by Giorgio Cafiero
Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khalid traveled to Tehran late last month to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. While making his rare visit to the Iranian capital, Kuwait’s top diplomat delivered a letter from Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah. The meeting and letter were aimed at calming tensions between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Iran. Speaking on behalf of the six council members, Kuwait’s top diplomat declared that for the Arab Gulf sheikdoms and Iran to repair relations, Tehran must stop meddling in Arab countries’ internal affairs. Several days after the meeting, the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Rai reported that Iranian officials announced their support for a détente in GCC-Iran relations. According to Iranian media, Kuwait’s deputy foreign minister stated that the Iranian side “comprehended the content of the letter and was willing to take follow-up steps in accordance with it.”
Given the extent to which Saudi-Iranian relations have deteriorated in recent years and the state of geopolitical instability across the Middle East, it is easy to be pessimistic about the prospects for a rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran in the short term. The Middle East is not a region where governments and societies easily forget history. Nearly four decades of a troubled relationship between the Kingdom and the Islamic Republic will be difficult for both to overcome.
The Iran-Iraq war’s brutal legacy and the Islamic Republic’s relationship with a host of militant non-state actors in Arab countries still define Riyadh-Tehran relations. All GCC states (save Oman) backed Saddam Hussein in the 20th century’s longest war. Nearly three decades after the Iran-Iraq war ended many of the Iranian survivors of Iraq’s chemical gas attacks are blind and struggle to breathe with seared lungs. According to the CIA, around 50,000 Iranians suffered from nerve agents and toxic gases on the battlefields.
The GCC still perceives Iran as a predatory state committed to exporting its 1979 revolution to the Arab world and toppling Sunni Arab sheikdoms. Iran’s record of sponsoring subversive Shi’ite groups in the GCC (such as Hezbollah al-Hejaz, the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, and Hezbollah-Bahrain) and backing the failed 1981 coup attempt in Bahrain strongly factors into many Gulf Arabs’ views of the “Iranian threat.” Today Tehran’s military, financial, diplomatic, and/or moral support for the regimes in Syria and Iraq, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Yemen’s Houthi rebel movement, and Bahrain’s Shi’ite opposition exemplifies Iran’s disregard for international norms of diplomacy and quest to promote violent revolution, according to officials in Saudi Arabia and other GCC states. Iranian leaders maintain, however, that by backing Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus, Hezbollah in Lebanon and various Iraqi militias, which are all fighting the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), Iran is protecting itself and the region from “takfiri” extremists. The Saudis maintain, however, that excessive Iranian meddling in the region raised sectarian temperatures and created fertile ground for the meteoric rise of IS in 2014.
Although the Saudis and Iranians have different perspectives on IS and both point their fingers at the other for its ascension to power, Riyadh and Tehran have a common interest in defeating the so-called caliphate. Understanding that the prolongation of crises in Syria and elsewhere creates a chaotic landscape that enables extremists to thrive, officials in Riyadh and Tehran must accept that reaching political solutions to such conflicts is necessary for winning the fight against IS. Achieving such ends requires new approaches on both sides of the Gulf.
Now that Kuwait, unquestionably with Saudi Arabia’s full endorsement, has made this diplomatic overture to Tehran on the GCC’s behalf in favor of a “frank dialogue,” how will the Iranians respond? Some in Iran suspect that the GCC states are merely “buying time,” as uncertainty surrounding the new U.S. administration’s Middle East foreign policy lingers. Regardless of the Arab Gulf states’ true intentions, several of last year’s key regional developments have emboldened Iran, raising questions about whether officials in Tehran have any incentive to reciprocate any good will. First, Russia and Iran stepped up their military intervention in Syria, shifting the balance of that conflict in Assad’s favor. Second, Turkey’s recent abandonment of the Assad-must-go position highlights Ankara’s realistic assessment that the regime in Damascus is stronger today than at any point since the country’s crisis erupted nearly six years ago. Third, Michel Aoun, Hezbollah’s ally, became president of Lebanon, helping to consolidate Iran’s influence across the Levant. Fourth, the Riyadh-led coalition’s failure to decisively defeat the Houthi rebel movement in Yemen and the Houthis’ firing of rockets and missiles into southern Saudi Arabia have underscored the Kingdom’s increased vulnerability to the spillover effects of a war that has become a costly and humiliating quagmire.
Although it’s unclear if Iran will welcome the GCC’s diplomatic gesture, the timing of the Kuwaiti foreign minister’s trip to Tehran was important. The Arab Gulf sheikdoms, having relied on the U.S. as a defense guarantor for decades, are nervous about the future of GCC-Washington relations with Donald Trump in the White House. Speculation that his populist rhetoric about an “America first” foreign policy that devalues Washington’s traditional alliances will lead to a “neo-isolationist” approach to global affairs is unsettling to Arab Gulf officials who have observed Iran’s continued ascendancy and emboldened foreign policy in the Middle East following the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the subsequent lifting of sanctions on Tehran.
Yet as the Saudis are determined to advance Vision 2030, a grand and ambitious plan to diversify the Kingdom’s economy beyond its traditional hydrocarbon sector, the Kingdom must channel its resources toward the transformation program. With the wars in Syria and Yemen raging on and further depleting Saudi Arabia’s coffers, officials in Riyadh see resolutions of these costly conflicts as necessary for the success of Vision 2030.
With Iran’s upcoming presidential election on the minds of GCC officials, many are asking what a Rouhani loss would mean for GCC-Iranian relations? Rouhani and Zarif advocated a warming of relations between Tehran and the GCC states. Iran’s hardliners, meanwhile, believe that the Islamic Republic must continue flexing its muscles and exploit Saudi Arabia’s weaknesses to the fullest extent possible. Thus, if Riyadh truly wants to make a good will gesture to Iran, the Kingdom’s leadership understands that the window of opportunity for doing so could be coming to a close in several months.
At the same time, actions taken by a few can jeopardize diplomatic overtures aimed at resolving conflicts. For example, the January 2016 diplomatic spat between Saudi Arabia (and by extension some of the Kingdom’s Arab allies) and Iran resulted from several hundred Iranians ransacking Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic buildings in Tehran and Mashhad in response to the Kingdom’s execution of Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, setting back fragile peace initiatives in Syria and Yemen. If extremists in Iran take similar actions in the future and/or if the Saudis carry out more executions of al-Nimr’s family members currently on death row, Kuwait’s diplomatic efforts could suffer major setbacks.
Ultimately, an improved relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran is unlikely to begin developing without political resolutions to regional crises that have given officials in Riyadh and Tehran opportunities to extend and/or consolidate their zones of influence in the Arab world at the other’s expense. When negotiating with Tehran, the Saudis cannot expect Iran to abandon its interests in the region given the extent to which the Iranians view their security as vulnerable to developments in its Arab neighbors. At the same time, Iranian military leaders’ boasting of controlling four Arab capitals and calling Bahrain the 14th province of Iran only reinforces Saudi perceptions that Iran aggressively expands its reach without regard for the Westphalian system.
Fortunately, there are officials in Riyadh and Tehran who see a thaw in GCC-Iran relations as beneficial to their respective states. Unfortunately, however, both have domestic constituencies and grave threat perceptions of the other that undermine such prospects. Nonetheless, even if diplomatic efforts to ease tensions between the Middle East’s two dominant geopolitical and ideological rivals do not bring about Kuwait’s desired results in 2017, this year could at least mark the beginning of a dialogue that gradually opens the door to a better relationship. The fact that Kuwait’s foreign minister made this rare visit to Iran to speak on behalf of the GCC and received a warm welcome in Tehran justifies cautious optimism.
Photo: Sheikh Sabah al-Khalid