Gulf states and Iran’s diplomacy of ‘openness’

There is a flurry of diplomatic and political activities coinciding with a campaign to market the Iranian nuclear deal

Raghida Dergham
Raghida Dergham
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There have been interesting developments this week in U.S.-Russian relations with the Gulf states, Egypt, and Turkey – and also interesting developments in the political discourse of both Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

The strategic dialogue between the United States and Egypt resumed earlier this week, for the first time since 2009, tackling the future of U.S.-Egyptian relations. The relations had become tense following the Muslim Brotherhood rise to power in Cairo. The talks also tackled Egypt’s regional role in Libya, Yemen, and Syria.

The declaration by the GCC as spoken by Qatar’s Foreign Minister Khalid Al-Attiyah welcoming the deal with Iran is a notable development that helps Obama’s administration, which needs such stances on the eve of the deliberations over the deal in Congress.

This is also happening in conjunction with an agreement to resume strategic dialogue between the United States and the GCC, which started in Camp David two months earlier. The next session of the dialogue will take place in New York next month.

There is a flurry of diplomatic and political activities coinciding with a campaign to market the Iranian nuclear deal

Raghida Dergham

The U.S.-Russian partnership represented by Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov brought a new initiative to the GCC for political and diplomatic efforts in the Arab region, launched in the wake of the nuclear deal with Tehran. The details of the American and Russian attitudes on regional issues did not yet amount to a radical shift, whether vis-à-vis Syria or vis-à-vis the Iranian role there. In truth, the tripartite meeting bringing together Kerry, Lavrov, and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir reflected Washington and Moscow’s desire to reassure Riyadh that the sprint towards Tehran does not mean a split with Riyadh or the reduction of the Arab regional weight in favor of Iran.

The Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is also trying to reassure the Gulf through his “broad smile” diplomacy. Zarif wrote an article in Al-Safir, titled “Neighbors before the house”, in which he called for looking for ways to help all regional countries to uproot the causes of tension and the absence of trust. The Qatari foreign minister responded by calling for a serious and constructive dialogue with “our Iranian neighbors”, including discussing what he said was Iranian interference in the internal affairs of the Gulf countries and Tehran’s continued support for President Bashar al-Assad.

There is a flurry of diplomatic and political activities coinciding with a campaign to market the Iranian nuclear deal. There are also economic and intelligence activities involving the United States, Russia, and Europe in the direction of Iran and the GCC, part of which to market arms and part of it to secure a place in the reconstruction of the countries ravaged by this decade’s mysterious and odd wars.

Zarif’s statements were seen as “amusing” in the words of a one Gulf figure. “He is far from decision-making positions in Tehran and very far from the Iranian revolution and only speaks for himself as a pro-Western liberal.”

According to the Gulf interpretation of Zarif’s editorial, Zarif’s statements are inconsistent with Iran’s actions and come in an inappropriate timing, immediately in the aftermath of Iranian meddling in Bahrain. According to the Gulf source, Kuwait and Qatar told Zarif during his visit to their capitals in the wake of the nuclear deal that they were waiting for proof from Tehran that it really wants good neighborliness and that it is no longer seeking to export the Iranian revolution.

It would be good if the Iranian foreign minister can prove Iran’s newfound moderate streak is real with a crucial decision from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. However, this decision is probably above the paygrade of Minister Zarif, and it is also likely the Supreme Leader is not in the process of dispensing of the Revolutionary Guards and their regional ambitions.


The good-cop-bad-cop game will continue for the time being until strategic decisions are made regarding the future of the Islamic Republic. This period of time requires giving moderate forces represented by President Hassan Rouhani and the foreign minister room to send messages of reassurance, because the opposite would end up undermining the nuclear deal, especially as it is currently under close international scrutiny before it comes into force and the sanctions are lifted.

The verbal escalation increased this week from U.S. Secretary of State Kerry and his British counterpart Philip Hammond against Tehran. The two men criticized Iran for its support of terrorism with a view to impose its regional influence. However, this is just verbal escalation and is not an annex of the nuclear deal, which today dominates U.S. and British priorities.

The American, British, German, and French diplomacies may be truly convinced that Iran’s rejoining the international community would force it into moderation and would curb the hardliners who want to export the Iranian revolution and impose religion on the state. However, these nations have decided in advance not to use any of the pressure cards they have to influence Tehran’s policies and regional roles, out of keenness for the conclusion of what they see as a historical nuclear deal. Hence, their policies vis-à-vis Iran’s regional ambitions are based on wishful thinking not as a result of secret understandings with Tehran as part of the deal.

Part of the implications is acknowledging Iran as a regional player and lending legitimacy to its regional roles, particularly in the Arab countries where Iran is involved led by Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. But another implication of the deal is that Turkey is now pushing to reformulate its policy to guarantee itself a strong position before this is made impossible by the new Iranian role as drawn and approved by the major powers.

Jawad Zarif tried to address both issues - the momentum of the deal and the implications. In his editorial, he said that Iran, despite living in “security and stability”, cannot stand idly by vis-à-vis the huge devastation in its periphery. He wrote, “Experience tells us that chaos and unrest know no boundaries, and it is not possible to guarantee the security of any country in a tumultuous climate in a globalizing world.”

This is an important position that the Iranian minister must communicate to other Arab capitals, including Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, to prove Tehran’s determination to shrink its role, which has fueled chaos and unrest across the border, because it believes that this is no longer in its interest. The continuation of the classical Iranian role in Syria will be at the expense of the new Iran, because it will draw it further into a quagmire that it helped turn into a wasteland, a humanitarian crisis, and a magnet for terrorism which now justifies Iranian-Western partnership to crush it.

The mechanisms for uprooting tension and the mistrust between the countries of the region are available to Tehran as well as Riyadh, Ankara, and Doha. The litmus test is Syria, where none of these players is innocent, just like Moscow, Washington, London, and Damascus are not either. The roadmap and its mechanisms is now plain for all to see, and any delay in taking Syria towards a new phase away from perdition remains a black stain on the consciences of all those involved.

Defeating ISIS in Syria will not happen if Tehran and Moscow cling on to Bashar al-Assad. For this reason, there is talk that Russia and Iran are less intransigent about Assad’s role in the new political configuration in Syria. This configuration does not adopt the Geneva 1 and Geneva 2 call for a transitional political process through a governing body with full powers, but proceeds from a starting point where the regime in Syria remains in power with Assad being gradually phased out. It seems that the multilateral talks that took place this week addressed scenarios for regional understandings on new foundations, but have yet to negotiate over mechanisms of implementation.

Another important thing that Mohammad Javad Zarif said was that “we must all accept the truth that the time of futile gambits is over, and that we all are either winners together or losers together, because sustainable security cannot be achieved by undermining the security of others.”

Zarif chose Yemen to be a “good model” for serious talks to start. This comes on the heels of military gains made by the Arab coalition and an American move towards the Gulf with a message to Riyadh that Washington understands Saudi’s priorities and intends to tell Tehran: stop your meddling in Yemen.

Nevertheless, it would be extremely worthwhile for Yemen to become a model for understandings between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Yemen is completely different from Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, because Yemen falls in the Saudi backyard. Iran is fully aware of this and knows what it must do if it wants to reassure its neighbors.

Tehran can demonstrate its good intentions in Iraq, where both the Iranian and Arab interests require working together on clear non-sectarian bases to crush ISIS. They must build trust through a conscious government that represents all popular segments in Iraq – be they sectarian or ethnic. There can be no way to defeat ISIS through Shiite militias without active participation from Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and its tribes.

In Syria and in Lebanon, Tehran knows clearly what the roadmap to good neighborliness is. What needs to be done is not to restructure old initiatives and give them new titles, while Iranian actions follow the same usual patterns. What is needed is serious and honest actions that pull Yemen and Syria back from the disaster and protect Lebanon from coming ones.

For their part, the Gulf nations know what they must do to bring about the desired shift in Arab-Iranian relations. It is not enough for them to believe that the doubts and concerns of the GCC are placing pressure on Tehran and that Iran’s desperate need for international acceptance will force it to rein in the Revolutionary Guards or Hezbollah.

How the Gulf can benefit

It is the duty of the Gulf nations to benefit from and influence Iran’s openness diplomacy. The foreign minister of Qatar has done well to welcome the nuclear deal and call for serious dialogue with Iran.

The choice of Doha to hold the bilateral and trilateral meetings between Kerry, Lavrov, and the GCC foreign ministers is noteworthy. Indeed, Qatar has been accused of playing roles opposed by both Washington and Moscow, especially in the context of supporting extremist groups.

Accordingly, the shift that took place between Washington and Ankara last week converges with the U.S.-Russian shift with Qatar this week, and both converge in the direction of the Turkish-Qatari cooperation in the war on ISIS and closing the book on their alleged – denied by Turkey and Qatar – support for extremist groups in Syria.

These signs of a breakthrough require more than ever from the Gulf countries to develop a strategy of openness to meet the Iranian openness and encourage the U.S.-Russian efforts to reassure the GCC countries. It does not suffice for them to accept, refuse, express reservation, accuse or voice skepticism. The current phase requires the GCC countries to plan their next steps in a smart and pragmatic way. This is indeed possible if there is will.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on July 24, 2015 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.

Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.

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