Why does Iran have such a different relationship with the West from that of its Gulf Arab neighbours?

Essay, 2018
8 Pages, Grade: 68

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This essay intends to justify the differences of the Iran’s relationship with the West in comparison with its Arab neighbours located in Persian Gulf. Such different outlook towards the West by Iran originates from the 1950 national state as well as 1979 Islamic revolution of Iran which will be going to discussed in this essay. Both political movements are rooted from and affected on Iranians outlooks and gradually reformed the relationship with the West. In fact, the relationship with the West is the response to the long-term western socio-political and cultural influence in Iran, more particularly about 30 years of US domination over the country. The main section will then explore the revolution itself and how this drastically changed Iran’s foreign policy, with a look at the resulting Constitution and immediate aftermath. Finally, there will be a brief analysis of how relations stand more recently outlining and how further disagreements and ideological hostility continue to fuel the broken relations between the US and Iran. Whilst, charting the more up and down relations between Iran and the West/Europe which can be viewed as being on the mend. (Cleveland and Bunton 2016, p.355)

Brief Historical background to the region:

To better understand the differences between two different policies towards the West in Persian Gulf region, it is necessary to have a brief look at the historical background of Iran and the Arab neighbours. Apart from Iran, there are seven Arab countries located around the Gulf: Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. These Arab countries have been formed from several tribes where one powerful tribe today is the monarch or Amir of the country ruling over the other tribes living in that country. All mentioned countries were colonised by Portuguese, Ottomans and later by Great Britain for several centuries. Since 19th century the Gulf Arab countries became the colony of the Great Britain and followed by later dependency on US (Said,1994, pp.52,96). On the contrary, Iran was not colonised by the West, but, was influenced by Russia and almost Great Britain for a century. The National government of Dr Mohammad Mosaddegh ended the British influence in Iran by nationalising Oil industry in 1950. Since 1953 when the cabinet of Mosaddegh was overthrew by the US coup and return of Shah, Iran became heavy under influence of the US until 1979 Islamic revolution. (Mohajer and Vahabi 2011, p.113)

Generally, US dominated Iran about 30 years, and prior to that about a century semi- colonisation created by British government resulted in political-economic dependency of Iran to the West. Thus, it can be said that 1979 Islamic revolution was, in fact, response to a century of western sovereignty over Iran. This, as the historical geography, can be one of the main difference between Iran and Arab neighbours concerning the relationship with the western countries. In fact, Iranian challenged the British historical influence and US long-term hegemony over the country which resulted in forming the new strategy of foreign policy for post-revolutionary Iran. In other word, while the Gulf Arab countries political and economic dependencies to the West were strengthened, Iran increased its independency in all dimensions to the West at the same time. Struggling for such independency has accompanied with international costs politically and economically for Iran (Abrahamian,1991, p.110). (Kurzman,2005, p.33).

Overview of Iran’s relations with the West:

The US and the West supported monarchy was overthrown in 1979 and replace by an Islamic regime. In other word, the peak point of the different outlooks of Iran and the Gulf Arab neighbours towards the western relationship goes back to the Islamic revolution. (Cleveland and Bunton 2016, p.349.)

The revolution which followed by the establishment of the Islamic republic of Iran did put Iran on a radical path of transforming its political, social, cultural and economic structure by declaring a new constitution as a replacement to Shah’s secular pro-west regime. (Jeneau, 2016, p.651).

In addition, strong support of Shah by the western countries during the revolution movement led to the challenge of the relationship with West by the new regime of Iran. This led to formulating a new political strategy directed the Iran’s policy of relations with the West in opposite to what the Shah did act. At the same time, the Gulf Arab neighbours strengthened their political integration and economic association with the West particularly the US. It is notable that US and western countries supposed the new regime of Iran as the serious threat for their rules over the region. Thus, to defeat the threat of Iran in the Middle East area, US and western countries promoted and developed their economic treaties as well as strengthened the political ties with Arab neighbours of Iran. In turn, such actions, directly affected on the foreign policy of Iran with the West. (Hanieh,2013, p.37), (Green,1990, p.89). In addition, the long history of the West interfering into Iranian domestic politics in 19th and 20th century led the majority of Iranian people lost trust on the West and considered the US and the West as the enemy of the ‘independency’, ‘autonomy’ and the ‘freedom of decision making’ of Iranian people. Adding to the support of Shah even after the revolution, there have been some hostile events created by US and the West which increased and deepened the hatred of Iranians against US and the West and worsened the relationship with the western countries. (Cleveland and Bunton 2016, p.343), (Mohajer and Vahabi 2011, p.120).

For example, US and western countries strong support of the regime of Saddam in war with Iran (1980-1988) increased the Iranians hostility against US and those western countries who directly helped Saddam. During that war the US, Germany and France accepted and even aided Saddam’s repeated chemical attacks on Iranian forces and on cities using Sarin and Mustard gas by selling those chemical and psionic weapons to him. As another example, the attack from Vincennes US warship in Persian Gulf to Iran Air commercial flight towards Dubai full of civilians in the summer 1988 which resulted in death of 274 passengers and 20 crew members, deteriorated the hostility with US. Events as such, have many times repeated during the course of the history in the different fashion, which has resulted in the hostile approach of Iran towards the US and the West with complete lack of trust. It is the fact that political and economic relationship with the West post revolution reduced under the affection of such events. (Cooper,2012, p.127), (Beverley, 2011, p.227).

Therefore, the economic policy of Iran changed from the western relationship towards the new trading parties almost from China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, India and some central Asian countries. At the same time, US and some other western countries actively attempted to isolate Iran in the world through economic sanctions and political pressures. It is notable that during the periods which Iran was isolated by the West, the Gulf Arab states used the absence of Iran in the world economic market and played the role as a replacement of Iran in global market. This increased the cold relationship between Iran with the western countries and affected on its relationship with Arab neighbours. On the other hand, this resulted in deepening the political-economic dependency of those countries to the West. In order to consolidation of political and economic relations with the western countries, in 1981, Arab states established an alliance of convenience, and they strengthen their ties in strategical relations with the West under the goals of security and maintenance via the ideas as the rentier state paradigm to support pro-western regimes (Gary, 2011, p.8), (Amanat,2017, p.176).

Gulf Arab neighbours’ relations with the West:

The Gulf Arab countries have unique and structured policies towards the West. Their policy is defined by the ‘interchange’ amongst native states and western powers, particularly the US who regards the domestic stability and security concerns of the Arab states highly on its Middle East agenda. This is due to the fact that around sixty percent of the global oil comes from Persian Gulf which has a major influence on the global economy. In fact, the approach and strategy of the Arab states towards the West goes back to 19th century when the imperialism and capitalism were thoroughly expanded across the Middle East. Consequently, the Gulf area became an ‘economic periphery’ of the West. Brown (1984, p17) have argued that due to the impose of the international system via great powers, the Middle East in general and Arab states of Gulf in particular, became a ‘penetrated system’. Thus, they have been exploited and manipulated by western powers via economic support. (Hinnebusch,2003, p.42).

Therefore, the Arab states, needed to maintain this exploited relationship in order to be advanced and developed financially and politically. That is why Gulf Arab countries became the rentier states in the region. In fact, as Levins (2013, p. 388) argues, the Gulf Arab countries intended by this to survive their absolute monarchies. As a result, this significant penetration system of the West made the economy of the Gulf countries to be fully dependent on western powers. This, in turn, led the region to be subordinate to the core, that ultimately led to the lack of development of human capitaI and reliance of manufacture imports. (Fawcett, 2016, p.105), (Milani,1994, p.243).

The West and US regional interest is engrained in the history. During 19th and 20th century, the US governments created a ‘two-pillar’ strategy in the region which included Saudi and Iran as the two most powerful countries in the region with highest number of natural resources and high population rate. These two countries were being developed via obtaining military and security materials to protect US interests in the region. However, the increase of oil prices in 70s also helped two states to develop economically as well. the Islamic revolution, however destroyed this US regional policy. Consequently, the US made its ties and commitment strongly to Saudi via expanding its military presence in the Persian Gulf in order to sustain its economic and political hegemony. (Fawcett,2016, p.303), (Amiri, 2010, p. 201).

The event of the Islamic revolution transmitted a regional fear and sense of warning amongst Arab states which ultimately pulled them closer to the West and US to maintain their stability. The Arab states tried every opportunity to echo their fear. During the Iran-Iraq war in 80s, the GCC organised more readily under Saudi Arabia leadership, which was due to the fear that Iran might attack them, so for the first few years of the war, they gave vital aids and support to Saddam who had the full support of the West during the war. (Luciani,2009, p.92).

The Islamic revolution and Foreign Policy:

The Islamic revolution ultimately destroyed the ‘ US twin pillar policy’ which resulted in re- positioning of US policy and strategy to aid and support Saudi and Persian Gulf monarchies as the remaining states of the ‘pillar’ which led to leadership of Saudi in GCC. At the same time Iran strengthened its relationship with Russia, China and other eastern countries as well as Latin America and with South and North western countries such as Italy, Spain, Swiss, Norway, Sweden. (River,2017, p. 74), (Mohajer and Vahabi ,2011, p.120)

It is the fact, oil is one of the main keys which plays the fundamental role in Iran’s relationship with the West. Generally, while oil has developed the dependency of Gulf Arab countries on the West, Iran has taken the revenue of oil to develop its industry in general and military industry in particular which has strengthened the political independency of Iran. This in turn, has affected on the relationship of Iran with the West. The political discourses in Iran is based on terms such as ‘conspiracy, imperialist, spy, foreign danger’. This through its usual place in mainstream society, media and literature has produced a hostile feeling towards the West.

This mind-set, however, has resulted in reducing foreign intervention and affecting on public opinion towards the Iran’s relationship with the West. (Abrahamian,1991, p.116). In general, the post 1979 constitution of Iran is very specific on the issue of relationship with the West. The Constitution outlined a total rejection of colonialism and foreign intervention. As the result, the international policy of the Islamic regime of Iran was perceived with regards to the influence and presence of the revolution and the establishment of the theocratic state. This also, can provide us with a specific example of how revolution in accordance to ideological standpoints can adjust foreign policy of countries. Ayatollah Khomeini achieved a goal that could never be obtained earlier. He united the secular and religious opposition against the Shah and his idea of westernisations by chanting to be independent of western powers. (Buchan, 2013, p.103), (Rakel,2007, p.162).

Socio-Cultural and Economic Causes:

In general, Iran’s reconsideration in the relationship with the western countries after 1979 Islamic revolution has the long-term socio-cultural, economic and political background. Politically, the 1953 US coup against Dr Mosaddegh national government and the US hegemony until 1970 which resulted in political and economic dependency of Shah to the US, is one example in this regard. During years of US hegemony over Iran the country became the sale market of US and western products which gradually resulted in the collapse of domestic market and the national production failed. Under the hegemony of US, financial situation of people was daily getting worse and the profound class gap appeared in Iranian society. In fact, during that time Iran became a notable example as the application of ‘dependency theory’. In other word, during the Shah’s era under US hegemony the economic growth of US and other advanced industrialized countries not only did not lead to growth of Iran, but also led majority of Iranian people became poor. In fact, despite the proclaim of the Shah concerning modernising Iran, the country became ‘pseudo-modern’, as Katouzian asserts (Katouzian, 1981), (Tarock, 1999, p.59).

Pseudo-modernism led to the increasing gap between social classes, poverty and deprivation of people, and the situation became worse for labours and unemployment because of the imports from the West. Bureaucratic and state corruption formed the negative outlook towards the US and the West within Iranian’s mind during the years prior to the Islamic revolution. In other word, despotism and the absence of political freedom, social discrimination, increasing political prisoners, debauchery, de-Islamism and many other issues under the US hegemony over Iran, led to the negative opinion towards the US and western countries in Iran prior to the Islamic revolution affected on the policy making concerning the relationship with US and the West after the 1979 Islamic revolution. (Chelkowski, 1995, p.291), (Halliday, 2011, p.209).

It is notable that, many of the state officials after the Islamic revolution were prisoned or exiled during the monarchy of Shah. Among them, Ayatollah Khomeini the leader of the revolution is notable. He was in exile for two years in Turkey and about 15 years in Iraq during the time of Shah. During his stay in Iraq Khomeini criticised the US hegemony over the country and blamed the Shah because of his political and economic dependency to the US. He stood against the US and humiliated the Shah because of his weak character in supporting the Iranian wealth and identity. In fact, Khomeini himself and his followers who took the power after the revolution were fundamental figures to establish a hostile relation with the US and formed the new foreign policy of Iran with low rate of relationship with the West. (Cleveland and Bunton 2016, p.361), (Arjomand, 1989, p. 192)

All in all, the hostility and mistrust between Iran and the West is deeply rooted in the history. Based on the historical events, Iran has many fair and correct grievances towards the west intervention in their domestic policies which has always resulted in many catastrophes for Iranian people. However, this mistrust and hostility kept growing after the revolution by occurrence of various events that added to the fuel of the hostility and mistrust between Iran and the West, which has led post-revolutionary Iran to take a complete different path towards the West in comparison to its Arab neighbours.


Iran and its Gulf Arab neighbours have taken two different paths and approaches to relations with the West. Such different outlook goes back to different historical background of Iran and its Arab neighbours. Socio-culturally Iran is a nation which differs from the tribal state and society of Arab neighbours. In addition, Iran has structured its foreign policy as the independent government, while, all Arab neighbours located across the coast of Persian Gulf are politically and economically fully and deeply dependent to the West particularly US. (Charles,1996, p.58).

The essay has reached to the point that Iran represented a major pillar of US policy in the region until the drastic change in the states method of government brought about by the revolution based on notions such as anti-western intervention and independence. Anti- western sentiment increased as the Shah’s rule became more forceful and led to the rise of various opposition groups. The 1979 Islamic revolution reformulated the Shah’s foreign policy approach in fundamental way of independency. Khomeini the leader of the revolution succeeded to unify all challengers of the Shah in the goal of independency and freedom from the western influence and domination over the country. Thus, US and many western countries along with the Arab neighbours got frightened and worried soon after the triumph of the revolution which resulted in mutual foreign policies between the US, western and Arab neighbour’s relations with Iran. (Ehteshami, 1996, p20).

Today, relations are still continued to be tense and unfriendly between Iran and the US, despite almost standard political relation with some other western countries. In addition, today relations with the West is almost rooted from the historical domination and intervention of the US and the West over the Iran particularly the coup of 1953. In contrast, Iran’s Gulf Arab neighbours, notably Saudi Arabia continues to pursue a pro-western alliance partly in response to the Islamic republic among its security fears. The ideological change in 1979 caused a departure in Iran’s attitudes towards the West and vice versa which still holds affect today in their relationships. all in all, the revolution, reformulated the country’s relations with the West in a totally different path than its previous pro West view.


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Why does Iran have such a different relationship with the West from that of its Gulf Arab neighbours?
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iran, west, gulf, arab
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Amir Nateghpour (Author), 2018, Why does Iran have such a different relationship with the West from that of its Gulf Arab neighbours?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/442116


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