While the future of the nuclear deal remains unclear, continued diplomatic engagement between Riyadh and Tehran could help bring much-needed stability in the region.
As the US continues seeking to weaken Iran’s clout in the Levant by carrying out airstrikes against Tehran-sponsored militias, President Joe Biden’s administration is simultaneously trying to negotiate a revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA).
Nonetheless, efforts to reach a ‘JCPOA 2.0’ have thus far failed. The nuclear accord’s future is up in the air. The possibility of the landmark 2015 deal dying for good must be seriously considered.
Iran’s neighbours, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, have incredibly high stakes in the nuclear talks in Vienna. Yet, consistent with the post-1979 history of Arabian monarchies being divided on Iran-related issues, the GCC members lack unity on whether they should welcome a ‘JCPOA 2.0’.
Primarily due to security and economic factors, leaders of Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and also Dubai have genuinely supported the deal ever since its initial negotiations during Barack Obama’s presidency. Their perspective has consistently been that, for all the JCPOA’s flaws, the accord represents the most realistic path towards de-escalating tensions with Tehran and ensuring that the Iranians are never armed with a nuclear weapon.
Yet in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, there are grave concerns about a ‘JCPOA 2.0’ resulting in the Islamic Republic’s regional foreign policy becoming more aggressive.
These monarchies, which lobbied the Trump administration to pursue “maximum pressure”, fear that Iran’s potential reintegration into the global economy could make Tehran more confident in terms of its ballistic missile activity and sponsorship of militant Shia groups, which display hostility toward some Arab Gulf sheikdoms.
Irrespective of these differences and the JCPOA’s uncertain future, there is a general trend in the GCC toward greater dialogue with Iran. Kuwait, Oman and Qatar have long been engaged in serious dialogue with Tehran. Iranian officials pay visits to these countries when seeking to improve Iran-GCC relations.
Also among the GCC’s most anti-Iranian states, the leaders are, to some extent, following suit. In July 2019, the UAE made overtures to Iran with two official Emirati delegations visiting the Islamic Republic to address issues of mutual concern and to try to decrease temperatures in the Gulf. The Saudis began talks with the Iranians in Baghdad in April 2021, which was the same month that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in an interview that he wanted his country to have “good relations” with Tehran.
Ultimately, there is a growing desire to find ways to manage and contain, rather than worsen, tensions between the Arabian monarchies and Iran.
The US’ regional role
The Aramco attacks of September 2019 pushed GCC members to try more diplomacy with the Iranians. Those missile and drone strikes underscored not only the extent to which Saudi Arabia’s economy and security are vulnerable to Iran-linked actors in the region, but also how all of the US’s “maximum pressure” on Tehran and military support for GCC states failed to keep Saudi Arabia — and by extension other GCC members — safe from Iran’s “maximum resistance”.
Moreover, the lack of any decisive response from the US to the Aramco attacks caused the Arab Gulf countries to further question the Trump administration’s willingness to ensure the Arabian monarchies’ security.
“[The US] did nothing, shockingly, frankly,” said Bilal Saab, the director of the Middle East Institute’s Defense and Security program. “It shocked the heck out of the Saudis…and the entire world.”
To be sure, Biden's electoral victory in November 2020 was another factor that added pressure on GCC states to pursue dialogue with Iran. Widespread perceptions of Biden being less inclined to back the Arab Gulf monarchies against Tehran to the degree that Trump did have influenced the Saudis and others to embrace more diplomatic approaches for dealing with problems in GCC-Iran relations.
Even with Biden continuing Trump’s policies of waging military operations against Iran-backed forces in the Levant, the Saudis and others in the Gulf do not believe that the current US administration will sufficiently protect them from Tehran should friction heat up.
“Some sporadic attacks in Iraq and Syria, which are clearly declared to be acts of ‘self-defence’ by Washington, cannot act as further assurances for Riyadh that the Americans have their back against Iran in the region,” Dr Hamidreza Azizi, a visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, explained in an interview with TRT World.
The Raisi factor
At this juncture, irrespective of the JCPOA’s uncertain future, it would bode positively for the Middle East if the Saudis and others in the region continue talking to Tehran.
One factor that could help facilitate more constructive dialogue between Riyadh and Tehran is the outcome of this year’s Iranian presidential election. Although Ebrahim Raisi’s win will probably make the talks in Austria more difficult, his presidency could actually help the Iranians and Saudis progress in their diplomatic engagement.
Why is that?
Raisi, more so than outgoing president Hassan Rouhani, is aligned with Iran’s unelected individuals and institutions that make Tehran’s foreign policy decisions — namely the Supreme Leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
This means that the GCC states can engage an Iranian president with more credibility than Rouhani, whose presidency and foreign policy agenda the IRGC sought to undermine in many ways, when talking about Tehran making concessions to the Saudis.
"The [Arab Gulf] states see a Raisi victory as a potentially positive outcome," said Dr Sanam Vakil, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House last month in an interview with this author.
“Unlike Rouhani, they see Raisi, who is close to the Supreme Leader and the security and intelligence apparatus, as being able to deliver on regional compromises. This changed view will enable both sides to build on the current dialogue underway in Baghdad.”
At this point, the Saudis are reversing their maximalist policies that manifested in the severance of diplomatic relations with Tehran in January 2016. The Saudi leadership realises that simply not talking to the Iranians does not make the Kingdom more secure.
As the Biden administration continues trying to find a new understanding with Iran on the nuclear file, even if that may not work out, it would behove Washington officials to also encourage more diplomatic engagement between Riyadh and Tehran, regardless of what the Vienna talks produce.
To be sure, diplomacy can’t magically solve all of the Middle East’s problems. There are limits to how quickly or how much friction in Saudi-Iranian relations can ease; problems between Riyadh and Tehran are many and complicated.
But greater dialogue between these two regional rivals has potential to have a major stabilising influence on the tumultuous region at a time in which that’s desperately needed.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.
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