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GCC States Bet on Nuclear Deal as They Seek Better Relations with Iran

Updated: Mar 16, 2022

Mehran Haghirian

Bourse & Bazaar Foundation

December 6, 2021

Iranian foreign policy has been in high-gear over the last week. As Iranian negotiators made they way back to Tehran from the seventh round of nuclear talks in Vienna, the UAE’s top national security adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan arrived in Tehran. Al Nahyan’s visit is the latest example of the significant shift underway in the foreign policies of Iran’s Arab neighbours, including in their views of the Iran nuclear deal.

In a recent joint statement, the US and GCC declared that the restoration of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA) would “pave the way for inclusive diplomatic efforts to address all issues that are necessary to ensure sustainable safety, security, and prosperity in the region.” The GCC was far from unified in its support for the nuclear deal when negotiations were first underway between 2013-2015. Oman was instrumental in facilitating backchannel talks between Iran and the United States. Qatar and Kuwait were vocal supporters of the diplomatic process once it became public. But Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE, maintained a cautious position on the nuclear deal and criticised the negotiations for failing to address Iran’s missile program and regional activities. Behind these criticisms was a more fundamental fear that a rapprochement between Iran and the United States would alter Washington’s relationships with its traditional partners as they had not been extensively consulted in the lead-up to the negotiations. The JCPOA appeared poised to tip the regional balance of power in Iran’s favour.

Nevertheless, all six GCC states officially welcomed and endorsed the JCPOA following the Camp David Summit hosted by President Obama in May 2015. The joint statement issued by the US and GCC after the summit highlighted security cooperation and security assurances with a particular focus on “countering Iran’s destabilising activities.” Still, the GCC member states “affirmed their strong support for the efforts of the P5+1 to reach a deal with Iran,” noting that “such a deal would represent a significant contribution to regional security.” In addition, they “reaffirmed their willingness to develop normalised relations with Iran should it cease its destabilising activities.”

President Obama aspired for dialogue between the GCC states and Iran, and stated that the “purpose of security cooperation is not to perpetuate any long-term confrontation with Iran or even to marginalise Iran.” He also suggested that Saudi Arabia should “share” the region with Iran. This encouragement, however, led nowhere.

Saudi Arabia, in particular, attempted to hamper the implementation of the JCPOA. Just days before the official implementation day of the agreement on January 16, 2016, Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shi’a cleric which resulted in protests in front of the Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad. In response to the ransacking of the embassy by protestors, Saudi Arabia cut off all diplomatic and commercial ties with Tehran and pushed other countries in the region to follow suit. The tensions continued to rise and any hopes for regional dialogue faded with the end of the Obama presidency. Divisions amongst the GCC states toward Iran and the JCPOA deepened when President Trump took office.

While Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait attempted to facilitate or mediate talks between Tehran and Washington in an attempt to stave a deeper regional crisis, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain supported the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, launched following the US withdrawal from the JCPOA. Over the next few years, rising tensions between Iran and the US increased the risk of conflict in the region.

Key flash points included a series of attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf, including off the coast of Fujairah in May 2019. Later, in September of that year, there was an attack on Saudi Arabia’s most important oil processing facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais. These attacks were attributed to Iran and its proxies. But there was no clear US response to these attacks and the UAE and Saudi Arabia realised that they can no longer solely rely on an American security guarantee. Trump’s escalatory Iran policy had become a liability.

The election of Joe Biden created a new political reality for the Middle East. During his campaign, Biden made clear that his administration would seek a return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA. He also called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state, indicating that Saudi influence would be diminished in Washington. Biden also committed to reducing the US footprint in the Middle East.

Responding to these shifts, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have pursued a de-escalatory approach in their foreign policy. They ended the more than three-year long blockade on Qatar at the Al Ula Summit, participated in the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership, and increased their back-channel talks with Tehran. These bilateral and multilateral diplomatic developments were unimaginable just a few years ago.

The UAE has been most adamant about repairing diplomatic ties with Iran. Al Nahyan’s visit follows a steady tempo of exchanges over the last two years. In November, Iran’s new deputy foreign minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, travelled to Abu Dhabi to meet his Emirati counterparts—they agreed to open a new chapter in bilateral relations. A few days later, the Iranian and Emirati foreign ministers had a phone conversation where expansion of bilateral ties was stressed.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have held several rounds of talks in Baghdad that included key officials from both countries. Progress has been limited, but if continued, these talks could yield some much-needed results. A small goal would be the resumption of formal diplomatic ties. A bigger goal would be an end to the war in Yemen.

But the diplomacy now underway can have more than just political dividends. During meetings held in Riyadh in mid-November, the political directors of the E3 and the US Special Envoy for Iran welcomed their “regional partners’ efforts to deescalate tensions and promote dialogue in the region” and “underlined that enhanced regional dialogue and a return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA would… allow for more regional partnerships and economic exchange.” The potential for economic exchange was reiterated in a subsequent statement, in which the GCC officials discussed their efforts “to build effective diplomatic channels with Iran,” and affirmed that “deeper economic ties after the lifting of U.S. sanctions under the JCPOA are in the mutual interest of the region.” Last month, Rob Malley, Biden’s Iran envoy, also talked about the notable interest in economic engagement with Iran that had come through in his discussions with GCC officials. Moreover, given that the attacks stemming from Iran’s response to “maximum pressure” focused on economic infrastructure, the linkages between security and economics dividends are clear.

The GCC states’ acknowledgement they can benefit from JCPOA-related sanctions relief suggests that regional diplomacy has reinforced trust in the nuclear talks. The nuclear deal has an important role to play in the emerging framework for regional diplomacy. That bodes well for the deal’s future if it is successfully restored.

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