Renewed Hopes for Rapprochement between Iran and GCC States
Last Wednesday, Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sabah Al-Khalid Al-Sabah arrived in Tehran for a brief visit, as an emissary of the Kuwaiti emir, in what was seen a turning point, promising rapprochement between Iran and member states of the [Persian] Gulf Cooperation Council.
The visit was reportedly intended to deliver a written message by the [Persian] Gulf Cooperation Council ([P]GCC) to the Islamic Republic. In fact, many observers found the visit as part of preparations to establish a dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia, two regional powers whose diplomatic ties was severed early in 2016, after vigilantes stormed Saudi embassy in Tehran in protest to Riyadh’s execution of prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Kuwait had already proposed to intermediate between the sides.
During his Wednesday meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Kuwaiti foreign minister highlighted Iran’s position in the region and the world, underlining the need for mutual cooperation in the face of common threats, state-run Iranian news service, PressTV reported. It is essential that differences be set aside and misunderstandings be removed among the regional countries in a peaceful environment and through dialogue, IRNA quoted the Kuwaiti official as saying.
During the meeting, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said all regional countries needed to look to future while keeping a watchful eye on common enemies and threats. He said that the expansion of ties with neighbors was a top priority for Iran and lauded the Kuwaiti emir for his role in promoting good neighborly relations among the countries in the region.
The visit was immediately reciprocated a day after when Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Morteza Sarmadi briefly visited Kuwait last Thursday to meet Kuwaiti Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. According to Entekhab, Kuwaiti newspapers also saw the visit in the light of efforts by the country to intermediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Many attribute the onset of these efforts to Iran’s positive signals. Iranian moderate Principlist website, Alef, highlighted Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s reconciliatory remarks during World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that Tehran and Riyadh could work together to help end regional conflicts provided that Saudi Arabia saw the realities on the ground before relations between the two sides could go back to normal. The website then goes on to review the hostile response by Adel al-Jubeir on Tuesday, where he said Saudi Arabia sought to expand cooperation with the Trump administration in order to prevent Iran’s further influence in the region. Alef’s article ends on a darker note, quoting from former deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, saying Saudi Arabia has undertaken measures against Iran’s national security, which have escalated in recent months.
International relations expert, Sabah Zangeneh wrote in an op-ed published in Reformist Arman Daily on Tuesday, that given Saudi Arabia’s recent financial problems and the economic crisis caused by expenditures in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, the country had to make compromises. Discussing the potential impact of Donald Trump’s presidency on Saudi conduct, Zangeneh argued that in the short run, Saudi Arabia dealt with dire economic conditions and needed to mend its regional policies to save itself in the midst of the new order under Trump.
However, Iranian Mizan News Agency quoted Arabic e-paper Rai al-Youm on Saturday that Saudi Arabia has tried to back off, pretending that the Kuwaiti Foreign Minister represented the [P]GCC, not Riyadh, during his Tehran visit. Pro-reform newspaper Etemad also wrote that the Saudis have preferred to stay behind the doors of the secret diplomacy and have given their responsibility on the issue of outreach to their allies such as Kuwait and Oman, which is a clear contradiction of the views of the Saudi foreign minister.
In an interview with Tehran Times, professor of political science at Georgetown University Shireen Tahmaasb Hunter called the new development an indirect way of preparing for possible Iran-Saudi Arabia talks further down the road. She believes that any détente between Riyadh and Tehran would benefit Kuwait. “Saudi Arabia’s spread of Salafism in Kuwait has caused sectarian tensions and undermined Kuwaiti democracy. Even the ruling family has not been immune from these negative consequences, as Kuwait’s somewhat more independent foreign policy, including towards Iran, has angered the Saudis,” Tehran Times quoted Hunter as saying. She further said that dialogue should take place at the level of Iran-GCC, with the focus being “the most significant causes of current discord in Iran-GCC ties, such as Bahrain, Yemen, Iranian pilgrimage to Hajj”. All these differences are caused by “the GCC states’ perception that Iran is still a revolutionary country and wants a change in the political system of the (Persian) Gulf states,” she added. She reiterated that Iran has acted cautiously in the face of much provocation but said the country’s rhetoric is still threatening to the Persian Gulf states. In response to a question about the opening of Nato’s regional office in Kuwait, prior to the visit, Hunter said Nato’s presence is intended to help secure the interests of the Persian Gulf Arabs and also to reassure them. However, she noted that Iran has always believed that Iran the security of the Persian Gulf should be the responsibility of littoral states, since the Shah’s era.
For now, Kuwait has showed contentment about the talks, expressing hope that positive steps will be taken to reach a deal and alleviate tensions between the sides. However, Kuwaiti Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Al-Jarallah has told Kuwaiti outlet al-Qabas that it is too early to talk about resumption of diplomatic ties between Iran and PGCC states.