Turbo-charged diplomacy

Tuesday 21 Mar 2023

Iran is accelerating its efforts at reconciliation with its Arab neighbours in the Gulf, reports Ahmed Mustafa

Turbo-charged diplomacy


While Iran, China and Russia were holding joint naval drills in the Gulf of Oman last weekend, Iranian National Security Head Ali Shamkhani visited Abu Dhabi to meet with his Emirati counterpart as well as the UAE president. The visit took place only a few days after Shamkhani returned from Beijing where he signed a landmark deal with his Saudi counterpart to restore Saudi-Iranian relations.

Some media outlets that traditionally hold a more hostile position on the UAE and other Gulf countries quickly highlighted Shamkhani’s visit as “another sign” of the widening rift between UAE and Saudi Arabia. These sources and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated accounts on social media have claimed that Iran was briefing the Emiratis on the Saudi deal rather than the UAE receiving a direct briefing from Riyadh as would be expected. According to different Emirati and Saudi sources, Abu Dhabi is always abreast of Riyadh on regional matters. When Emirati officials were asked about the timing of the visit, the response was that it had been planned long before the Beijing announcement and was postponed as Shamkhani went to China.

In fact, the UAE, which severed its diplomatic relations with Iran along with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries restored those relations last fall. Emirati National Security Head Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed paid both secret and public visits to Tehran in recent years. Trade and economic relations between the two sides of the Gulf never stopped, despite witnessing a drop at various points as a result of American pressure on the UAE to loosen the economic strangulation of Iran.

Though official media didn’t provide details of the senior Iranian officials’ discussions with Abu Dhabi’s rulers, it is understood that stopping the war in Yemen was high on the agenda along with Iran’s options to break through the deadlock in talks to revive its nuclear deal with major world powers. This is not to mention enhancing trade and economic cooperation, as Iran traditionally depends on the UAE as a main route of business dealing with the outside world.

Even though the UAE normalised relations with Israel in 2020, antagonising Iran, the two countries have somehow maintained a relatively civil relation. The UAE presents itself as a “peace and stability” kingpin in the region and tries to diffuse tensions that might lead to military conflict. If Iran is modifying its approach to its Arab Gulf neighbours, Abu Dhabi will understandably be a frequent stop for turbo-charged diplomatic efforts to normalise relations across the Gulf.

Iranian media is upbeat about a shift in relations between Tehran and Gulf Arab capitals. The latest in that regard was a report by the Mehr news agency that Bahrain is mulling over resuming direct flights between Manama and Tehran. Bahrain is the only Gulf Arab country with no embassy in Tehran, and animosity between the two countries is deeper than elsewhere in the Gulf. With a major Shiite community, Manama has consistently accused Iran of instigating disturbances in Bahrain. The Tehran media highlighted a visit by the Iranian parliamentary delegation to Manama on Saturday as they met with their Bahraini counterparts.

Though little detail has officially emerged concerning the Chinese-brokered deal between the Saudis and the Iranians, leaks from Riyadh and Tehran indicate that Iran agreed to stop military assistance to its proxy in Yemen – the Houthi rebels. Last week, the Wall Street Journal quoted unnamed Saudi sources confirming the Iranian commitment towards peace in Yemen and stopping arms shipments to the Houthis. The American daily corroborated the information with confirmations from US officials.

As Iran has always denied arming the rebels in Yemen, it might be difficult to announce that it will stop doing so. But Iranian media outlet Shargh, which is close to the regime, reported that “an end to the war in Yemen is the beginning of an end to conflicts and tension in the region”. Other Iranian media outlets hinted that, in two weeks time, “everyone in the region will remember the ninth anniversary of the war in Yemen”. Yet, it stopped short of revealing how the Iranians are going to help stop the conflict in the war-torn country and facilitate the kind of political solution sought by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Shamkhani’s talks in Abu Dhabi this week were an important step in deliberating Iranian concessions in Yemen, and probably in other hotspots in the region where Iranian proxy militias are active. The Iranian daily Etemad reported that Iran’s nuclear deal and the war in Yemen were high on the agenda of Shamkhani’s discussions with Emirati officials.

The Beijing announcement put a timeframe of two months for steps to be taken to fulfil the deal. The priority for states in the Arabian Gulf is to see Iran put a hard stop on involving itself in its neighbours internal affairs and to end support for destabilising forces linked to Tehran. The nine-year-old war in Yemen is a top security concern, not only for neighbouring Saudi Arabia but for the rest of the region as well.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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