Gulf reconciliation fuels Iranian hope for dialogue with Riyadh

Iran seems concerned about the formation of a broad hostile front that includes Israel and a number of Arab countries in the region.
Tuesday 12/01/2021
Iranian President Hassan Rohani shaking hands with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani (L) following a joint press conference in Tehran, in Januray, 2020. (AFP)
Iranian President Hassan Rohani shaking hands with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani (L) following a joint press conference in Tehran, in Januray, 2020. (AFP)

TEHRAN--Iran has intensified its calls for dialogue with Saudi Arabia, in an attempt to invest in the conciliatory mood prevailing in the region.

The mood for regional reconciliation was initiated by Riyadh last month, as it sought to resolve a more than three-year dispute with Qatar over Doha’s policies deemed threatening to regional security and stability.

In December, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt ended their boycott of Qatar, which had seen diplomatic, trade and travel ties with Qatar severed since 2017.

In Iran, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad joined the advocates of dialogue with Saudi Arabia, noting that cooperation between his country and the kingdom would change the situation in the region and provide the prospect for peace, reconstruction and development for all countries.

Tehran’s interest in negotiating with Riyadh, with its own terms and according to its own perception, appears to stem from its need to calm tensions at a critical juncture that is marked by rapid changes on both regional and international levels.

This interest is reflected in the multiplicity of voices promoting calm and calling for dialogue, with current and former Iranian officials and even Qatari figures taking part in a coordinated campaign aimed at influencing the kingdom’s position.

The kingdom, however, seems reluctant to engage in any dialogue or reconciliation drive with Iran without signs that Tehran is serious about changing its regional policies.

The involvement of Ahmadinejad, a conservative who was succeeded by incumbent President Hassan Rohani in 2013, sent a message that Iran, including its conservatives and moderates, want dialogue with Saudi Arabia.

The intensification of Iranian calls for dialogue seem to reflect significant changes on regional and international scenes, in terms of profound developments in Israel’s relationship with numerous countries of the region as well as the incoming administration of Democratic President-elect Joe Biden later this month.

Iran seems concerned about the formation of a broad hostile front that includes Israel and a number of Arab countries in the region.

Through its calls for dialogue, Iran seems to be working towards weakening that front before it is formed and discouraging countries in the region from attempting to confront and contain its activities.

In pushing for dialogue, Iran hopes that Saudi concerns about Trump’s departure will soften the kingdom’s position and push it to accept a dialogue that will close another controversial file similar to the Qatari one.

The Iranians argue that dialogue would also help Saudis close the Yemeni file, which has until recently driven significant controversy in view of sharp differences within the Yemeni legitimacy camp. Riyadh, however, has been able to ease tensions and push its allies to form a power-sharing government.

Many observers rule out that Saudi Arabia will deal with the Iranian file as it dealt with the Qatari, Yemeni and Turkish ones.

Riyadh, which recently signaled that it was open to moving past its differences with Ankara, is unlikely to do the same with Tehran, with whom differences are deeper and whose policies pose a great threat to regional security and stability.

Experts say that Saudi Arabia cannot coexist with an Iranian nuclear programme of questionable safety, and observers are warning Tehran is racing to acquire nuclear weapons.

The kingdom is also unable to accept Iran’s missile programme or the smuggling of Iranian arms into some countries of the region to support militias in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

The smuggling of Iranian weapons is especially critical in Yemen, particularly on the southern borders of the kingdom, where the Iran-aligned Houthi militias have been using missiles and drones smuggled from Iran to strike civilian targets and economic installations inside Saudi territory.

In an exclusive interview with Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Qabas, Ahmadinejad said both Iran and Saudi Arabia are major players in the Middle East and on the international stage, and he believes an Iranian-Saudi partnership will help bring the region together.

“Friendship, cooperation and coordination are demands that the countries and peoples aspire to, and all of this will change the situation in the region, create a kind of unity among its peoples, and create golden opportunities for peace, reconstruction and development for all the countries of the region,” he said.

Since the announcement of a breakthrough in the dispute with Qatar, senior Iranian officials have intensified their “conciliatory” signals with Arab Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia in an attempt to invest in the regional mood of reconciliation and exploit changing international dynamics.

In a phone call with the Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Rohani expressed “his hope that recent international developments will lead to correcting the policies of some countries in the region and enhancing opportunities for dialogue to achieve regional understanding.”

“We have the will for dialogue, understanding and establishing fraternal relations with Gulf countries,” he added, confidently predicting that “relations between the countries of the region will be better in the coming months.”

Commenting on Qatar-Gulf reconciliation, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also sent a message “to the rest of the Arab neighbours,” saying that “Iran is neither an enemy nor a threat.”

Doha, for its part, did not hesitate to support Tehran’s calls for dialogue with Riyadh, both through its Foreign Minister Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, who called earlier this month for “the de-escalation of tensions in the Gulf region and a dialogue between Arab countries and Iran,” or informally through its former Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, who called for launching a dialogue between Gulf states and Iran.

“Today after the end of tensions between the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and the arrival of a new administration to the White House, I see a viable opportunity for dialogue with Iran,” bin Jassim tweeted.