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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Arabian Gulf nations cautious about re-engaging with Iran

Tehran uses interim nuclear deal to build bridges with Arabian Gulf neighbours.

DOHA // Arabian Gulf states have cautiously welcomed Tehran’s overtures to the region, just over a week after it concluded an interim deal with Western countries on its nuclear programme.

The Iran foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, visited Kuwait, Oman and Qatar this week and repeatedly called for joint efforts to resolve issues and promote regional stability.

Both sides acknowledge that there are obstacles to improving ties. Gulf countries are seeking reassurances from Iran over its nuclear programme as well as its regional role, particularly in Syria, where Tehran backs the regime of Bashar Al Assad.

But Gulf officials also expressed optimism about the possibility of moving forward.

“All the region’s countries are keen to have constructive cooperation for the sake of the security and stability of this region,” Kuwait’s acting prime minister and foreign minister, Sheikh Sabah Khalid Al Hamad Al Sabah, said during Mr Zarif’s visit.

Meanwhile, Mr Zarif said on his Facebook page that he was open to visiting Saudi Arabia for talks, something that would be “beneficial for both countries, the region and the Muslim world”. He said he also hoped to travel to the UAE.

Iran’s overtures to the region follow a landmark agreement between Tehran and Western countries that would curb Iran’s nuclear enrichment in exchange for limited sanctions relief. Gulf states have welcomed the interim deal as an initial step to addressing concerns over the nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.

Tehran has indicated it will seek to use the deal as an opportunity to renew international ties, particularly in the region. And on each stop of Mr Zarif’s Gulf trip, he emphasised an aim to rebuild trust with his country’s neighbours.

Speaking in Kuwait on Sunday, he said he hoped to open a “new chapter” of relations with the Gulf. In an unannounced visit to Doha on Monday, Mr Zarif reiterated his intention to work for improved ties, Iranian media reported.

“Anything that can lessen the tensions with Iran is a good thing,” said Michael Stephens, a Doha-based analyst at the Royal United Services Institute.

Analysts say that despite the shift in tenor, Gulf states remain concerned about Iran’s role in the region. Tehran strongly backs the Syrian regime, as well as its ally, the Lebanese Shiite militia Hizbollah. The Gulf Cooperation Council has accused Tehran of meddling in Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere.

“The main question is, does this [nuclear deal] encourage Iran to start interfering in the Gulf’s business,” said Mr Stephens.

Despite Mr Zarif’s assurances, for example, an Iranian official yesterday reiterated his country’s claim to three UAE islands. The chairman of the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy commission, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, described the islands, which Tehran illegally occupies, as an “inseparable” part of Iran, the Fars news agency reported.

The civil war in Syria is another major point of disagreement. While Tehran has supported the government of Mr Assad, Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia have backed the opposition and denounced Hizbollah’s involvement on behalf of the regime.

Speaking to Qatari network Al Jazeera in Doha, Mr Zarif argued for a political solution in Syria and denied charges that it has backed sectarian elements in the country.

“We believe that we need, all of us, to cooperate with each other to in fact contain the spread of sectarian divide in the region.”

Gulf countries will be looking for evidence of Iran’s goodwill in coming weeks, to complement its rhetorical charm offensive, analysts said.

“Diplomatically, it’s the right thing to do to welcome the [nuclear] deal,” said Abdullah Al Manai, a columnist and political analyst for the Bahraini daily Al Akhbar Al Khaleej. “But looking at it from a strategic perspective, a deal with Iran … will cause everybody to recalculate their positions in the region and internationally.”

* With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse