Iran’s Gulf outreach policy aims to promote collective security but happens to be one of the country’s most elusive goals. Regional states must agree what role Iran should play in promoting peace, and if they want to keep the partnerships between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the United States. The GCC might be willing to explore partnerships with Iran, but it comes with a precondition that the country does not seek Gulf dominance.
Iran insists that regional security is the responsibility of the regional states and not foreign powers. Its leaders say they harbor no hegemonic goals. They even imply that assertions of Iran’s role as a major regional player aim to lift the country out of isolation. The Gulf tanker attacks in mid-2019, for example, in which Iran was believed to play a role, came when Tehran was unable to export Iranian oil due to U.S. sanctions.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani actively promotes the “Hormuz Peace Endeavor” (HOPE), a plan to expand intra-regional cooperation beyond security, first proposed in September 2019. Briefly entertained by the Gulf countries, HOPE was rejected by key players like Saudi Arabia based on concerns that it offered no guarantees that Iran would abide by the principles of non-aggression and non-interference if the initiative received recognition.
Another thorny issue with Iran is the fate of its nuclear program. Saudi Arabia wants the GCC to be part of future talks on the subject. Iran is unprepared to negotiate its nuclear file with the GCC, and it defiantly believes that its Arab neighbors are unconcerned about its nuclear program. The GCC welcomed the Iran nuclear deal with the world in 2015, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but remained concerned that Tehran’s newly gained status could lead to its increased interventions in regional affairs.
Regional initiatives for talks with Iran have picked up after President Joe Biden signaled that he favors diplomacy.
Regional initiatives for talks with Iran have picked up after President Joe Biden signaled that he favors diplomacy, including reviving the JCPOA. To signal its peaceful intentions for the region, Iran initially welcomed the Kuwaiti-mediated deal last December that ended the three-year row between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In January, Tehran dispatched Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi to meet with Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmad Nasser Al Mohammad Al Sabah.
During the talks, Kuwait said it was ready to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran, to bridge the gaps in viewpoints which divided the region. According to sources present at the meeting, these gaps involved the regional files over Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. Araghchi insists Iran will not negotiate these files with the world powers. But he says Iran is prepared to discuss Gulf security with the regional countries.
For now, the Kuwaiti mediation may not offer immediate results. At least once before, Kuwait tried to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but Riyadh ignored the effort. That was during the Trump administration when hostilities with Tehran ran high. Still, there is no guarantee that the new Biden administration or any future U.S. government can resolve tensions with Iran.
The reason for this is Iran’s catch-22 proposition. Iran invites the GCC states to build regional security, but it is unprepared to give the GCC any major role discussing Iranian security priorities. Araghchi suggests that foreign powers in the region must first cease interfering in Iran’s affairs, if the GCC even expects Iran to uphold the principle of non-intervention.
To make matters worse, Iran cannot trust regional dialog if the U.S. drags its feet removing aggressive sanctions. The hardliners in Iran see no goodwill coming from Washington on the issue. And they could replace Rouhani in Iran’s next presidential race in June. While these hardliners support regional dialog, they are not serious about the prospects of talks with Washington. They are also charged with lacking foreign policy expertise.
Diplomacy is never a sure bet. It is an ongoing process that calls for compromise if tensions with Iran are to be resolved. Perhaps Iran is trying to demonstrate after all that without a full commitment to non-intervention and non-aggression by all sides, it will be hard to align its interests with the Gulf Arab states.
Earlier this year, Qatar held its own talks with Iran, and urged for a region-wide dialog.
Once Iran’s subtle message is heeded, the region is ripe with opportunities for dialog. Earlier this year, Qatar held its own talks with Iran, and urged for a region-wide dialog. Qatar’s Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani said that a summit between Iranian officials and the GCC would take place soon. Iran welcomed the Qatari call for talks.
Lofty ideas are entertained to engage with Iran at the regional level, including ending hostile rhetoric, resuming high-level diplomatic relations, building a forum for regional dialog, and basing it on the successful lessons of the Helsinki model for security and cooperation in Europe. However, if they are to succeed, restoring the major power imbalances that enhance insecurity in the Gulf region is a prerequisite. This is a tall order, and it requires the GCC to encourage Washington to build a partnership with Tehran.
Iran is currently hopeful this partnership will take shape given the region’s need for stability and economic growth, but it also thinks the window of opportunity is closing. The GCC economies are bruised and weakened by the long Covid-19 pandemic, and regional mega projects could lose appeal if conflict erupts with Iran.
The GCC economies are bruised and weakened by the long Covid-19 pandemic, and regional mega projects could lose appeal if conflict erupts with Iran.
It is not clear how the GCC plans to factor economic considerations into its numerous concerns about Iran. The country is rapidly expanding its nuclear enrichment program and says it will halt adhering to the Optional Protocol under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which allows for snap inspections of its facilities, if the U.S.-led sanctions regime against Iran is not removed.
Calls by Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif that the EU Foreign Policy Chief Joseph Burrel take steps to ensure that Washington removes sanctions in exchange for Iran recommitting to the JCPOA were stalled, as too early a move, by the Biden team. The U.S. insists it will comply with the JCPOA only if Iran first fully complies with the agreement’s provisions.
However, in a positive move on February 18, the Biden administration indicated its willingness to resume talks with Iran and world powers and proceeded to ease some travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats.
In the end, prospects for a collective regional Gulf security could still be derailed by ongoing tensions. But that is precisely why calls are mounting in Iran to expand the regional dialog with the GCC. The GCC could decide to move forward with talks with Iran, out of prudence, because delaying talks could perpetuate regional conflicts.