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Are the GCC states starting to embrace Iran?

Henrietta Toivanen and Mehran Haghirian

Responsible Statecraft (Quincy Institute)

July 23, 2022

In his Washington Post op-ed prior to his trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia, Joe Biden argued that he has brought the United States back in from the cold, and has returned Iran back to its isolated status.

The Biden administration remains intransigent in its preference for isolating Tehran, which has been the predominant U.S. strategy since the 1980s. In the four decades since, subsequent U.S. administrations have gone from “dual containment” to containing the “axis of evil” in the post-9/11 era, with little change in how Iran is perceived and approached. While the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign has been harshly criticized by many as being ineffective or even counterproductive, it didn’t differ significantly from previous decades’ U.S. policy in anything other than tone and intensity.

Similarly, Biden’s policy on Iran and the broader region is following the same footsteps. Just as Trump’s summit in Warsaw on peace and security in the Middle East in February 2019 succeeded in provoking escalation by Iran as a response to its isolation, Biden’s proposed security initiatives between Israel and Arab states are destined to increase tensions and very possibly lead to an outright military conflict in the region.

The sense of exclusion may eliminate the emerging interests in Iran for regional de-escalation and economic cooperation, and ultimately push Tehran further towards the types of policies that are opposed by other regional actors. Washington’s strategy will continue to push Iran to ensure its resistance to external pressure, maximize its economic and military capacities, and focus its energy on building relations with those states that have no interest in participating in the pressure campaign.

There is an enormous opportunity involved in reversing this futile strategy of exclusion. This is evidently something that many regional states have already started to take a note of, as seen in their efforts to engage Iran diplomatically following the tumultuous period the region went through in 2019 and 2020 — primarily as a result of and despite the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign.

The recent developments in the geopolitics of the broader Middle East make it evident that the overarching root cause to the tensions is actually the malaise that has been disrupting regional diplomacy: exclusionism. It is evident that countries in the region are starting to recognize this and that the current path of fluctuating yet recurring tensions is not sustainable.

For example, the accelerating pace of reciprocal visits between the UAE and Iran and the potential return of their respective ambassadors signal Abu Dhabi’s recognition of the necessity of diplomatic engagement with Tehran. While there is a push for normalizing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, Riyadh has itself been diplomatically engaging Tehran as well. These modifications of perspective among U.S. partners should create sufficient space for policymakers in Washington to reconsider their views as well, specifically their assumptions about the inevitability of conflicts and crises in the region.

The JCPOA remains the most logical starting point for untangling Iran’s contentious international and regional relationships and building a framework for de-escalation in other regional domains. The agreement has essentially become a test case for any potential U.S.-Iran rapprochement, but the evolving dynamics in the negotiations also point to other observations. Despite some initial hesitations towards the JCPOA, all GCC states, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have now shown interest in reviving the agreement — both to limit the Iranian nuclear program and to increase their economic engagement with Tehran.

The GCC states have recognized the importance of cooling U.S.-Iran tensions in the region, and the potential political, military and economic gains that could be derived from easing U.S. sanctions against Iran. The GCC states expressed their unified support for reviving the JCPOA, and back in November, they showed the desire for more economic engagements with Iran once the sanctions are lifted. In one meeting, the GCC states declared that “enhanced regional dialogue and a return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA would […] allow for more regional partnerships and economic exchange.” This new mood music coming from the region is not insignificant and should be factored into U.S. policy towards the region.

In the Washington Post piece, Biden recognized the benefits of “a more secure and integrated Middle East,” how its “waterways are essential to global trade and the supply chains” and “its energy resources are vital for mitigating the impact on global supplies of Russia’s war in Ukraine.” He also acknowledged that the region is “coming together through diplomacy and cooperation — rather than coming apart through conflict.” But these words seemed not to apply to a region that includes Iran. Biden continues the exclusionary approach and its multilayered, decades-long sanctions and containment policy that has been the main hurdle in expanding inclusive regional cooperation.

If the JCPOA is not restored, U.S. secondary sanctions on Iran will remain and tighten, and Washington will once again implement the maximum pressure campaign on Tehran. This will not only constrain any talks of regional diplomacy, but will also significantly and negatively impact the ongoing development of diplomatic and economic ties in the region. U.S. officials been recently suggesting in private meetings with GCC and European counterparts that if the JCPOA is not restored, it expects all GCC countries, including Oman, Qatar, and the UAE, to join the campaign against Iran.

If the nuclear agreement is not revived, Washington seems intent on escalating tensions through regional partnerships and alliances designed to isolate Tehran. This is dangerous, but it also does not have serious backing from the immediate region either. None of the GCC states prefer a military conflict with Iran. The region already witnessed and suffered the damage that could be inflicted from the military tit-for-tat in 2019 — from the drone and missile attacks against Saudi Arabia’s oil instillations in Khurais and Abqaiq to the mine and drone attacks off the coast of UAE’s Fujairah. The ongoing diplomatic engagements with Tehran illustrate their desire to prevent the region from sliding back into that situation. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have clearly stated their desire for more cooperation with Iran and resolving their differences with Tehran through diplomatic means.

While Biden is still keen on reviving the JCPOA — viewing it as the best way to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons — his administration’s Middle East policies are following the same approach as his predecessor and those before him. Even though Barack Obama favored diplomacy with Tehran and even suggested that Saudi Arabia and Iran should “share the region,” his administration’s strategy nevertheless lacked a clear vision of how to move forward with broader regional diplomacy that would involve Iran.

With or without the JCPOA, the United States needs to allow the region to exhaust all diplomatic avenues to expand cooperation and integration. This will serve long-term U.S. and global interests in the stability and security of the Persian Gulf region and beyond.

Photo credit: Iranian Presidency Office/Handout via REUTERS

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