On 21 February 2022, the ACRPS Iranian Studies Unit (ISU) hosted a group of experts for a panel entitled “Iran’s Relations with the States of the GCC.” The panel consisted of Dr Dina Esfandiary, Senior Advisor in the Middle East and North Africa department of the International Crisis Group, Houchang Hassan-Yari, Professor and Head of Political Science Department at the Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, and Ibrahim Fraihat, Dean of Student Affairs and Associate Professor of International Conflict Resolution at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. The panel was moderated by Mehran Kamrava, Director of the ISU and Professor of Government at Georgetown University in Qatar.

Esfandiary began by providing a brief overview of Iran’s relations with the GCC states. She described the region as having undergone a lot of turmoil, particularly under the Trump administration. US policy of maximum pressure led to a period of instability in the region with Iran “lashing out” and terrifying its neighbours, while the US was content to stand back even after Iran attacked Saudi oil installations. However, Esfandiary posits that the region is moving towards an era of pragmatism, partly due to the pandemic, and because divisions within the GCC were seen as making states weaker.

According to Esfandiary, the UAE’s relations with Iran have thawed, with the United Arab Emirates adopting a “two-pronged approach,” to both engage with and contain Iran. In the context of mild improvements in the relationship between Iran and the UAE, recent Houthi attacks on Abu Dhabi may have complicated relations. Nevertheless, Iran’s possible hand in the attack has been pragmatically downplayed by the UAE and denied by Iran. Iran and Qatar’s relations are generally positive and pragmatic, a necessary relationship due to the gas field shared between the two countries. Their relations improved when Qatar refused to stop engaging with Iran during the Gulf diplomatic crisis in 2017, and when Iran subsequently helped Qatar to overcome this difficult period. Esfandiary expressed hopefulness of the possibility of a dialogue between the Gulf states as a whole and Iran, mediated by countries like Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and European stakeholders.

This was followed by Ibrahim Fraihat, who began by placing his intervention under the question: Will history repeat itself? He compared the current phase of the Iranian negotiations with Iran’s 2015 nuclear agreement. Similar to the 2015 negotiations, the current talks in Vienna focus only on Iran’s nuclear program, ignoring its broader foreign policy objectives and strategies. However, this time, Iran and Saudi Arabia are also engaged in rounds of dialogue in Baghdad, which opens the possibility of further negotiations between the two countries. Fraihat argued that “this parallel process is not solving anything and making matters worse. The Vienna negotiations are allowed to reach a conclusion even if there is no Saudi-Iranian agreement in Baghdad over Iran’s relations with the region. However, the major powers will not allow Iran and Saudi Arabia to reach an agreement in Baghdad in isolation from the Vienna talks as they are the ceiling for the Baghdad talks.” He further remarked that so far, no progress has been achieved in Baghdad and Iran has used it for public relations.

According to Fraihat, the 2015 nuclear deal did not lead to a change in Iranian policies in the region, and in fact the current security situation is worse today than it was in 2015, with Houthi missiles reaching the strategic depths of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Fraihat believes that Iran has no incentive to change its current policies. Therefore, he argued that history may be repeating itself, but in a worse way than in the past. He noted that the increased influence of Israel is causing an imbalance in the region and lessening the potential for stability and security in the region.

To round off the panel discussion, Hassan-Yari began by arguing that due to Iran’s geographic and military size, the relative weakness of the smaller Gulf states makes it very difficult for them to have normal relations with Iran. He stated that the foreign policy of Iran is mostly ideological rather than pragmatic but agrees that the Baghdad process will not be fruitful as both the Iranians and Saudis see themselves as leaders of the Muslim world, and there is no room for compromise. Oman is an exception to the other Gulf states due to its unique foreign policy which allows the country to have favorable relations with Iran, while siding with the GCC on crucial matters. Due to the military withdrawal in the region starting with the Obama administration, Israel has become a sort of a replacement for the “American umbrella,” opening the door to the Abraham Accords, which Hassan-Yari says Saudi Arabia will eventually become a part of.

Kamrava moderated the discussion that followed the panel, asking about the importance, or lack thereof, of the new presidential administration in Tehran. Hassan-Yari contended that the new presidency is not important because decision making is in the hands of Khamenei, and this has resulted in previous presidents not having much power. Esfandiary agreed with the caveat that different presidents bring a different tone to Iranian diplomacy, which makes other countries more or less willing to engage diplomatically with Iran. Fraihat agreed with Esfandiary, further stating that Iran tends send mixed messages, which makes it difficult for the region as a whole to know what to expect from the new president.

Discussing whether Raisi, with his conservative credentials, would be more able to open relations between Iran and the Arab states, like Richard Nixon did between the US and China during his presidency, Fraihat recalled previous breakthrough agreements like the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, which was signed under President Anwar Sadat. He concluded that Raisi has a good chance of succeeding as long as he does not fall into the trap of only engaging in dialogue and not taking any action. Hassan-Yari disagreed and stated that Raisi does not have the same decision-making power that Nixon had, and is ultimately a superficial president, and that Rouhani had a better chance of improving relations with Arab countries than Raisi.

On why the Gulf countries trust Israel more than Iran, Esfandiary believes that “there was a lot of mistrust between Israel and the Gulf states, but they have a common enemy which allows them to come together publicly to address some of the common threats that they have in the region.” She claimed that the Gulf states and Israel share a common enemy of not only Iran, but the withdrawal of US troops from the region. Looking at it from the perspective of the GCC countries, Fraihat stated that they see Israel’s expansionist agenda as being limited to Palestine, while they see Iran as a danger to them. Hassan-Yari continued the discussion by stating that Israel and the Gulf states see Iran as an existential threat, giving them grounds to cooperate, and that Tehran views the Saudi leadership as illegitimate puppets of American imperialism.

Esfandiary then addressed Iran’s position in Iraq, claiming that Iran has no intention of leaving Iraq and that the country is on the list of Iran’s priorities regarding foreign countries, due to their shared history and border. Fraihat agreed with Esfandiary, but sees the situation as changing with growing Iraqi resentment of Iranian control. Hassan-Yari maintained that Iran would not disengage from Iraq because that would break the chain of its influence in Syria and Lebanon. Examining how Iran views Saudi Arabia, Esfandiary noted that the country views Saudi Arabia as a smaller concern because it is more interested in engaging with world powers such as Russia, China, and even the United States. According to Fraihat, Iran and Saudi Arabia made mistakes in their conflict strategies, and they should find a way to end their rivalry because it serves neither country’s interests.