Gulf states hesitant about Iranian overtures

New Iranian leadership wants warmer ties to Gulf monarchies, though Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are sceptical.

Iran's foreign minister recently visited four of the six GCC countries [AFP]

Strained ties between the Gulf Cooperation Council and Iran may be due for a change in course, as Iran reaches out to make amends with its neighbours as part of an overall shift in its international policy.

Leaders of the GCC’s six member states – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain – are set to convene in Kuwait this week for the organisation’s 34th summit.

“We are watching for signs of differences in point of view. There will be a change in conventional thoughts,” said Theodore Karasik, a security and political affairs analyst at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.

In the final statement of the 2012 summit, GCC states “denounced continual Iranian interference” in their internal affairs and “expressed concern over Iran’s nuclear programme as a threat to regional and international security and peace”.

This year’s summit is the first since Iran struck a breakthrough deal with with the so-called “P5+1” powers – the five members of the UN Security Council and Germany – in late November. The agreement calls on Iran to curb its controversial nuclear programme in exchange for easing sanctions that have weakened the country’s economy.

Shortly afterwards, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif went on a tour of the Gulf states, stopping in Kuwait, Oman, the UAE and Qatar.

Policy shift

After eight years of rule by the bombastic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani seems determined to present a new image of Iran to the world.

Iran’s foreign minister talks to Al Jazeera

The Iranians are keen to make the nuclear deal work for diplomatic as well as economic reasons, said Ghanem Nuseibeh of Cornerstone Global Associates. “Iran is keen on re-engaging with the rest of the region, particularly the GCC, and pull the carpet from underneath the Israelis,” said the London-based founder of the risk analysis group. “By engaging with the GCC, the Israelis will be very concerned that the main issue of overlap of interest as they see it, namely Iran, is no longer an issue of mutual agreement between the GCC and Israel.”

Like Israel, Saudi Arabia – by far the GCC’s biggest power – has deemed Iran a massive threat to peace. Saudi King Abdullah, according to a US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks in 2010, had repeatedly urged the US ally to “cut off the head of the snake” by launching military strikes to destroy Iran’s nuclear programme.

Perhaps this animosity was why Zarif did not stop in Riyadh during his tour of the region. However, in a note dated December 3 on his Facebook page, Zarif expressed his country’s willingness to meet with Saudi officials “when they’re ready” for talks that will be “of benefit for the two countries, our region and the whole Muslim world”.

Real test

Bahrain, too, was reluctant to follow its Gulf neighbours’ acceptance of Iran’s overtures. The kingdom’s Sunni ruling family, backed by Saudi Arabia, holds Iran accountable for inciting Bahrain’s Shia majority to stage an uprising against its rule – unrest that continues today.

“The Shia-Sunni rhetoric has been very strong, particularly since the Arab Spring started,” Nuseibeh said, adding that it will take time for it to be totally reversed. “Bahrain is the real test here on how Sunni-Shia relations develop. Ultimately, the unrest in Bahrain should disappear as the GCC forges strong relations with the Iranians, and the Iranians will also have a key role to play in this.”

US reassures Gulf allies wary over Iran

Meanwhile, Iran and the UAE have had a long-running dispute over the ownership of three islands lying between the countries. The UAE has overlooked the issue as it established diplomatic and trade links with its rival, and Iran’s new leadership has already sent positive signs in this regard. “Zarif appears to be cutting deals with these states to resolve long-lasting issues, including these islands,” Karasik said.

Iran may also have to soften its tone on the Syrian civil war if it hopes to gain the GCC’s trust. The six states – some of whom are financially supporting Syria’s Sunni rebels – see Shia Iran as a loyal supporter of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

“The Syrian crisis is going to be a stumbling block, but it has become apparent that military solution is no longer feasible, and that there is a need for a negotiated settlement,” said Abdullah Baabood, the director of Doha-based Gulf Studies Centre at the College of Arts and Sciences at Qatar University. “Although this may not lead to cutting down support for the rebels – but rather empowering them to reach an acceptable negotiated solution.”

Spelling trouble?

The GCC countries’ differing reactions to the Geneva nuclear pact with Iran could “spell trouble” for the union, argues Karasik.

However, Sam Wilkin, a Dubai-based analyst at Control Risks Group, is not so sure. “GCC states have recently disagreed on other aspects of foreign policy, such as intervention in Libya in 2011 and response to the Egyptian coup d’etat in July, but this has not undermined the fundamental strength of the council,” he said.

Either way, analysts agreed that the Gulf states’ negative sentiments towards Iran will not immediately dissipate.

“The fear and concern about Iranian interventionist policy in the region will remain for some time to come. This does not go away because of a few positive signals send by the new Iranian leadership,” said Christian Koch, the director of the Gulf Research Center Foundation.

Follow Dahlia Kholaif on Twitter: @Dee_Kholaif

Source: Al Jazeera