Iran’s foreign minister is on a tour of states in the Gulf, where his discussions with host officials are focusing on two items that are usually mentioned in such encounters: bilateral ties and stability. But since the visit by Jawad Zarif comes in the wake of Iran’s interim agreement with world powers on its nuclear program, the meetings take on a special importance.
During one stop, Zarif commented that Iran and Saudi Arabia “should work together in order to promote peace and stability in the region,” a formula that is being repeated as he makes various stops in the Gulf.
It’s a noble and needed objective, but the phrase “work together” is where several points should be made.
In fact, Iran could begin by working by itself, and sort out a handful of pressing issues that are directly relevant for its neighbors across the Gulf. One is the eastern region of Saudi Arabia, where Tehran could take immediate steps to reduce the worrying level of sectarian tension and prove its good intentions by staying out of its neighbor’s affairs. Moving along the peninsula, the next point of focus lies in Bahrain, where Iran also has a special role to play, namely refraining from any involvement in the struggle between the authorities and a richly complex opposition. From there it’s on to the UAE, where a long-standing source of tension is the issue of Iran’s occupation of three small islands belonging to its neighbor – if Iran is interested in stability and good ties, ending that occupation tops the agenda.
There is also the forgotten war raging intermittently down in the southern part of the peninsula, in Yemen, where Iran has involved itself by supporting the Houthi movement of Shiite rebels.
Iran has plenty of cards to play if it truly wants to see an improvement in its relations with individual Gulf countries and this region as a whole. If such an initiative is taken in one or more of these areas, it would be a fitting follow-up to Tehran’s declared intentions to turn over a new leaf in the arena of foreign relations.
Over the years, the comments by Iranian officials about intentions to improve ties with the rest of the world could fill an entire library. Many people hope that things will be tangibly different this time around, in a region increasingly worried about sectarian tension, weapons proliferation and economic challenges.
The Islamic Republic’s leaders have often adhered to a hard-line stance in their dealings with the Gulf, perhaps believing that Gulf countries must take into consideration the views and interests of such a dominant neighbor as Iran. But a quick look at the economic clout wielded by Dubai, where Iranian know-how and capital have flowed in recent years, is enough to show how much Iran needs its neighbors. The central question for Iran’s neighbors these days is whether tangible steps will follow the upbeat rhetoric.