Qatar welcomed last month measures to facilitate a regional dialog between the Gulf Arab States and Iran, stating that a format dialog was needed to build optimal regional stability. But for the discussions to succeed, GCC states, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in addition to the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman, should work on adopting coherent policies on Iran to encourage the country to deal with the organization as a unified bloc and adopt a more articulate regional policy.
Saudi Arabia is reaching out to Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar to coordinate GCC policies on Iran. The GCC states share concerns about the security challenges they face with Iran, and in January signed a “solidarity and stability” deal at an annual summit. Now, Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani says a dialog with Iran could have a significant impact for the region.
The call for dialog arrives as Saudi and Iranian officials hold constructive talks in Iraq to ease tensions. Iran frequently consults other GCC states including Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar. Still, some major regional files remain unresolved. Saudi Arabia is unlikely to hand over the Yemen question to Iran, for example, even if it agrees with Tehran on a level of de-escalation to resolve the Yemeni conflict. This challenge shows that compartmentalizing issues like Yemen, and trying to address them as such, does not resolve the greater tensions with Iran in the longer haul.
Qatar’s Foreign Minister signals that his country sees no reason for normalizing ties with Syria, which remains close to Iran, if the civil conflict in the country leaves little room for an acceptable political solution. Despite measures to engage with Damascus by other GCC countries, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the Qatari stance is designed in part to counterbalance Iranian influence over Syria. The same holds true in Iraq, where the GCC has taken on a more assertive role trying to contain Iranian influence.
To date, several issue-based initiatives have failed to build an understanding between Iran and its neighbors.
Therefore, it is uncertain what a new dialog, as proposed by Qatar, can actually achieve. To date, several issue-based initiatives have failed to build an understanding between Iran and its neighbors, including Tehran’s proposed Hormuz Peace Endeavor (HOPE), designed to deescalate tensions in the Gulf waterway. Another unresolved file, Iran’s nuclear program, cannot be addressed regionally unless Iran and world powers first reach an agreement.
If and when a regional dialog does happen, perhaps it should embrace a bottom-up approach to resolving preliminary and salient regional issues, rather than waiting for the nuclear deal to be made before engaging in GCC-Iran talks. This begins with the GCC accepting that a nuclear deal between Iran and the world powers is not an end game in and of itself, but the start of a very long conversation to be had about the region. This means accepting the outcome of the nuclear deal, whether it succeeds or not, and then putting in a concerted effort of diplomatic work afterwards in order to maintain the momentum for talks with Tehran.
The advantage of a bottom-up approach is that it helps introduce modalities for a quick de-escalation in major regional conflict zones including Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq. The goal is not easy to achieve given the multitude of actors on the ground. But it encourages engagement over time between Iran and its GCC interlocuters. The GCC will also need to accept that to address the challenge of the many proxies and sub-state actors that work with Iran in the region will require new region-wide conflict management strategies and bold diplomatic initiatives.
The bigger question of regional security calls for building frameworks that ensure a balance of power between the GCC and Iran.
The bigger question of regional security calls for building frameworks that ensure a balance of power between the GCC and Iran, including in their combined offensive and defensive capabilities. These capabilities are not easily measured, and the issue of an arms race in the region will not be resolved overnight. Trust can build over a period of time by steadily promoting military, intelligence, and security exchanges between Iran and its neighbors, which above all and foremost require acknowledgement and validation of each actor’s fears and concerns. This stops the endless cycle of demonizing Iran if its security threat to the region can be controlled through such exchanges.
The GCC can also work in tandem with Iran to ensure the security of energy supplies, explore regional complementarities to sell oil to international customers while keeping prices steady, and launch joint energy projects, including those around water. Oman aims to build a gas pipeline network to Iran and Yemen. Oman and Saudi Arabia are in discussions to boost investments in the energy sector, which has better potential returns in a stable region working with Iran.
The GCC still has a long way to go to resolve its issues with Iran, and Tehran might keep prioritizing its big power relations over its important ties with the GCC. This strategy could only wear Iran down in managing its immediate regional relations and turn its differences with the GCC into an ongoing source of discord. The Qatari call for a formatted regional dialog is one step forward to addressing Tehran’s short-sighted approach.