Can the GCC test Iran’s government?

The key question then is how the GCC, and Saudi Arabia in particular, should respond to Iranian calls for dialogue

Manuel Almeida

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Earlier this week, after a meeting in Tehran with the Austrian president, Iranian President Hassan Rowhani was asked if his country could discuss peace in Syria with Saudi Arabia and the United States. “We will sit down at any table with countries inside and outside the region,” Rowhani responded.

Given the determination Tehran has displayed to date in supporting the Syrian regime and specifically President Bashar al-Assad, Rowhani’s comments could easily be interpreted as empty talk. Yet this is not an isolated episode - on the contrary. Following the nuclear deal, a handful of Iranian officials have stated their willingness to reach out to their country’s neighbors to improve relations and seek regional stability.

In May, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif expressed publicly his willingness to visit Saudi Arabia. This followed an invitation in 2014 from former Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. That visit never materialized.. Nevertheless, Iranian overtures did not cease and have recently intensified.

Reaching out

In recent weeks, various Iranian officials and former officials have renewed calls for regional dialogue to reduce tensions, and specifically mentioned talks with Saudi Arabia. In August, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, said his government “welcomes dialogue and cooperation with Saudi Arabia with a view to restoring peace, security and welfare to the region.”

Discussing a political transition in Syria without Assad raises a lot of hard questions, but it is an inevitable step

Manuel Almeida

Earlier that month, he had called on the normalization of relations between the two countries to bring much-needed stability to the region, but warned the Saudis about the negative repercussions they could face across the region if there is no change of approach.

This month, Hossei Sadeghi, Iran’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, wrote a particularly balanced column calling for the “establishment of regional relations on the basis of confidence building with special focus on existing considerations in Iran-Saudi Arabia relations.” He described how Zarif is in charge of this active agenda of public diplomacy and public consultations with Iran’s neighbors to promote dialogue and cooperation.

Recently, Mohammad Reza Fayyaz, Iran’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), also signaled Tehran’s willingness to improve ties with Saudi Arabia. Unhelpfully, however, he blamed Riyadh for much of the region’s ills.

Last week, Seyed Hossein Mousavian - a former Iranian official now based in Princeton, and whose views tend to be aligned with the moderates in Tehran - wrote a piece on the constructive engagement that can be built between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Mousavian briefly recognized the legitimate security concerns of the GCC states regarding Iran, and the need to address those concerns.

Where to test?

Washington interprets the nuclear deal as proof that Tehran can become a reliable partner to address some of the region’s crises. However, for most of the GCC states and Saudi Arabia in particular, the deal does not remove most of their anxieties regarding Iran.

While Tehran’s efforts to export its revolution were a cause of anxiety for all GCC states, they do not presently share the same level of concern about its foreign policy and the disruptive activities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) across the region.

Oman under Sultan Qaboos has established close ties with Iran. The UAE and Qatar have strong economic links with the country, but have serious differences with and worries about its regional policies, as do the Saudi and Bahraini governments. Kuwait has recently started to develop closer economic and trade relations with Iran, but shares the concerns of most other GCC members.

The key question then is how the GCC, and Saudi Arabia in particular, should respond to Iranian calls for dialogue. Where and how could the far less bellicose rhetoric of the Rowhani administration, especially when compared to the years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, be tested to confirm whether it corresponds to a real willingness to make concessions, reach tangible compromises and reign in the hardliners? How can it be asserted whether the moderates have the definitive upper hand in foreign policy?

The obvious answer would be the tragic conflict in Syria, with its devastating repercussions for the region and beyond. Tehran cannot reasonably call for better relations with its neighbors for the sake of stability and peace, and support a dictator that is directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, as well as millions of refugees and internally displaced people.

Discussing a political transition in Syria without Assad raises a lot of hard questions, but it is an inevitable step if Iran wants to establish the reputation of responsible regional power.

Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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