When former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani died Jan. 8, it was thought that his death might be another nail in the coffin of Saudi-Iranian dialogue, and thus usher an era of additional tension between Tehran and its Arab neighbors. Yet a personal condolence letter from Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud to the family of Rafsanjani, followed by a visit of Kuwait’s foreign minister to the Iranian capital Jan. 25, give a different indication.
Indeed, Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sabah al-Khaled al-Ahmad al-Sabah came to Tehran with a letter from the emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, on behalf of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), about the necessity of improving relations. On Jan. 26, Kuwait’s Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled al-Jarallah told reporters that the Iranian side showed understanding and readiness to react positively to the letter, saying, “The message and its content focused on laying the foundations for a joint dialogue based on the abstention from interfering in Gulf affairs and respecting the sovereignty of the GCC states and all the UN [Security] Council articles. It will be a breakthrough in the bilateral relations between the Gulf and Iran.”
An official Iranian source in Tehran told Al-Monitor without elaborating on the details, “The letter proposed an Iran-GCC dialogue based on three principles as a basis for dialogue." The source hinted that the language used in the letter was “very respectful,” which is noteworthy given the many acrimonious exchanges between Saudi and Iranian officials in the past year.
An official Kuwaiti source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the letter is based on the final statement of the GCC summit that was held in Bahrain on Dec. 7, 2016. “The Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry started contacts with Tehran directly after the summit. It is probably a long track, but regional peace and stability require all involved parties to cooperate,” the source said, adding that this does not mean embassies are going to open again immediately, nor that Iran is necessarily going to send pilgrims to hajj this year. He concluded, “Though we hope this will happen."
Mahdi Ahouie, a Tehran University professor and an Iranian foreign policy expert, told Al-Monitor, “The Iranian government is determined to avoid an open confrontation with any of the present actors in the Persian Gulf, including its Arab neighbors. Our approach to Persian Gulf security is based on the simple fact that we are all sitting in the same boat here. If our neighbors are damaged, we may also not remain safe from the consequences.”
He added, “The rise of [US President Donald] Trump might provide further encouragement for rapprochement between Iran and the Gulf states. Trump is an unpredictable person, and his excessive and severe positions may take everybody by surprise. The US allies in the region are also no exception [as potential targets] for this [behavior]. What we are a little skeptical about in Tehran is whether the GCC’s current gesture of conciliation is merely tactical, buying time to examine how Trump will treat Iran and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or whether they are seeking a real, lasting relationship with Iran.”
Ahouie said the first step is for Saudi Arabia to stop the rhetorical war and media propagation against Iran, and stop portraying Iran as the cause of all evil in the region. “Only then we can have a healthy conversation,” he said.
Though Iran and its Arab neighbors deviate on almost everything, they agree on skepticism toward each other’s intentions. Ankara-based analyst Ali Bakeer told Al-Monitor what the Arabs want from Iran, saying, “The Arab neighbors are keen on having good relations with Iran, but this can’t be without Tehran ceasing to interfere in the internal issues of the Arab countries, ending the sectarian policies and stopping the use of terrorist tools in achieving its national objectives.”
Bakeer, a staunch critic of Iran who writes for Qatari daily Al-Arab, added, “Building trust needs an appropriate environment that is not mature yet. We need initiatives that exceed seizing media exchanges; that is a typical Iranian step.”
He added, “Iran is everywhere in the Arab world. If Iran really wants to build trust, then it should show a change in its approach in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and Bahrain. Then it will not be difficult to see whether it is serious.”
Relations between Iran and its southern neighbors — chiefly Saudi Arabia — deteriorated severely in 2016, mainly after Riyadh executed Saudi Shiite opposition figure Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. In response, angry Iranian protesters stormed Saudi diplomatic compounds. Diplomatic ties with Iran were immediately severed by Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, while other GCC countries either downgraded relations, as in the case of the United Arab Emirates, or summoned Tehran’s ambassador. Yet this is not the only problem hindering better relations between the two sides.
The wars in Yemen and Syria, unrest in Bahrain, the war on the Islamic State in Iraq, along with power sharing in Lebanon are all areas where the interests of Iran and the Gulf countries, and especially Saudi Arabia, are confronted. Yet even these rather recent crises aren’t the genuine cause of tension — at least between Islamic Iran and its neighbors.
Indeed, there are other causes that go back in history to 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini succeeded in toppling Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran. Any rapprochement that doesn’t take into consideration the roots of the conflict will only act as a circumstantial truce that might collapse whenever another storm hits. The main Gulf monarchy, Saudi Arabia, is concerned about what it calls the Islamic Republic’s export of its revolution, while Iran can’t forget the role the Gulf monarchies played in supporting Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in his 1980-88 war with Iran “to defend the Eastern Gate of the Arab world,” according to the rhetoric used back then.
These aren’t issues that can be solved in a meeting or two; they weren’t solved when Rafsanjani and late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia normalized ties in the 1990s, and they will not be solved today as long as both sides aren’t willing to go directly to the core of the conflict, meaning their deep mutual mistrust, and stop exchanging phobias.