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Iran- the GCC Relations: A Long and Tortuous Path
Paper Proposal Text :
5th Annual Gulf Research Meeting
University of Cambridge
August 25- 28, 2014

Iran and the GCC: Prospects for Change? Workshop

Iran- the GCC Relations: A Long and Tortuous Path

Behzad Shahandeh,
Tehran University


Bilateral ties between Iran and the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) have witnessed over three decades of mistrust and misconceptions more often than not fuelled by the United States. The threat perception among some GCC states towards Iran has deterred both parties from embarking on a constructive cooperation in the Persian Gulf region and has frequently led the former to take stands against the latter, thereby depriving both neighbors of a chance to alleviate tensions by joint efforts. Had the six GCC member-countries assumed a common posture against Tehran, the underlying tensions might even have intensified. Differences do exist among these states, as shown recently by the lack of response to calls for political union by Saudi Arabia, the leading power in the group. They have somewhat weakened the tougher stances, leading to a more sober approach and thereby preventing any further deterioration of ties that could have ultimately led to a complete break of relations.
In recent history, the Iran-GCC relationship has evolved from one of confrontation that reached its highest peak during the eight-year Iraq-Iran war to mere toleration and formal ties, with little prospects of dispelling the atmosphere of suspicion if not rivalry. Again this is not to say that Iran’s relations with individual member states of the GCC were of the same nature, as some were keeping relations at more positive levels.
Iran’s stance toward the GCC whether as a group or bilaterally with individual member states, experienced some ups and downs during the Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Ahmadinejad administrations, especially under the latter. Overtures to mend relations by the Rafsanjani administration, which was close to Saudi leaders, eventually bore fruit and a period of detente was thus ensued. The positive postures towards the GCC in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular, were pursued under President Khatami. But relations were put on hold when the US chose a path of confrontation with Iran, which was branded as the “Axis of Evil”, even though it had actively cooperated with the United States on the Afghan issue. The stance adversely affected Iran’s relations with GCC states and undermined ongoing efforts for warmer ties. Thus Washington’s role as a third party has always had a major impact on relations among Persian Gulf countries.
Likewise, the American invasion of Iraq further dampened relations between the GCC and Iran. The atmosphere of mistrust gained momentum with sanctions against Iran being elevated to unprecedented levels after 2006, some arguing that theyhave been the most comprehensive in contemporary world history. Thereafter we witnessed \"Iran-bashing\" gaining force in the region and aggravated differences bringing back relations to what they were in the 1980s.
The crippling sanctions are paralyzing the Iranian economy, with oil sales cut by half from 2011 and dwindling foreign exchange reserves... In this context, accommodations and flexibility have become essential, and together with the new geo-strategic changes in the Middle East, they have brought about a new environment in the Persian Gulf as part of the bigger region. The changed settings led Iranian voters to elect the moderate-reformist Rouhani to improve the situation at home and usher in a conciliatory stance towards the outside, moving away from the confrontational policies of the past. This development coincided with the new priorities pursued by the United States in accordance with its national interests in the region. Due its changing outlook, Washington is looking at Iran to stabilize the region, as exemplified by its overtures in seeking Iran’s help in relation to the new crisis in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.
Tehran’s posture of peace and cooperation, which aims at pursuing dialogue rather than the confrontation policies of the past, has brought about new opportunities to the region in improving relations with its neighbors, this aspect being one of the major priorities set by the new Iranian administration.
But the promotion of relations with the GCC will be a long and tortuous process after years of existence of a wall of mistrust, and it is bound to suffer occasional setbacks. However, it is expected to gain momentum when new policies turn into actions, as stated with cautious optimism in the final communiqué calling for a new era of cooperation with Iran, at the GCC summit which took place late last year in Kuwait.
It must be emphasized that dealing with a group is always tiresome since consensus is difficult to reach, and Iran’s relations with the GCC are no different, especially with the member states standing at various distances from their northern neighbor. The states of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are situated at one end of the pole, while Qatar, the Emirates, Kuwait and Oman are standing at different distances at the other pole. Therefore, bilateral relations will play an essential part in securing a more conciliatory approach from some GCC countries, depending on how the process of détente with Iran unfolds. What seems to be certain, for the time being, is that Tehran’s new postures will not affect individual GCC members in the same manner. Relations with the four states situated at one end of the spectrum, while being developed with full knowledge of existing differences, will have a positive bearing on the two states standing at the other end. Moreover, with the ongoing US and Iran rapprochement, opportunities will arise in changing the perceptions of Saudi Arabia as issues like Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq will eventually be sorted out with commonalities surfacing in opposition to differences overwhelming the commonalities of today. Therefore, contrary to those who believe that the policy of engagement between Tehran and Washington will negatively impact relations between Iran and the GCC, the détente will create opportunities for cooperation and fence mending in the region.
The article will briefly recall the history of relations between Iran and the GCC, both at group and individual levels, in order to explore precedents to the present situation, with an emphasis being placed on analyzing the new atmosphere to sketch the future of relations.
Many obstacles lie ahead on this long and tortuous road which cannot be expected to lead to Iran’s relations with the GCC being patched up any time soon, as outstanding problems still loom and will be difficult to overcome in the foreseeable future. This is not to say that confidence-building that will eventually cement with Iran’s rapprochement will not have positive effects on its ties with its southern neighbors, if only at first through the bilateral improvement of relations with some GCC nations. Through a spillover effect, it will gradually extend to the other states that harbor more differences with Iran, fostering an atmosphere of cooperation for the benefit of all littoral states of the Persian Gulf region, namely Iran, Iraq, and the GCC states.
Turning rivals into allies needs concerted efforts from both sides and a sober approach in the interest of all players in the region.