Analysts suggest that Gulf countries are expecting tangible steps from Iran to prove its willingness to change its policies in the region ahead of the planned visit by Kuwaiti Emir Sabbah al-Ahmad al-Sabbah to Iran.
The visit by the Kuwaiti Emir, whose country chairs the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab Summit, presents an opportunity for Tehran to open a new page with Gulf countries while its nuclear talks with world leaders are in progress.
The visit also comes in light of an improvement in relations among Gulf countries despite the continuation of unrest caused by sectarian conflicts in Iraq and Syria, where Iran is facing accusations of meddling in internal affairs of Arab countries.
“It’s an important visit, and presents a great opportunity to prove whether Iran wants to develop its relations with the Gulf and to launch of a new phase,” said Riad Kahveci, Executive Director of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
He added: “So far, Iran’s policies have not changed … On the contrary, it increased its military intervention in Syria, sent battalions and brigades to support the Syrian regime against the people, and stepped up its intervention in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.”
Moreover, Kahveci stressed that “Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, are not willing to accept Iranian influence in certain Arab states in exchange for the development of ties with Tehran. However, if Iran is ready to stop its intervention and its allied militias for the sake of an agreement with Gulf, I imagine that the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia in particular will accept that.”
Tehran had expressed hopes that Sabbah’s visit, the first by a Kuwaiti Emir, “would contribute to enhancing security, stability and peace in the region.”
Kuwait, in which one third of the population are Shiites, enjoys balanced relations with Tehran and is reportedly mediating between the latter and Riyadh to mend strained relations.
Gulf-Iranian relations have deteriorated in recent years, particularly against the backdrop of the developments in Syria and Bahrain.
However, with the election of a moderate president in Iran, Tehran has sought rapprochement with its Gulf neighbours.
In December 2013, Iranian foreign minister Jawad Zarif visited Kuwait, Emirates, Qatar and Oman, but did not visit Saudi Arabia nor Bahrain.
Saudi foreign minister Prince Saudi Al-Faissal extended an invitation for Zarif to visit the Kingdom, a move welcomed by Tehran, but without setting up a date for the visit.
Press reports suggested the possibility of a meeting between Zarif and Al-Faissal during the Islamic Cooperation Organisation’s conference in Jeddah on June 15. In March, Iranian President Rouhani visited Oman, a Gulf nation that maintained stable relations with Iran and played a mediating role between Tehran and Western countries.
During his visit, Rouhani stressed that “Iran is extending hands of brotherhood to all countries in the region.”
Iranian-Gulf relations deteriorated following the Syrian crisis because of Iran’s support to Bashar Al-Assad. Gulf countries, on the other hand, support the armed Syrian opposition.
“If Iran has no intention to change its policies on the ground, I don’t think there will be any opening with Gulf countries. So far, nothing of that sort has taken place,” Kahveci said.
Nevertheless, Rouhani stressed during his Oman visit that negotiations could solve disagreements, citing his country’s successful negotiations with the West regarding the nuclear program. Gulf countries welcomed the preliminary first agreement between Iran and leading world countries regarding the nuclear file. Yet, it insisted that Iran has to take tangible steps.
Anwar Ashki, chairman of the Jeddah-based Middle East Center for Strategic Studies, argued that Iran is serious in its efforts to improve relations with the Gulf. But he warned that there have to be genuine actions.
“I think the opportunity is now ripe for developing Gulf-Iranian relations, including Tehran-Riyadh relations, provided that Iran takes practical steps towards the situation in Syria and elsewhere,” he said.
“Rapprochement is likely because Iran has a will for that, mainly because of the critical economic situation in Iran and the rising popular demands.”
According to Ashki, “Iran is currently rethinking its policies, and it seems that it is trying to reverse its intervention, but this may take time.”
Kahveci and Ashki agreed that unilateral steps taken by a number of GCC states do not influence the strategic stance of the Gulf towards Iran.
The Kuwaiti al-Rai newspaper said in an editorial this week that the Kuwaiti Emir will speak on behalf of Kuwait, the Gulf and the Arab world to tell Tehran: “we want Tehran to respect the sovereignty of others and not to meddle in their affairs, and not to take steps that would undermine mutual trust with its neighbours.”