By Manuel Almeida*
Last week’s visit of Hassan Rouhani to Muscat to meet with Sultan Qaboos of Oman could seem like a fairly ordinary affair, despite being the president of Iran’s first visit to a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) since taking power in 2013. Giving continuity to close ties with Iran dating back to the shah, Oman under Sultan Qaboos has kept a close relationship of cooperation with Tehran.
In recent years, the sultanate mediated secret talks between Americans and Iranians that paved the way to the nuclear deal, as well as various rounds of negotiations with the leadership of Yemen’s Tehran-backed Houthi militia. A gas exporting pipeline is also being built from Iran to Oman that avoids the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) territorial waters, a significant development in the region’s energy scene.
Yet Rouhani’s next stop, Kuwait City, to meet with Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, revealed that this presidential trip could be a ground-breaking development, and that his stop in Oman was more than a gesture reinforcing bilateral ties.
The short visit to Kuwait’s capital followed a letter of invitation from Kuwait and a trip to Tehran late last month by Kuwait’s foreign minister. The message from Kuwait, on behalf of the GCC, apparently set out the necessary preconditions for GCC-Iran talks, including regional conflicts, territorial disputes, and Tehran’s interference in the affairs of neighboring states and support for armed militias.
Since the historic deal of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) — which included key collaboration with non-member Russia — of November 2016 to cut output, speculation has been rife about the possibility of extending talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran to other sensitive areas.
Such speculation turned into something more palpable in December during the GCC Summit in Bahrain, during which Kuwait’s government took on the role of establishing contact with Iran on behalf of all the council’s members. A few regional commentators downplayed the significance of the meeting between the leaders of Kuwait and Iran, and cast doubt on the chances of it delivering any results.
Such skepticism is natural, given the level of tension between GCC members and Tehran. Only a year ago, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain cut diplomatic ties with Iran, while all other GCC members bar Oman recalled their ambassadors, after demonstrators ransacked and set fire to the Saudi Embassy in Tehran.
US willingness under President Donald Trump to adopt a tougher line than his predecessor Barack Obama on Tehran — namely Iranian actions its Gulf neighbors see as threatening, and a tighter oversight of Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal — changes the equation. It puts renewed pressure on Tehran and reassures Gulf allies, creating a greater openness for dialogue on both sides.
But the new US administration also brings a level of unpredictability, which makes the need for a new regional security architecture post-2003 that can deliver some stability as pressing as ever.
Although GCC members’ concerns about Iran vary in degree and in kind, the council’s stance is clear-cut: We can negotiate and possibly reach some important compromises, but can Tehran walk the talk of better ties with its Gulf neighbors? It passes the ball to Iran’s court, potentially laying bare the contradictions in Tehran’s revolutionary nature.
Iran’s position is more intricate, not least because of the complex dynamics and competition among different factions and centers of power (at least internally) and the approaching presidential elections.
A particular Iranian concern that has gone under the radar is Moscow’s growing clout in the Middle East. Despite being unrealistic, rumors that the Trump administration is planning to reach out to Moscow to, among other things, drive a wedge between Russia and Iran could have raised some eyebrows in Tehran.
There is longstanding suspicion in Iran about Russia, despite their determination to counter US influence, their coordination in the Syrian war in support of President Bashar Assad, and burgeoning bilateral trade. Iranian hard-liners are wary of the growing ties between Russia and the GCC. On Syria specifically, Iranian officials increasingly fear that Russian strategic priorities are beginning to differ with theirs.
From Syria and Libya to the management of oil prices and the fight against Daesh, Moscow is successfully working to build an image of a key powerbroker in the region. Directly or indirectly, this could be working in favor of GCC-Iran dialogue, which could be good news for the region.
*Dr. Manuel Almeida is a leading political analyst, providing research and consultancy services focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, and holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He can be reached on Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida.