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Iran counters Western isolation with regional diplomatic push

The normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia is creating space for Tehran to build ties with regional states in Riyadh’s orbit.

Analysis | Middle East

Last week, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian visited Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. In line with the neighbors-first pillar of Ebrahim Raisi’s administration, Tehran is prioritizing accommodation of regional actors over a rapprochement with the West. Building on the Chinese-brokered March 10 diplomatic agreement with Saudi Arabia, Iran is taking advantage of opportunities to significantly improve its relations with Gulf Cooperation Council states and Egypt.  

Amir-Abdollahian kicked off his Gulf tour in Doha on June 19. The following day, he met with Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad in the Qatari capital for discussions about Afghanistan, Palestine, and other international issues of concern to both nations. Tehran’s top diplomat emphasized the extent to which the Islamic Republic is determined to expand bilateral relations with Qatar in the domains of trade, economics, and culture.

Shortly after Amir-Abdollahian met with Qatar’s head of state, Doha hosted talks between European Union mediator Enrique Mora and Tehran’s chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani several days after Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared that a new nuclear accord with Western powers was a possibility.

The following day, Amir-Abdollahian arrived in Oman and Kuwait for his tour’s second and third legs. While in Muscat, Tehran’s chief diplomat met with his Omani counterpart, Sayyid Badr Albusaidi. They discussed bilateral affairs in a meeting which Amir-Abdollahian hailed as “constructive.” The Sultanate’s foreign minister said, “There is great consensus in the visions of the two states on a series of issues...that will contribute to stability, security, and peace.” Underscored by Sultan Haitham bin Tariq al-Said’s recent trip to Tehran, Oman continues to play an important bridging role between Iran and the West, complimenting Qatar’s diplomatic efforts.

In Kuwait, Amir-Abdollahian met with Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Ahmed Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Sabah. Following their meeting, Iran’s top diplomat announced on social media that “resolution of challenges with the collective participation of countries in the region is the best way to achieve the progress of nations and ensure security in the Persian Gulf.”

Iran’s foreign minister wrapped up his GCC tour in the UAE. Amir-Abdollahian met with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who stressed, “the significance of establishing an international approach to multilateral action based on cooperation and partnership.” Iran and the UAE also signed a bilateral air transport services agreement.

Both the Iranian and Gulf Arab sides have vested interests in more dialogue and continued de-escalation. Tehran is sticking to its commitments in terms of improving relations with other countries in the neighborhood while the GCC states for their part are now “flipping a tense chapter and attempting to open yet another new page,” said Dr. Bader al-Saif, a Kuwait University professor, in an interview with Responsible Statecraft.

“The pendulum continues to swing between escalation and de-escalation. Now that it is swinging towards de-escalation, Tehran’s chief diplomat and his counterparts in the Gulf are best served if they learn from the past and avoid reengaging via tried methods that do not yield lasting results,” explained Dr. al-Saif. “New thinking is needed. Its pillars should include coordinated multilateralism, economic diplomacy, educational reforms, more cultural exchanges, non-interference, and mutual respect for sovereignty from both sides.”

Rapprochements with GCC States Help Iran Overcome Challenges

It is important to see these visits within the context of Tehran’s desire to lessen its isolation as Western countries continue imposing stringent sanctions on Iran. Building stronger ties with Saudi Arabia and the smaller GCC states is critical to such efforts.

“Tehran’s strategy in circumventing Western efforts to isolate Iran is resting to a large extent on this effort to seek political and economic integration with its immediate neighbors,” said Dr. Trita Parsi, the executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

“Amir-Abdollahian is the front man for the Islamic Republic; the real negotiations are done by representatives of the Supreme Leader,” said Barbara Slavin, a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center and a lecturer in international affairs at George Washington University. “His tour, however, is good public relations and was aimed less at reaching tangible agreements than at giving the impression that Iran is no longer isolated.”

Dr. Abdullah Baabood, an Omani scholar and visiting professor at Waseda University in Tokyo, said that Iran is determined to leverage the March 10 diplomatic agreement with Saudi Arabia to “enhance its relations with other Gulf states” in ways that can help “develop cooperation, particularly in the economic sphere, where Iran needs a lot of support, especially given the situation of its economy.”

Tehran seeks to “comfort the smaller Gulf states regarding its future policies in the region,” added Dr. Baabood. He believes that Amir-Abdollahian’s recent GCC tour was “about Iran trying to build more bridges with the Gulf states to ensure stability in the region and to enhance cooperation in different fields, including the most important sector which is economics.”

Effects of the Saudi-Iranian Normalization Deal

Dynamics shaping GCC-Iran relations have changed in light of the March 10 diplomatic deal between Riyadh and Tehran. Beijing’s role in brokering this agreement is significant from the perspective of policymakers in the Gulf. Understanding that China is playing a more assertive diplomatic role in the region while filling voids created by the failure of Washington’s foreign policy to bring more stability to the Middle East, GCC states see Beijing’s growing clout as potentially positive from the standpoint of promoting peace in the region.

“Riyadh and its GCC partners appreciate the Chinese role in facilitating the on-going rapprochement though they are cautious and do not want to raise their hopes unduly,” Dr. Joseph A Kéchichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, told Responsible Statecraft. “Conditions have been placed on various steps, which were apparently guaranteed by Beijing that, in effect, means that all parties will move slowly. Time will determine whatever progress is achieved.”

Even before this new period of Saudi-Iranian détente began, Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait dealt with Iran in highly pragmatic ways and fostered warm relationships with Tehran. Yet, these “dovish” GCC members were, in various ways and to various extents, sensitive to Saudi Arabia’s sense of insecurity vis-à-vis Tehran. This factor placed limits on their ties with Iran. Now that Saudi-Iranian relations are warming, the smaller GCC states can build on their ties with Tehran with much less concern about issues pertaining to Riyadh.

“This new agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia opens the door for the [smaller] Gulf states to move further and forward in their cooperation with Iran,” said Dr. Baabood. “It makes it easy because they won’t be blamed for any kind of deepening of their relationship with Iran. So, in a way it is positive for the smaller Gulf states to now move forward, and they see there is a Saudi consent in that regard.”

Oman's Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr Albusaidi meets Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, in Muscat, Oman June 21, 2023. Iran's Foreign Ministry/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.
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