast network of Iranian clients that all share a confessional identity. … What is more is that these partnerships appear, especially to Iran’s enemies and Sunni rivals, to be transforming into a transnational movement of Shi’a militancy under the command of Iran.” Under the direction of former Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s proxy militias around the region have increased their cooperation and coordination with each other and demonstrated willingness to fight not just in their localized arena, but to contribute to the Shi’a war effort wherever the exigency is greatest. Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has indicated a desire to marshal this veritable foreign legion against Israel in the event of a future war. “It [an Israeli attack on Lebanon] would open the door for hundreds of thousands of fighters from all around the Arab and Islamic world to participate in this fight—from Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan,” warned Nasrallah in June 2017.
In a sense, Iran’s greatest weakness is also its greatest strength. Iran’s reinforcement of explicitly sectarian narratives has hardened Sunni attitudes toward Iran and Shi’as more broadly, contributing to increased suppression and the rise of ISIS and other jihadi organizations. In turn, the conflicts engulfing the region have taken on existential urgency for Shi’as, drawing them closer to Iran and its proxies as the guarantor of their survival. This turn of events has boosted the spread of Iran’s revolutionary ethos, but ultimately, Iran’s quest for ideological expansion has served to engender further radicalization and retrenchment on both sides of the Sunni-Shi’a divide, making the region’s conflicts increasingly destabilizing and intractable.