Analysis: The Gulf-Iran channel

Ahmed Mostafa , Wednesday 27 Jan 2021

The Gulf-Iran rapprochement seems to be imminent, but will it be out of good will or strategic concerns

GCC summit
GCC summit (photo: Reuters)

Last week, statements from almost every party in the Gulf welcomed the prospect of dialogue with Iran. Analysts in both the region and the West are not too optimistic about a speedy breakthrough, however. The flurry of rhetoric took place in the wake of the reconciliation between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours earlier this month, during the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit in Saudi Arabia. It also coincided with a new American administration taking office that is intent on overturning its predecessor’s policies.

The day before US President Joe Biden’s inauguration, the Qatari Foreign Minister Mohamed Bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani urged the Gulf countries to open a channel for dialogue with Iran in the hope of settling the long-standing struggle, offering to mediate the process. In an interview with Bloomberg TV, he said his government was “hopeful” that a summit between Iranian officials and GCC leaders could take place soon. “We still believe this should happen,” he added.

Qatar has of course welcomed Joe Biden’s widely anticipated recalibration of the US approach to Iran, hoping to capitalise on the reconciliation with GCC members Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain along with Egypt to reclaim its long-sought regional role.

Speaking of the possibility that Washington would re-engage with Iran and rejoin the nuclear deal, Mohamed Bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani said, “we hope they can reach a solution [that] will help reconcile the GCC and Iran... At the end of the day, everything is interconnected.”

Qatar strengthened its ties with Iran since the four countries boycotted Doha in 2017, accusing it of supporting militant groups and interfering in its neighbours’ internal affairs. After the reconciliation Qatar stressed that its enhanced relations with Iran and Turkey will continue and grow.

The Qatari offer to mediate a dialogue with Iran fell on deaf ears in the Gulf capitals. But Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif welcomed Qatar’s call. He tweeted: “As we have consistently emphasised, the solution to our challenges lies in collaboration to jointly form a ‘strong region’: peaceful, stable, prosperous & free from global or regional hegemony.”

In an unrelated comment, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhan Al Saud told Al Arabiya TV channel this week that his country “stands ready for a rapprochement with Iran”, adding that Tehran is the one that refuses to commit to de-escalating tensions. He said, “our arms are outstretched for peace with Iran, but it does not commit itself to agreements”, adding that Iran’s “calls for dialogue are meant to divert attention from its own crises”.

The Iranians were quick to welcome what they interpreted as a Saudi change of tone. The Tehran Times quoted an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson as saying, “If Riyadh seriously puts policy reforms on its agenda and concludes that the solution to problems lies in regional cooperation, Iran will be the first country to welcome these reforms”. He added: “We have always stressed that regional countries should arrive at a common understanding regarding regional problems... The Saudis may have some concerns, and by the way we emphasise that we need to talk about these concerns.”

Yet mistrust between Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular and the UAE to some extent will not make it easy to start direct dialogue between GCC and Iran, which is keen to cut a deal with its Arab neighbours across the Gulf separate from any deal with America and the West.

Though some reports have mentioned secret talks between Iran and the Biden administration – even before the inauguration on 20 January – sources are sceptical of any major development on that front. New US Secretary of State Antony Blinken downplayed the possibility of Washington rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the Iran nuclear deal is called, which the Trump administration withdrew from in 2018.

He told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee at an appointment confirmation hearing a day before the inauguration that the new administration “would need to see what Iran actually did to resume complying with the pact”.

Blinken also noted that the concerns of Iran’s neighbours need to be considered and the Tehran missile programme should also be included in a wider deal. The Gulf countries might prefer to wait for the Biden administration to include them in a deal, rather than go into early direct dialogue with Iran.

Nevertheless, the general atmosphere in the Gulf is softening on Iran even though the principal cause for concern remains the same. It was hardly far-fetched that a prominent Emirati figure and former speaker of the National Council should suggest that the UAE might play a role in opening a dialogue between Iran and Israel.

In an opinion article published by the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, the Emirati academic Ebtesam Al-Ketbi wrote, “many Emirati officials have asserted that [the Abraham Accord] is not meant to provoke any hostility towards Iran, but rather promote stability, development and security. Any reasonable mind can see this as an opportunity, allowing the UAE to serve as a mediator facilitating a less hostile dialogue between Iran and Israel.”

That might fare no better than the Qatari initiative, but what it all means is that, once the Biden administration is done with the most pressing domestic issues, the environment will indeed be ripe for a deal with Iran.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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