By Saeid Jafari for Al-Monitor —
Two years ago, Hassan Rouhani was elected president on his promise of constructive engagement with the world, including Iran’s Arab neighbors. After winning the vote, Rouhani told an Al Jazeera reporter, “Our priority is improving our relationship with our neighbors. The states of the Persian Gulf are not only our neighbors, but our brothers.”
That objective has not been met. Instead, mutual accusations of undue interference in the other’s internal affairs have become the norm.
After the nuclear deal, Iran’s relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states top the agenda. To explain the dynamics, GCC attitudes toward Iran must be understood.
Oman is Iran’s only reliable friend on the Arabian Peninsula, and has been since the time of the shah. Sultan Qaboos’ role in the nuclear negotiations was significant enough that upon the deal’s announcement, Rouhani tweeted that he had spoken with Oman’s ruler and thanked him. In an interview with Aftab-e Yazd, Atomic Energy Organization of Iran chief Ali Akbar Salehi said, “When I was foreign minister [2010-13], the United States communicated its intention to hold direct talks with Iran through Oman. After two rounds of negotiations, Sultan Qaboos wrote a letter to [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, saying that he has witnessed the US delegates declaring that they will agree to Iranians enriching uranium inside Iran.”
Oman may also play a role in improving regional ties. Al-Arab has reported on the possibility of Muscat acting as a mediator to help Iran improve its realtions with Egypt. Regardless of the accuracy of this report, the trajectory of Omani-Iranian ties suggests that this relationship will expand, and Iran will continue to utilize Qaboos’ influence.
While not as friendly, Kuwait and Qatar are both potential friends of Iran. Qatar has enjoyed good relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, disagreements about the so-called Arab Spring and the Muslim Brotherhood caused friction between Doha and Riyadh, while relations with Tehran improved. Indeed, Qatar is among the Arab states that expressed support for a nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers. At a recent meeting with visiting Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Qatari emir emphasized that his country “had never had any problems with Iran and has always supported Iran’s right to use nuclear technology.”
In an interview with Al-Monitor, Qasem Mohebali — a former director general of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’s Middle East section — said, “Qatar is trying to play its own game. Sometimes it is in the same line with the Saudis and sometime it is aligned with Iran. Qatar has its own worries, as they know that if the sanctions are removed, Iran will increase its extraction of natural gas in the South Pars fields, which will not be in Qatar’s best interest. At the same time, Doha is also interested in demonstrating its position as an independent player and wants to leave the Saudi sphere of influence.” Considering Qatar’s history of acting independently and the rise in tension between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which went as far as GCC countries recalling their ambassadors to Qatar, we should expect Doha to continue acting independently of Riyadh.
Meanwhile, Kuwait has traditionally not had significant issues with Iran. This is partly due to its sizable Shiite community, which acts as an influential pro-Iran lobby. Zarif also visited Kuwait on his latest regional tour, meeting with his Kuwaiti counterpart and the emir, who congratulated Iran on the nuclear deal. Increased cooperation between Iran and GCC states was welcomed, with emphasis on the need for collaboration against terrorism and extremism in the region. Specifically, Kuwait’s foreign minister stressed, “All countries in the region unanimously agree that we should start a comprehensive regional dialogue with Iran, as one of the important and influential countries in the region. We collaborate with many countries and many regional and international organizations, so why shouldn’t we do the same with Iran?”
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) currently have a tense relationship with Iran. Zarif did not visit any of these countries during his regional tour. Iranian tensions with Bahrain largely stem from matters related to Bahraini “Arab Spring” protests in 2011, the UAE has a long-running dispute with Iran over three islands in the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia is a traditional rival powerhouse. After the announcement of the nuclear deal, the first official Saudi reaction was carefully articulated by Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir: “Iran should use this agreement to improve the situation inside Iran and should not try to use it for ‘adventurism‘ in the region.”
This mindset was also conveyed by the former general manager of the Saudi-owned outlet Al Arabia, Abdulrahman Al Rashed, who wrote, “What we fear is the deal strengthening the hawks in Tehran and therefore postponing any positive transition within or outside the Iranian regime for a decade or two. The authority of evil governments, such as Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq, Bashar al-Assad’s in Syria and Moammar [Gadhafi’s] in Libya, has either fallen or weakened, and the Iranian regime was afraid that it will face the same fate.”
Moving forward, what can Iran do to manage its ties with GCC states, particularly in a climate when intra-GCC tensions are prevalent?
Mohebali, the former Middle East section head at the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Al-Monitor, “Iran should assume a three-pronged approach. First, Iran should act nobly and should not threaten or use force against these countries. It might be true that these countries did not behave properly when Iran was under sanctions, but at present, increasing tension is not in our best interest. Second, we should hold direct talks with each of these countries instead of using a mediator. Third, we should engage in dialogue with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia plays an undeniable role in the regional equations. We might have disagreements with Riyadh, but the most pragmatic thing is to try and manage these conflicts. We should try to decrease the tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia and bring it to a controllable level.”
Even though Tehran wishes to manage its issues with its neighbors, it is not yet clear whether all GCC states are as willing to reciprocate those efforts.