While the Chinese-brokered deal to restore Iranian-Saudi relations is on course, unconfirmed reports from the Gulf speak of an informal deal between the US and Iran.
This week, the UAE released 15 Iranian prisoners, following Kuwait releasing 11 and Qatar seven. This took place two weeks after Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian’s late June tour of four GCC countries: Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and UAE.
Iran’s change of attitude towards its Arab neighbours started with the failure of talks with the US and Western powers to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, from which the previous American administration withdrew in 2018.
Some analysts suggested that Tehran sought a regional instead of global reconciliation. With the issue of three Emirati islands in the Gulf occupied by Iran resurfacing, some reports claim Tehran is ready to negotiate a course of reconciliation with Abu Dhabi.
But Andrew Hammond, of Oxford University, disputes this whole idea: “Who said it was an alternative? If [the Iranians] are giving up claims to the three islands, one can only imagine it is part of some grander deal with the US and lifting sanctions… They would only trade the islands issue for something major,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly. “Any deal [with GCC countries] would only come after the US and Iran resolving issues.”
That makes sense in the light of reports in the New York Times and Axios a few days ago of progress in talks between Tehran and Washington, sponsored by Oman and Qatar. Although Washington and Tehran have not announced an imminent agreement, it seems the general outlines of one are being drawn.
The Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, Qatar, even summarised the main points of that deal: Iran making a commitment not to enrich uranium beyond 6.0 per cent, far more than the 2015 agreement, which set the limit at 3.67 per cent; Iran expands its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and stops providing Russia with arms to use in the Ukraine war; Iran releases American citizens it detains and reveals the fate of a retired FBI officer, Robert Levinson, who later worked as a CIA contractor and disappeared in Iran in 2007.
“In return, the United States eases economic sanctions on Iran, stops confiscating tankers carrying its oil, and refrains from pushing the IAEA or the UN Security Council to take punitive measures against it,” the centre, which also has a base in Washington, said. Most importantly, the US would “lift the freeze on some of Iran’s money in international banks, provided that those funds go to third parties,” and “release four Iranian detainees”.
Contrary to some optimistic reports that Iran is ready for concessions to improve its ties with Arab neighbours, the issue of the three islands was a cause of contention between Tehran and Moscow recently. After a meeting of the GCC countries with the Russians that ended with a statement asserting the UAE’s position on the islands, the Iranian authorities summoned the Russian ambassador in Tehran to protest.
“These islands belong to Iran forever and issuing such statements is in contradiction with the friendly relations between Iran and its neighbours,” a spokesperson for the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said last week.
Positive moves following the Iranian foreign minister’s tour of the Gulf countries appear to be “small steps” to keep the momentum of reconciliation on the rise, as one veteran Gulf commentator noted. But this trend of openness is subject to stress tests and challenges, not only concerning thorny issues like the islands but also the question of whether Iran is ready to scale down its support to proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.
Some analysts suggest that a major reconciliation between Iran and its Gulf neighbours is on the horizon, but others are not so optimistic. It all hinges on a deal with the US, as many agree. “If anything is to be done, it will have to be soon, since we are heading into the heart of the US presidential election cycle,” Hammond said. “I suspect the US administration will be wary of a deal with Iran being used by Trump against them and stirring up opposition from the Israel lobby. So they would want to have it done by the end of this year so that it doesn’t weigh heavily next year. Biden’s chances are already looking dim.”
There is another factor affecting speedy reconciliation between Iran and its Gulf neighbours. In a long piece for the Israeli daily Jerusalem Post, the Emirati political analyst and former Federal National Council candidate Salem Alketbi wrote, “Iran’s position regarding a potential peace deal between Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and its perception of ongoing bilateral collaboration between certain GCC nations and Israel in the context of the Abraham Accords, will be subject to careful scrutiny.”
Any further progress in the Gulf is dependent on Iran’s position regarding the US and Israel, probably to a far greater extent than the rhetoric about the priority of a regional détente would suggest.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 20 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly