GCC-Iran détente depends on Riyadh and Tehran
Washington - Even as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) deliberates beginning a dialogue with Tehran to ease tensions in the region, its six Gulf Arab members are repeating the same harsh rhetoric towards Iran that has become a familiar mantra over the past few years.
That strong language against Tehran was on display following a GCC foreign ministers March 30 meeting in Riyadh. They reportedly reviewed steps that had been taken between Iran and GCC members Kuwait and Oman since December, when GCC heads of state agreed to offer to initiate a strategic dialogue to improve relations with Tehran.
The GCC foreign ministers pressed Tehran to “abandon politics that lead to nourishing sectarian and confessional conflicts and to stop forming and supporting groups and militias that fuel these conflicts in Arab countries”. They specifically decried Iran’s support of “terrorist gangs” in Bahrain and condemned “the provocative and irresponsible statements and acts of aggression by the Iranian regime towards the kingdom of Bahrain”.
Saudi Arabia and Bahrain cut diplomatic relations with Iran in January 2016 while Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates recalled their ambassadors in solidarity with Riyadh after its embassy in Iran was stormed by protesters following the Saudi regime’s execution of outspoken Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr.
While the GCC and Iran may seek to tame regional tensions, it is probable that any progress going forward will be achieved on a bilateral level between Tehran and individual GCC members. Less likely is a comprehensive political rapprochement between chief Gulf antagonists and sectarian rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, particularly now that Riyadh seemingly has an eager ally in the administration of US President Donald Trump in seeking to curb Shia Iran’s hegemonic reach and contain its nuclear ambitions.
Following the GCC’s declared intent to initiate an opening with Iran, Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sabah Khalid al-Sabah met with Iranian President Hassan Rohani in Tehran on January 25 and delivered a written message from Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah.
The message reportedly spelled out a “basis for dialogue” — GCC conditions that Tehran must accept as part of negotiations with the group, including final negotiations on Emirati islands occupied by Iran, non-interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries and dropping support for militias including Hezbollah. While Iran will likely balk at these preconditions, they are considered a starting point from which preliminary discussions can begin.
Rohani reciprocated by travelling to Oman and Kuwait in February, meeting with Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said and Emir Sheikh Sabah. He also sent a letter to the Kuwaiti leader, the contents of which presumably were addressed by the GCC foreign ministers at their March gathering.
One move that can be perceived as conciliatory in spirit was the announcement by Saudi Arabia in March that it had reached agreement with Iran on allowing its pilgrims to perform the haj. Tehran barred Iranian pilgrims taking part in the haj in 2016, saying it was unsafe for them after Riyadh refused to provide Iranian pilgrims with consular support or guarantee their safety.
Ultimately any success the GCC has in mending ties with Tehran rests in the hands of Saudi Arabia and Iran. It may be the case that the two Gulf powers want the public perception of having tried to pursue a dialogue under the auspices of the GCC that goes nowhere rather than investing heavily in improving relations at a time when such deep mistrust exists between the two.
Tehran is relatively free of the most crippling of international sanctions and is restoring its oil production and economy, without having had to bend over backward to appease its Gulf neighbours. It has also demonstrated its ability to withstand Saudi-led efforts to reduce its influence in Yemen and Syria.
Riyadh has shown it has little faith in Iran changing its stripes. Just days after Rohani’s visits to Oman and Kuwait, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, speaking at the Munich Security Conference in February, made clear his government’s expectations of conducting a constructive dialogue with Tehran.
Mincing no words, Jubeir said: “Iran remains the single main sponsor of terrorism in the world. It’s determined to upend the order in the Middle East… [and] until and unless Iran changes its behaviour it would be very difficult to deal with a country like this.”
Citing Tehran’s sustained support of the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the funding of Houthi rebels in Yemen and violent groups across the region, Jubeir called on the international community to establish “red lines” to curb Iranian transgressions by enacting banking, travel and trade bans.
Without Saudi support, any GCC-Iranian dialogue about a new relationship has no teeth.