While Iran is engaged in negotiations in Vienna on matters relating to the U.S.’s re-entry into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the relaxation of the sanctions, two parties absent at the talks are watching developments very closely — Israel and the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — whose interests directly impinge on the outcome of the discussions.
Israel, in public remarks, has focused on Iran’s progress towards weaponisation while ignoring its own nuclear weapons’ capability. Serving and retired security officials have been mobilised to urge immediate and harsh military action on Iran. Unlike Israel’s theatrics, the GCC countries have been pursuing a more low-key but more constructive an approach to regional challenges — diplomatic engagement with Iran. This is largely because the U.S.’s credibility as the GCC’s security partner was severely dented when President Donald Trump failed to protect their interests in the face of Iranian attacks on their assets in 2019. U.S. standing in the region reached rock-bottom during its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August this year.
GCC engagement with Iran
The UAE had first reached out to Iran in July 2019, when its senior officials visited Tehran to discuss maritime security. Following the U.S. assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, the UAE and Saudi Arabia had called on the U.S. to reduce regional tensions, recognising that more conflict would bring the GCC states in the direct line of an Iranian retaliation. The GCC countries’ estrangement from the U.S.’ security partnership has been further encouraged by President Joe Biden’s avowed disengagement from the region in favour of containing China in the Indo-Pacific.
Since April this year, Saudi Arabia and Iran have had five meetings in Baghdad – mainly to rebuild confidence between them, re-establish diplomatic ties, and address specific areas of conflict, Yemen and Syria. Given the hostility of over a decade, no major success has been announced so far, but talks are ongoing.
The revival of the nuclear talks with Iran from November and the Israeli sabre-rattling through the Vienna negotiations have pushed the GCC states to take “their destinies in their in their own hands”, as noted by the Abu Dhabi-based commentator, Raghida Dergham. On November 23, Iran’s chief negotiator, Bagheri-Kani, visited Abu Dhabi, possibly to seek the UAE’s good offices to facilitate an agreement with the U.S.
Soon thereafter, the UAE’s influential national security adviser, Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed, visited Tehran on December 6. Reports say that Iran may have sought the UAE’s help to facilitate financial transactions once the sanctions are eased. Trade ties are already flourishing: in 2021-22, Iran’s imports from the UAE are expected to reach $12 billion.
UAE officials have also made some significant public statements relating to Iran. Anwar Gargash, Foreign Affairs Adviser to the UAE President, said at a conference in Washington in early December that states should “avoid vacuum and escalation” with adversaries and rivals. The message from the UAE is that this is “the era of crisis management and conflict resolution” and it would pursue rapprochement among the regional states.
The UAE’s ties with Israel are a part of this approach. The visit of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to Abu Dhabi on December 13 took place a week after Sheikh Tahnoun’s visit to Tehran. In 10 months of 2021, UAE-Israel trade has reached $875 million, besides the $1 billion UAE stake in Israel’s Tamar gas field. Six flights a day from Israel to Dubai are bringing in several thousand Israeli businessmen and tourists to the UAE. The UAE is making it clear that in its regional partnerships it does not have a zero-sum approach.
From Vienna, instead of hard news, we have seen public posturing by the U.S. to camouflage its own responsibility for the present imbroglio. Iran’s insistence that the U.S. return to the JCPOA, remove the sanctions it had imposed under the rubric of ‘maximum pressure’, and give some assurance that a future U.S. administration will not withdraw from the agreement makes complete sense. But the polarised political environment in the U.S., Mr. Biden’s weak political position in Congress, and the pervasive hostility to the Islamic Republic make it impossible for the U.S. to accept Iran’s demands. What we are, therefore, left with is the U.S. delegation placing on Iran the onus of possible failure of the talks by blaming it for being hardline, irrational and not seriously interested in a positive outcome. In this situation, unless there is a real change in the U.S.’s approach, it seems unlikely that Vienna will deliver an agreement. What does this mean for the Gulf?
More U.S. sanctions and more Israeli aggressiveness are well past their use-by date. The harshest U.S. sanctions on Iran have failed to bring Iran back to the negotiating table or brought about regime change. In fact, as China buys more Iranian oil and the UAE pursues trade ties, the death knell of the ‘maximum pressure’ regime is already being sounded. U.S. and Israeli commentators are also speaking out about the operational difficulties involved in an effective strike on Iran’s nuclear programme and the harmful implications this could have for Israel itself and the region, while even providing an impetus to the weapons programme that Iran has so far rejected. To avoid the possibility of a military attack, the Iranian spokesman in Vienna has just said that Iran will not enrich uranium beyond 60%, even if the talks fail.
Regional security architecture
In this background, there are two possible scenarios for regional security. In the absence of a nuclear deal, it is likely that Israel will push for a “normalisation” of ties with more Arab states so that it builds a coalition of regional states against Iran. However, it is difficult to see how this can be achieved. There is already widespread popular opposition to this initiative across West Asia. Again, since Iran will not be intimidated into serving the U.S./ Israeli agenda, it will only aggravate regional instability and portend conflict.
A more useful framework for the region would be an inclusive security arrangement. The first steps in bringing Iran into this architecture have already been taken through the several rounds of the Saudi-Iran dialogue, the UAE-Iran engagements, the Baghdad conference in August that brought together all the regional states, and the recent Saudi effort to build a security consensus among the GCC states at the recent Riyadh summit. This summit has accepted “strategic integration”, common foreign policies, and a joint defence agreement. But given the divisions within the GCC and the positions of Qatar, Kuwait and Oman, such a consensus will only emerge if Iran is integrated into the security framework.
Israel’s inclusion will be more difficult – its domestic politics has been framed for decades on the basis of hostility towards Iran. But the valuable results of a more accommodative approach to the region, already apparent in the positive results yielded by normalisation with the UAE, could over time help Israel’s leaders see the benefits of deeper integration with the West Asian neighbourhood.
Perhaps, this is what former Prime Minister Ehud Barak had in mind when he wrote recently that Iran’s ability to pursue its nuclear programme despite the severest U.S. sanctions is “a new reality [that] requires a sober assessment of the situation, decisions and actions and not hollow public threats”.
Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat