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Many Gulf Arab states, which have often disagreed over their policies toward Iran, are exploring, and in some cases expanding, outreach with Tehran. Saudi Arabia and Iran have engaged in several rounds of talks over the last year (but have yet to reestablish formal diplomatic relations); the United Arab Emirates and Iran exchanged high-level diplomatic visits at the end of 2021, promising a “new chapter,” in relations; and most recently, Qatar hosted Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in his first official visit to a Gulf Cooperation Council country. This was also the first visit of an Iranian president to Qatar in 11 years.
When Raisi met with Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in February, the two leaders signed 14 agreements for greater cooperation in aviation, trade, shipping, media, cancellation of visa requirements, electricity, education, and culture. In joint remarks, Raisi said, “We believe that the level of existing cooperation between the countries of the region is not commensurate with potential ties.” He continued, “Iran seeks to enhance these relations as our goal is regional convergence.”
Raisi’s visit to Doha reflects some of the optimism regarding a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran, the lifting of some U.S. sanctions, and improving ties between Iran and some Gulf Arab states. Iran is seeking to ensure greater economic dividends by improving regional ties with its neighbors, especially in trade and investment. Raisi’s trip to Doha, the Saudi-Iranian talks, and the high-level visits between Emirati and Iranian officials in 2021 signal varying degrees of momentum toward improving relations between Gulf Arab states and Iran.
In November 2021, the U.S. GCC Iran Working Group issued a statement supporting greater economic relations between Gulf Arab states and Iran but notably only “after the lifting of U.S. sanctions under the JCPOA.” This suggests that the momentum of the Gulf rapprochement is likely very dependent on the success of the Vienna talks.
Notably, there had been outreach to Iran by some Gulf Arab states prior to this current period of regional de-escalation, much of it driven by perceived necessity. At the height of the administration of former President Donald J. Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign in 2019, the UAE engaged in maritime security talks with Iranian officials following a series of incidents that targeted vessels in the Gulf’s strategic waterways. During the Saudi and UAE-led boycott of Qatar from June 2017 to January 2021, Qatar’s relations with Iran expanded. Soon after the boycott started, Iran sent several planes of food to Qatar to alleviate food shortages resulting from the trade boycott. Qatar Airways also used Iranian airspace to work around boycott-induced airspace restrictions imposed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain.
During the boycott, Qatar’s imports from Iran increased from less than $100 million annually to an all-time high of $400 million in 2018. Just before Raisi’s visit to Doha, the head of Iran’s Trade Promotion Organization, Alireza Peyman-Pak, said, “Trade between Iran and Qatar is currently a small figure of about $300 million-$400 million, while there is the potential to increase to $1 billion next year.” Soon after, during a meeting between the Qatari Businessmen Association and the Iranian delegation on the sidelines of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum, Raisi announced the goal of increasing the Qatar-Iran bilateral trade relationship to $1 billion and to establish closer links between Iranian and Qatari business groups and institutions. The current value of Qatar-Iran trade is relatively low compared to Iran’s robust trade relations with the UAE, which is Tehran’s biggest GCC trading partner. From March to August 2021 alone, UAE-Iran trade was valued at over $1 billion.
Qatar is also improving diplomatic ties with Iran and seeking to play a broader role as a mediator. Qatar has offered to help mediate between the United States and Iran regarding the nuclear talks, with some reports indicating that Doha could be facilitating indirect discussions between the United States and Iran as well as providing support on specific issues like prisoner swaps of dual nationals. Qatar’s and Iran’s foreign ministers have exchanged visits in recent months and various phone calls, indicating a growing level of communication and cooperation between the Qatari leadership and new regime in Tehran. Raisi’s official visit to Doha is a reflection of this trend.
Promises of Greater Cooperation Between Qatar and Iran
During his visit, Raisi also participated in the Gas Exporting Countries Forum in Doha from February 21-22 amid rising tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine and growing concerns about the stability of global energy markets as Europe actively seeks to reduce its reliance on Russian energy. Beyond this backdrop of uncertain global energy markets, indirect negotiations continued between the United States and Iran to revive the JCPOA. A return to the deal would provide significant U.S. sanctions relief for Iran, opening up the possibility of increasing Iran’s valuable oil and gas exports. Qatar and Iran share the largest gas field in the world, the North Field in Qatar and South Pars in Iran. Iran’s liquefied natural gas project plans were largely scuttled due to nuclear-related international and U.S. sanctions. However, the potential is great as Iran boasts the world’s second-largest natural gas reserves and fourth-largest oil reserves.
During Raisi’s visit, Iran-Qatar cooperation agreements were signed with plans to connect power grids, improve coordination between free trade zones, and boost trade, investment, and tourism. Beyond key economic sectors, other agreements focused on improving educational cooperation and exchanges, notably in science and technology. This will also include more low-hanging fruit opportunities for Persian language learning in Qatar and Arabic language learning in Iran. At the far other end of the feasibility spectrum, Iranian and Qatari officials additionally discussed infrastructure projects, such as building a tunnel between the two countries, which would be the world’s longest, with a road and railway, thus facilitating greater movement of people and goods.
Is Broader Regional De-escalation Tenable?
Whether this current moment of regional rapprochement is sustainable remains unclear. Considering Gulf Arab states’ rapprochement with Iran and Turkey or frozen conflicts in Libya and Syria, it is difficult to determine how institutionalized these regional cooperation efforts will become. Fighting in Yemen continues, perpetuating regional instability. The Iranian-backed Houthis have launched attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Houthis and other nonstate actors, including the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon, often jeopardize, or at least stall, regional dialogue efforts, although it is unclear if they would take such action if Tehran directly opposed it. While the Houthis launched missile attacks on Abu Dhabi and Dubai in January, calling into question UAE-Iran rapprochement efforts, skeptics point to heavy Houthi reliance on Iranian technical support required for firing those missiles with relatively good accuracy from such distances, an indicator that Iran likes its rapprochement ever sensitive to manipulations of temperature.
Qatar-Iran relations are a bit of a different ballgame. Iran’s role in supporting Qatar during the boycott imposed by some of its fellow GCC members was an important step in improving bilateral ties after Qatar had followed Saudi Arabia’s lead and downgraded relations with Iran in January 2016, in the wake of attacks on the Saudi diplomatic mission in Tehran. Qatar was in an especially sensitive position during the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran given that Qatar is not only Iran’s neighbor and must maintain a certain level of cooperation regarding the shared gas field, but it also hosts the United States’ Central Command forward headquarters and could become a target if U.S.-Iran tensions escalate.
The U.S. GCC Iran Working Group released a statement in November 2021 suggesting that Iran “can contribute to a more secure and stable region.” It noted that GCC members were working “to build effective diplomatic channels with Iran to prevent, resolve or de-escalate conflicts, backed by strong deterrence and defense cooperation with the United States,” and they had hopes for diplomatic efforts to develop “over time to promote peaceful ties in the region, based on a long history of economic and cultural exchanges.” The statement continued, “The U.S. and the members of the GCC affirmed that deeper economic ties after the lifting of U.S. sanctions under the JCPOA are in the mutual interest of the region.”
If the JCPOA is not revived, Gulf Arab states may hesitate to continue their outreach with Iran. However, with or without the JCPOA, Iran is an imposing neighbor, and Gulf Arab states are seeking dialogue and diplomacy for reasons including conflict fatigue, the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, perceptions of U.S. retrenchment in the Gulf, and greater security threats stemming from climate change and public health concerns. U.S. support for regional de-escalation helps, but even if the JCPOA is not revived, Gulf Arab states will very likely continue looking for ways to cooperate with Iran and stabilize the Gulf region.
is the senior Gulf analyst at International Crisis Group and a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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