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A slim chance for a GCC-Iran strategic dialogue

Strategic dialogue between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and Iran was not among the most publicized items on the agenda for the bloc’s Ministerial Council in Riyadh last week. Yet it seems the idea of the dialogue was revisited by GCC foreign ministers, as hinted, for example, by Kuwait’s Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Al-Jarallah.

In recent months, a flurry of diplomatic activity in the Gulf and various negotiations involving Saudi and Iranian officials have fed speculation about a GCC-Iran thaw. 

But the gravity of the tensions between most members of the bloc and Iran continue to overshadow any attempts to build some basic confidence and a working relationship that can de-escalate things.

Speculation about a diplomatic opening started last November with the historic Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) deal to cut oil output. In February, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Muscat, his first as head of state to a member of the GCC. Rouhani’s next stop, Kuwait City, to meet with Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, looked even more significant given the close ties between Oman and Iran. 

It followed a letter of invitation from Kuwait and a visit to Tehran in January by Kuwait’s foreign minister. Kuwait delivered a message on behalf of the GCC, listing the bloc’s conditions for talks with Iran. 

Then in March, consultations between Saudi and Iranian officials led to the announcement that Iranian pilgrims would be participating in the Haj this year, after being absent in 2016 due to disagreements over security and logistics. This could eventually lead to the re-establishment of Saudi-Iranian diplomatic relations.

These efforts to launch a much-needed mechanism to address security and strategic concerns are continuously tested not only by existing crises — both sides remain directly involved or supporting opposing sides in wars in Syria and Yemen — but by new ones as well. 

There is now a US administration far more willing to push back on Iran’s determination to take full advantage of the demise of the US-led regional order. This was confirmed again with Friday’s US military strikes against a Syrian government forces’ airbase, a long-overdue punishment against the latest chemical weapons attack by the regime earlier this week on civilian targets in the town of Khan Sheikun in northwestern Syria.

The efforts to launch a much-needed mechanism to address security and strategic concerns are continuously tested not only by existing crises — both sides remain directly involved or supporting opposing sides in wars in Syria and Yemen — but by new ones as well.

Dr. Manuel Almeida

As many regional analysts have pointed out, for most GCC governments that had been counting the days until the end of the Obama presidency, this is a welcome development. The assurances provided by the full re-activation of the US security umbrella has led to a sense of confidence among the GCC states, thus allowing them to discretely reach out to Iran from a position of strength. 

It is unclear, however, how Iran’s security and foreign policy establishment will react to these overtures from the GCC with a more aggressive US policy in the background. Pressure could create more openness in Tehran to negotiate with its neighbors. Another possibility is that because hard-liners in Iran had it too easy during the Obama years, what they see as the new administration’s full reversal of policy toward Iran might be interpreted as falling very short of a declaration of war. Rising tensions between the US and Iran, which now seems unavoidable, could undermine attempts of de-escalation between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The likely next war-in-the-making between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah (probably backed by various pro-Iranian militias operating in Syria) could be the trigger. 

Presidential elections in Iran in May are another major element of uncertainty that obstructs the efforts to establish an official mechanism among Gulf countries to address key differences. A defeat for the incumbent Rouhani would be a major surprise; yet hard-line conservatives — who will have little interest in fixing relations with Saudi Arabia — are not sparing any efforts to find a candidate that can unite their ranks. The Popular Front for the Islamic Revolution Forces has just selected the five finalists before it chooses its candidate. 

Here is the catch: The more regional tensions escalate, the more important an effective working relationship between the GCC and Iran will be, but the harder it will become to get it off the ground. 

The Iran-sanctioned genocide in Syria and Iran’s backing of sectarian militias across the region, outward interference in the affairs of neighboring states and support for terrorist groups, mean that any attempted rapprochement with the GCC is likely to remain superficial at best. 

• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a leading political analyst, providing research and consultancy services focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He can be reached on Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida.