Improvement in Iran-Gulf relations

Manal Lotfy in London , Tuesday 23 Aug 2022

The prospect of a new nuclear deal with the West is enhancing coordination between Tehran and its regional rivals,.

Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed al-Nahyan   Ali Shamkhan
File Photo: Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) National Security Adviser, meets with Ali Shamkhani, Iran s Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, in Tehran on December 6, 2021. AFP


Are Iran-Gulf relations improving just at the right time before the announcement of a new nuclear deal between Tehran and the West?

This week, the UAE declared that its ambassador to Iran, Saif Mohamed Al-Zaabi, would return to Tehran “in the coming days” more than six years after the Gulf Arab state downgraded its diplomatic relations with Iran in 2016 in solidarity with Saudi Arabia after the storming of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran by Iranian demonstrators in protest at the Saudi execution of the prominent Shia cleric Nimr Al-Nimr.

The UAE decision to restore its ambassador in Tehran is in line with its efforts to strengthen relations with its regional rival in order “to achieve the common interests of the two countries and the wider region,” the UAE Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Earlier this month, Kuwait also restored its ambassador to Tehran after six years of absence when it also downgraded diplomatic relations with Tehran in solidarity with Saudi Arabia.

Relations between Riyadh and Tehran are also gradually improving. The two countries have held five rounds of bilateral talks with Iraqi mediation to ease the tensions between them over regional crises including that in Yemen.

The timing of the UAE and Kuwaiti steps to return their ambassadors to Tehran is additionally significant in that the nuclear talks between Iran and the West are entering a crucial stage, and there is optimism in Tehran, Washington, and the European capitals that a deal could be announced in September.

Although the nuclear deal focuses on curtailing Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of sanctions, there is also a realisation that without regional support for the new deal it will be short-lived. That regional support is contingent upon an Iran-Gulf rapprochement aimed at easing tensions and creating a favourable environment in which a nuclear deal can succeed and develop later to include Iran’s missile programme and regional activities.

Amid the growing European and US conviction that regional support is important to preserving any nuclear agreement, US President Joe Biden spoke this week to German chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron, and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as the US weighs a response to Tehran’s position on the latest proposals.

The leaders discussed “ongoing negotiations” towards a deal, including “the need to strengthen support for partners in the Middle East region,” according to a US summary.

They also talked about “joint efforts to deter and constrain Iran’s destabilising regional activities,” the readout from the White House said.

The four-way talks between Biden and the European leaders give the impression that the US administration is keen to reassure the Gulf states that their interests and security will be taken into account in any agreement with Tehran. This is in contrast to the original deal signed under the former Obama administration, accused of not listening to the concerns of the Gulf countries.

But even so, the US assurances to the Gulf may be too little, too late. UAE diplomatic sources in London told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Gulf states began re-evaluating their relations with Tehran in 2019 independently of US Middle East policy.

“There is a realisation that the countries of the region need to protect their security by a rapprochement with Iran. This rapprochement is important and beneficial for the entire region because when missiles fall on Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, the cost is not only the damages to oil facilities but also the outflow of foreign capital and investment. Security equals prosperity; it is as simple as that,” a UAE diplomat told the Weekly.

The idea that Gulf-Iran relations are developing independently of Washington is supported by evidence.

After years of hostility and geopolitical rivalries, the UAE began communicating with Tehran following attacks on tankers in Gulf waters and on Saudi energy infrastructure. It proposed Gulf participation in “collective diplomacy” to reach an agreement with Iran on the security of the region.

Last month, the UAE foreign minister and his Iranian counterpart had a telephone conversation and discussed strengthening relations.

Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the UAE president, emphasised that his country was “taking steps to de-escalate tensions with Iran as part of a policy choice towards diplomacy and away from confrontation.”

A few months ago, the UAE and Iran signed an economic cooperation agreement, and last December Turkey, Iran, and the UAE signed a similar agreement under which goods are sent from the UAE to Iran and then to Turkey over land.

UAE National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan, brother of UAE Ruler Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, visited Iran last year to look at developing economic and political relations. Sheikh Tahnoon is entrusted with strategic roles, including improving UAE relations with Turkey, drafting a peace agreement with Israel, and developing the UAE’s relations with China, Russia, and Syria.

The announcement of the return of the Emirati ambassador to Tehran this week therefore comes within the framework of a steady improvement in relations.

Gulf officials said the strategic decision to improve relations with Tehran came after a “disappointing American response” to the attacks carried out by the Houthis in Yemen on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and the US removal of the Houthis from its list of terrorist organisations in hopes of a diplomatic breakthrough that would end the Yemeni war.

Another reason for the recent improvement in relations is the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West. A nuclear deal could be reached soon because of the West’s need to reduce Iran’s nuclear activities and keep its programme under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The Gulf states do not want to be a spoiler.

“We welcome the deal, but this deal will not include Iran’s regional activities or its proxies, and thus improving bilateral relations between Tehran and the Gulf aims to address the shortcomings of the new deal. When the deal is done, it is better to get the blessing of the region. This could help persuade Iran to curb its destabilising activities,” a Gulf diplomat told the Weekly.

Another factor helping to improve relations is the Russian-Ukrainian war. In this crisis, the Gulf seems closer to China, Russia, and Iran than to the US and Europe.

Even before the crisis started, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Gulf countries cooperated closely in the OPEC Plus group of countries to support energy prices on the global market, and this has been strengthened since the start of the war in February.

Cooperation is expected to continue once Iran returns to the global oil market after a nuclear deal is reached and Tehran seeks to win back former major clients such as India and South Korea and its biggest client China.

The cooperation could be tested soon as Saudi Arabia has warned it could choose to lead the OPEC Plus group in cutting oil production if prices continue to fall, arguing that they have become “disconnected” from the fundamentals of the market.

Saudi Energy Minister Abdul-Aziz bin Salman told the US Bloomberg TV channel that OPEC Plus had “the capability to reduce output at any time and in different ways,” with crude prices having fallen from nearly $120 a barrel in June to about $95 a barrel at present.

His comments suggest that Saudi Arabia is unhappy with the latest drop in oil prices. He argued that increased investment in the energy sector is needed to help meet rising global demand and warned that there is little spare capacity available should Russian supplies fall sharply under Western sanctions.

Many countries have welcomed the falling oil prices, including the US where Biden has made them a pillar of his campaign ahead of the midterm elections in November. Biden travelled to Saudi Arabia earlier this summer, in part to push the country to increase oil production to help keep prices under control.

The cooperation between Iran and the Gulf may be more urgent as the date of the nuclear deal approaches because while Iran wants to pump millions of barrels of oil a day to regain its lost share in the global market and address its internal economic problems, the OPEC Plus countries, especially Saudi Arabia and Russia, do not want to see a drop in oil prices.

Coordination with Tehran will therefore be of great importance, and the Saudi oil minister’s statement suggests that Riyadh will indeed move to reduce its production when Iran returns to the global market in order to ensure that prices are kept close to $100 per barrel.

The nuclear agreement when it was reached in 2015 and then abandoned in 2018 was the cause of great tension between the Gulf and Iran. But the prospects of a 2022 nuclear deal open the door to improved relations.

However, any long-term improvement will depend on security understandings between the Gulf and Iran in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and these are still in their infancy.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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