Since Hassan Rowhani has been elected president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, he and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have attended talks in New York with the UN General Assembly, traveled to Geneva three times to discuss Iran’s nuclear program with the P5+1 world powers, and reached a provisional nuclear deal within a month of negotiations. Overall, Iranian leaders seemed to have scored a victory by preserving their geopolitical, strategic, and national interests.
Rowhani and his regime have sought to capitalize on its gains made on the international stage and have begun to extend their charm to other parts of the world; specifically, its neighboring Arab countries and more crucially, to the Gulf states.
Zarif, in an attempt to use Iran’s recent nuclear deal to restore ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and to pursue Tehran’s national and regional interests of maintaining power and influence in the area, recently toured several countries in the Gulf including Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.
"In order to achieve a positive outcome in Iran’s attempts at restoring relationships with the Gulf, it needs to address several other key geopolitical issues beyond its nuclear agenda."Majid Rafizadeh
Iran's ties with GCC states, and their Arab neighbors in the Gulf region, have deteriorated considerably in recent years under Ahmadinejad’s era, much of which is due to the former president’s aggressive style of diplomacy. Zarif’s recent trips to the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, appear to be focused on undoing years of accumulated regional tensions and restoring relations.
Although Rowhani’s government is attempting to mend its ties with GCC states and reinforce its regional geopolitical role, it’s important to question if Tehran’s previous nuclear defiance, including its heavy water, plutonium reactor, and uranium enrichments are the only concerns that regional countries have. Is it adequate to solely address the recent nuclear deal in order to restore relations or do underlying issues rooted in a more complex and multidimensional landscape of geopolitics, ideology and balance of power need to also be addressed?
Beyond the Nuclear Dilemma and Ambitions
While the West’s biggest concern is Iran nuclear ambitions, the worries of the Gulf transcends Tehran’s nuclear capability. In order to achieve a positive outcome Iran’s attempts at restoring relationships with the Gulf, it needs to address several other key geopolitical issues beyond its nuclear agenda, including the increase of "pan-Shiism.”
Another crucial issue for the Gulf is Iran’s position toward the Assad regime. As the Syrian civil war passes its 1000th day with more than 110,000 people killed, 1/3 of the population displaced, and millions of refugees in neighboring nations, Iran continues to economically, politically, and through an advisory and intelligence role, buttress Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Even under Rowhani’s seemingly more liberal rule, Tehran is continues to support al-Assad just as the government of Ahmadinejad did.
Even recent reports and videos reveal that under Rowhani’s government, an increasing number of Iran’s military officers from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps are operating in the Syrian battlegrounds by training the Syrian regime forces. While most of the countries in the region have declared that al-Assad has lost his legitimacy, Tehran is determined to back the Syrian regime.
The second crucial issue that Iranian leaders must address to gain more credibility with its Gulf neighbors is its funding and support of Shiite proxies, such as Hezbollah, aimed at influencing the politics of Lebanon, Syria, and other Arab states. Such support has added a precarious sectarian language to the conflict. In addition, these sectarian elements are transcending the borders and spilling over to other countries including Iraq and Lebanon, bringing greater instability throughout the region.
Bahrain and Iraq
Furthermore, Iran played a role the domestic politics of Bahrain when it supported Shiite groups which eventually led to the Shia majority to stage an uprising against the kingdom’s Sunni ruling family, causing further mistrust from the Gulf.
The Leaders of Bahrain have recently invited Rowhani and Zarif to the Manama Dialogue, but Iran’s president and foreign minister did not attend the talks. Bahrain has recently welcomed a joint plan of action between the P5+1 and Iran, but Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa has called on Iran to take “serious actions and steps that would ally the fears of the regional countries regarding interference in internal affairs and supporting terrorist groups inside those countries” according to his interview to Almonitor.
In addition, Iran’s role and influence in Iraq is also indisputable. It is strongly argued that Iranian leaders are using Iraq, with its strategic location, Shiite population, and rich oil resources, as a platform to exercise Iranian interests and to assume superpower status in the Gulf.
The regional concerns regarding the Iranian ruling cleric is not only limited to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but also to Iran’s role in tilting the balance of power in its favor and assuming a regional superpower role. This is also related to the forging of Shia alliances across the region and throughout various platforms including proxies.
If Rowhani's government is serious about restoring and mending ties with the GCC states, it has to address several fundamental issues beside its nuclear program, including Tehran's support of Shiite proxies in Hezbollah, Iran's economic, intelligence, advisory, and political assistance for Assad's apparatuses, the Iranian leaders' backing of Shiite resistant groups in Bahrain, and Iran's role in Iraq.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar, is president of the International American Council and he serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. Rfaizadeh is also a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC and a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at email@example.com.