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reflections

Mar 31, 2017 | 02:23 GMT

Iran and the GCC Still Have a Gulf Between Them

Iran and the GCC Still Have a Gulf Between Them
(FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Relations between Iran and most members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have long been uneasy. They have been especially tense since the Saudi Embassy in Tehran was attacked in January 2016 after Riyadh executed Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Now, however, it seems that the GCC may be testing the idea of mending fences with Iran. On Thursday, at the 142nd meeting of the bloc's Ministerial Council in Riyadh, foreign ministers from across the GCC discussed holding a strategic dialogue with Iran. The proposal, combined with the flurry of diplomatic activity between Tehran and the GCC's member governments over the past four months, could herald the start of a slow and selective rapprochement — even if it's only on a state-by-state basis and doesn't solve the broader strategic issues between them.

Easing any tension with Iran would be a welcome change for the GCC's members. Poor relations with their neighbor across the Persian Gulf exacerbate the countries' internal sectarian divides and complicate the already arduous process of reform. Having cleared the air with Iran, the GCC's constituent governments will have more leeway to focus on domestic economic reform and development, their top priorities. To that end, the GCC began publicly entertaining a reconciliation shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump won office. Trump's victory signaled a return in Washington to a more confrontational policy toward Tehran, something the bloc's members had hoped for after the previous administration tried to improve ties between the United States and Iran. Assured that they would now have greater support from the United States, the Gulf monarchies had the confidence they needed to try to patch up relations with Tehran in areas of mutual interest. The diplomatic campaign began last December when the GCC drafted a letter to the Iranian government proposing to start a dialogue. In January, Kuwait's foreign minister delivered the letter to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who then made a whirlwind visit to Oman and Kuwait.

The two countries were a logical starting point for the Iranian president. After all, of the GCC's members, Kuwait and Oman have taken the most moderate stance toward Iran. But Riyadh — Tehran's main rival in and beyond the bloc — has also proved increasingly willing to cooperate with Tehran over practical issues in the past several months. During negotiations over the OPEC production cut, for example, the kingdom (albeit begrudgingly) accepted a deal that allowed Iran to cap its production at a higher level than other OPEC members that were subject to a cut.

Saudi Arabia also invited Iran to attend discussions on issuing visas to enable Iranians to make the hajj in 2017, after the breakdown in relations kept the two countries from reaching an agreement on the issue in 2016. (The talks were a success, and Riyadh and Tehran sealed the deal earlier in March.) If this trend continues, even a re-establishment of diplomatic relations may be within the realm of possibility for Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Even so, any newfound cooperation will be limited. So long as the conflicts in nearby countries such as Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq wear on, Tehran and Riyadh will be embroiled in a contest for regional influence. Each conflict is a theater of proxy war, pitting Iran's vision for the Middle East against that of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. And though the United States' deal to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons has survived the first two months of Trump's administration, Riyadh and its allies in the GCC are confident that Washington is on their side.

In Yemen, for instance, the GCC has high hopes that Washington will increase military support for its coalition against the Houthi rebels. The United States has become more interested in beefing up its assistance to the GCC's coalition ever since it got wind that Iran was considering getting more involved in Yemen. Addressing Congress on Wednesday, U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel called Iran the main source of instability in the Middle East and said the United States would work to stop it from spreading its influence further.

Though Iran and Saudi Arabia are still fierce rivals, the hints of a nascent reconciliation demonstrate that they are willing to put their differences aside under the right circumstances, on specific issues.

But even beyond Iran, the United States is trying to contain regional instability more generally by encouraging more collaboration among its Sunni allies, including the GCC countries. Saudi Arabia and Egypt appear to be making amends since the Trump administration pressured both sides to bury the hatchet earlier in March. Washington, likewise, cajoled Iraq and Saudi Arabia to bolster their bilateral ties — partly in an effort to weaken Baghdad's alliance with Iran. The Trump administration also seems to have directly influenced Saudi Arabia's selection of the former Pakistani army chief to head up its Islamic Military Alliance. It has even made overtures to Arab countries in the region to help lay the groundwork for a new round of peace negotiations in Israel. So far, Washington's efforts appear to be working, especially in the GCC.

The United States won't be able to smooth over all the bloc's problems, however. Increased military support for the GCC coalition in Yemen, for instance, will not change the fact that the United Arab Emirates is focused on stabilizing the war-torn country's coastlines, while Saudi Arabia is more concerned with securing its border. And Riyadh will be hard-pressed to persuade the United States to send more manpower its way, since Washington's own objectives in the conflict align more with those of Abu Dhabi. Aware that the increased U.S. support has its limits, both Gulf countries are looking for reinforcement elsewhere, including Sudan.

Though Iran and Saudi Arabia are still fierce rivals, the hints of a nascent reconciliation demonstrate that they are willing to put their differences aside under the right circumstances, on specific issues. The GCC has determined that improving bilateral relations with Iran could help it achieve its domestic imperatives. For Tehran, meanwhile, reducing hostilities with the Gulf bloc could help preserve the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement with the United States. Nevertheless, the underlying differences that keep the two countries at odds will outlast their rapprochement.

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