It was confirmed this week by the Iranian media, quoting a Foreign Ministry spokesman, that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has sent letters to the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and Iraq, officially proposing plans outlined in his speech at the UN in New York in September dubbed “Coalition for Hope” and setting out ideas for cooperation on regional security.
However, there has been no response from any Arab Gulf country, and none of the countries have acknowledged receipt of the letters.
The Gulf media almost completely ignored the Iranian announcement, as it did when ideas were set out for the Gulf countries to take responsibility for security in the Strait of Hormuz rather than an international coalition led by the United States and probably including Israel.
Bahrain recently hosted an international maritime security conference discussing ways to protect the international waterway in the Gulf against Iranian threats.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Seyyed Abbas Mousavi confirmed reports on Saturday regarding the sending of the letters to the six GCC countries and Iraq.
“After the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran put forward the Hormuz Peace Endeavour at this year’s United Nations General Assembly in New York, he sent its full text to the heads of the aforementioned countries, calling for collective cooperation in implementing it,” he said.
Rouhani had spoken at the September UN General Assembly meetings about uniting regional countries in a pact of non-aggression and non-interference in each other’s affairs. The proposal came after a number of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf and at Saudi oil installations that were blamed on Tehran, which denied any involvement.
Rouhani said that “the security of the region shall be assured when the American troops pull out… and in the event of an incident, we shall not remain alone. We are neighbours with each other and not with the United States.”
It was not expected that the GCC countries, especially Saudi Arabia, would respond to the Iranian proposals. They see the current crisis in the region as mainly due to tensions between Tehran and Washington and the result of Iran’s interference in its Gulf neighbours’ internal affairs and support for proxy militant groups in the region.
The announcement of the overture by Tehran came while US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was in the region and as Washington and the GCC countries have jointly imposed new sanctions on 25 corporations, banks and individuals linked to Iran.
The US policy of “maximum pressure” towards Iran is continuing, and while Iran is still resisting it, Washington and its Gulf allies expect Tehran to blink soon and to agree to negotiate on not only its nuclear programme but also on its other policies.
Popular protests in Lebanon and Iraq are denting Iran’s influence in the region. One British pundit closely following Middle East affairs said that the US and its allies were expecting these protests challenging Iran’s interests to be replicated in Tehran.
The Iranian government has managed to survive the sanctions until now with little popular revolt. But if the streets turn on the government, Tehran will be in a position where its arms arsenal and proxy militias will not be of great help and it will have to go to the negotiating table in a weak position and accept the proposals of its Gulf neighbours.
For this reason, Iran’s call has gone almost unheard, with many in the Gulf seeing it as a bluff by the Iranian leadership to circumvent the real issues and avoid further pressure from Washington. As Saudi analyst Abdel-Aziz Al-Khamis put it, “words don’t matter; what matters are actions.”
This is not the first time Iran has floated the idea of direct negotiations with the GCC countries away from the Americans, and there’s no reason to believe it will work this time either.
Tehran might think the US administration is busy with internal matters, or that the Gulf countries are wary of Washington’s abandoning its allies after what happened to the Kurds in Syria. But as one Gulf academic noted, such perceptions are wrong. The Gulf countries will not be able to trust Iran until it shows a real change in its regional policies, he said.
However, any rapprochement between Iran and its Gulf neighbours could help in future negotiations between Tehran and Washington.
Such messages might not always fall on deaf ears. Oman and Kuwait are hoping for a direct dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but neither country has commented so far on the recent Iranian letters.
It is likely they do not want to see a repeat of the failure of mediation efforts after the Qatar crisis three years ago, so all contacts are off radar until a positive outcome is on the horizon.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.