Can Iran’s Outreach to the Persian Gulf Arab States Succeed?

Javad Zarif (Gabriel Petrescu via Shutterstock)

by Shireen T. Hunter

Over the past several weeks, as tensions have escalated with the United States, Iran’s diplomacy has gone into high gear, especially at the regional level. In the last month or so, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has visited India, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Iraq, and Japan. Meanwhile, his deputy Abbas Araghchi has visited Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar. With the possible exception of Japan, their trips to Gulf states have been the most important of these visits.

In these visits to the Gulf states, Iran has made some important proposals regarding measures that could help ease Arab-Iranian tensions and narrow the differences across the Persian Gulf and possibly even lay the foundation of a regional security architecture. The most dramatic of these proposals is that of a non-aggression treaty between Iran and the Gulf Arab states. Other proposals are a rehash of Iran’s previous suggestions regarding the establishment of what it calls regional security complexes. But how realistic are these proposals and what are the chances of their success? A look at the history of non-aggression pacts and the dynamics of Arab-Iranian relations, especially in the Persian Gulf, can help in assessing whether Iran’s latest diplomatic efforts will succeed.

The Checkered History of Non-Aggression Pacts

Historically, non-aggression pacts have not been effective in preventing conflict between states when other conditions and considerations have led them to ignore their treaty obligations. The most sweeping and comprehensive of such treaties was the Briand-Kellogg Pact of 1928 in the aftermath of World War I. The pact was supposed to have outlawed war as an instrument of resolving international disputes. The other famous failed non-aggression pact was that between Nazi Germany and the USSR in 1939; it ended when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941.

The reason for the failure of such contractual agreements is that international society is still governed more by calculations of power and the dynamics of security threat perceptions. There is no real legal international system with power to enforce the law against states, especially powerful ones, which breach them. In reality and as shown by the historical record, war among states loses its salience as an instrument of policy not through treaties of non-aggression but when security and other national interests converge. The best example of this situation is post-World War II Europe. Instead of signing non-aggression pacts, European states developed networks of economic and political cooperation and similar value systems that made war irrelevant to their relations. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the mere act of signing a non-aggression pact between Iran and the Gulf Arab states would be enough to bring peace to both shores of this waterway.

Security Cooperation As Alternative

In addition to proposing a non-aggression pact, Iran has also made suggestions for confidence -building measures and creating institutions for economic and political cooperation among the Gulf States, Arab and non-Arab. In the long-run, and under altered conditions, such measures might help improve security in the Gulf. But the dynamics of Arab-Iranian relations as well as those of intra-Arab politics and Israeli-Arab relations make the successful completion of a purely Iran-Gulf States arrangement unlikely.

Although individual Gulf Arab states have different perceptions of Iran, and not all of them view it as a predatory power, they all feel uncomfortable with it because of the disparity in size and populations between themselves and Iran. There is little Iran can do to ease this existential discomfort. Even before the Islamic revolution, when Iran was anxious about the safety and survival of the Gulf Sheikhdoms, this sense of unease with Iran was still there. Since 1979, Iran’s revolutionary regime has deepened Gulf Arabs’ misgivings about Tehran.

Then there are the Arab-Persian and the Sunni-Shia divides. While these factors have not determined the state of Arab-Iranian relations, they have tended to exacerbate other differences and intensified the conflictual aspects of their relations. Since the Islamic revolution, the divisive impact of sectarian differences has become especially strong.

The dynamics of intra-Arab politics, too, have historically tended to limit and hinder cooperation between Iran and the Gulf Arab states. Major Arab players such as Egypt and Syria in the past and Saudi Arabia and lately the UAE, have used the real or imagined Iran threat to extract financial and other concessions from the Gulf states, or as has been the case with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to spread their own influence in the region. In its essentials, the situation has not changed much since the 1960s. 

In today’s conditions, some Arab Gulf states might think that an easing of tension in the Gulf region might enable Iran to focus more on the Levant, in ways that would not serve their interests. States such as Egypt may worry that the elimination of the Iranian threat would dry up Gulf financial support. More important today is the Israel factor. The Gulf Arab-Israel rapprochement has been facilitated by the manipulation of the Iran factor and its alleged threat to the Gulf states. Common enmity toward Iran has been the main driver of this rapprochement. An improvement in the Gulf states’ ties with  Tehran could thus somewhat cool their desire for close relations with Israel.

Last but not least is the diverging perceptions of Iran and the Gulf Arab states about the sources of threats to their security. Iran sees the U.S. and Israel as its principal threats, whereas the Gulf Arabs see Tehran and its revolutionary ideology as their main security concern. Thus they view the U.S. and the West in general as essential for the protection of their security interests, while Iran seeks America’s withdrawal from the region. Therefore as long as U.S.-Iran relations remain hostile, no real rapprochement with Iran would be possible. It is highly unlikely that Gulf Arabs would significantly improve relations with Iran with Washington’s approval or at least acquiescence. In general, in regions such as the Gulf, which are of great interest to major international players, local relations are heavily influenced by international politics. This means that true improvement in Iran-Gulf Arab relations can only happen after some form of reconciliation between Iran and the United States.

Since the 1990s, Iran has experimented with different foreign policy strategies that could enable it to avoid reconciliation with the U.S. It has sought strategic relations with Russia and China, it has developed the so-called “looking to the East” strategy, and now is focused on a regional strategy. None of these alternative have yielded any real results, largely because they have ignored the realities of the international political system and the still-significant dependence of regional systems on the dynamics of international politics. In short, Iran cannot operate outside the system and still hope to remain safe and prosperous.

In short, Iran’s outreach to the Gulf states is a positive move and should be encouraged. However, its success is doubtful if Tehran refuses to resolve its problems with the key international player—namely, the Unites States of America.

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Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. “. States such as Egypt may worry that the elimination of the Iranian threat would dry up Gulf financial support. ”

    Shireen joon, doesn’t your statement above better fit the US’ military industrial deep state posture more so than a rented state like Egypt? Why not to say so, if one who claims to be an scholar intends to make an informed unbiased analysis.
    Yes Mr. Trump himself said the Arab gulf states (US clients) are like milking cows. Egypt like Pakistan is a poor rented states living on handouts they say what they say what they must to get paid.

  2. Although labels such as ‘Arabism’/’Arab nationalism’/’Arab World’ are often referred to as being important parts of the Arab states/community, in reality they are less important that they used to be and the Arab League too is less influential; also, the Arab states, mostly having tribal background/culture, never trusted one another. After the ‘First Gulf War’, the Arab states’ individual identities changed; mainly formed based on their ‘individual’ survival, interests and borders, rather than their collective Arabism. Being less dependent on one another and mostly dependent on Western arms, US and UK in particular, and for decades having been subservient to their Western protectors, mentally they compromise along the political demands of their political backers and arms suppliers. Hence, to have them convene at a summit meeting should certainly be accredited to the US demand, rather than the Saudi King’s influence/power – especially now, as a part of the US propaganda stage props.

    As for Iran’s ‘destabilizing behaviour’ in the Arab World and the ‘leadership’ in the Muslim World, I should say the Arab states have a bigger challenge to worry about: the enlightening online sites and bloggers and the uncontrollable surge of information and news media that allow the Arab youths access to the Western political and cultural world quite different from the stagnating despotism of the unelected unpopular Arab rulers. In my assessment, it is less the issue of ‘Sunni -Shia’ rivalry/theology/leadership of the Muslim World and terrorism than the issue of Shia’s radical political thoughts and the demand for a fundamental political reform in the Kingdoms and corrupt states that worry these rulers.

  3. Khosrow

    I think that Iran-Iraq War created a gulf between Iran and pretty much most of the Arab World.

    Likewise, I think the Syrian Civil War separated Shia Muslim World from Sunni Muslim World.

    The new US Economic War against Iran has now separated the West from Iran and the Shia Crescent.

    In all three instances, while trade could exist, (as well as correct and cold diplomatic relations) the political relationships would almost certainly be transactional for the next 2 decades.

    Significantly, in all 3 cases the major internal security threats emanate from Sunni Islam and not Shia Islam. Indians do not either.

    But these countries and governments have made their choices and will suffer the consequences.

    Russian and Chinese recognize this fact.

    I think the policy of Iranian leaders, by necessity, is to cosolidate their gains across the Shia Crescent and to develop it by domestic means.

    The Shia-West alienation, in my opinion, is now too entrenched, its removal requires new governments with new thinking across the Western states. I suspect it could take a generation before that happens.

  4. Zahra Mirza

    “She feels his presence”, what my Russian colleague told me after the death of her father in far away Russia, “I feel his presence”.

    Like my Italian friend told me when we were driving through Emilia Romana; “we are like this in God’s hand,” showing me the palm of his hands. To which I replied: “I hope so my friend, I hope so.”

  5. Si! Verdademente!


    Estoy en donde estuve:
    voy detrás del murmullo,
    pasos dentro de mí, oídos con los ojos,
    el murmullo es mental, yo soy mis pasos,
    oigo las voces que yo pienso,
    las voces que me piensan al pensarlas.
    Soy la sombra que arrojan mis palabras.

    Octavio Paz

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