The issue that could bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table

May 15, 2015
Obama hosts working session of six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council at Camp David in Maryland

President Barack Obama hosts a working session of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council at Camp David in Maryland, May 14, 2015. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

As both U.S. and Iranian military advisers work in Iraq to stop Islamic State forces, their uneasy coexistence underscores how difficult it is to defuse the conflicts roiling the Middle East. To make any headway, Iran must be engaged as a partner. And this engagement starts with Tehran’s Gulf Arab neighbors.

The antipathy between predominantly Shi’ite Iran and its neighbors in the largely Sunni Arab Gulf states has a centuries-long history. The tensions are now fueled by Iran’s provocative actions: propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces with arms, money and training; funding groups that launch terrorist attacks across the region, and meddling in Yemen’s affairs. Iran also continues to undermine U.S. efforts to help build a stable Iraqi government — even as Tehran works indirectly with Washington in the fight against Islamic State.

The nuclear agreement between Iran and the West, expected in late June, could be a catalyst for addressing these challenges. Under U.S. leadership, the key Gulf powers should take small, deliberate steps to move things forward. Below-the-radar talks, akin to the U.S.-Iran conversations in Oman two years ago, are one likely possibility. Talks on the margins of larger diplomatic meetings are another – and could start during the annual Manama dialogue, when all the Gulf region nations convene.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks at the New York University (NYU) Center on International Cooperation in New York

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks at New York University in New York, April 29, 2015. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has repeatedly said Tehran wants talks with its Gulf neighbors about ending the conflicts in Syria and Yemen. Federica Mogherini, the European Union foreign-policy chief, has also called for Iran to play a role in a political transition in Syria. Yet the Gulf Arabs will likely find it difficult to trust Tehran until it demonstrates good intentions.

One major concern of the Gulf states, for example, is that an accident at an Iranian nuclear reactor would contaminate regional water and air. The new agreement’s heightened transparency should help address this. It would also remove any reason for Iran not to sign the Convention on Nuclear Safety, the 1994 International Atomic Energy Agency treaty. It is inexcusable that Iran should be the only nation outside the convention operating a nuclear power plant.

Iran could also demonstrate goodwill by inviting its neighbors to joint safety reviews of its nuclear facilities. Tehran said in February that it was ready to establish a regional safety pact to monitor nuclear facilities. How to set up these inspections could be a productive topic for regional dialogue.

The United Arab Emirates could be Iran’s model for nuclear transparency. In addition to adhering to all atomic energy agency rules on safety, security and nonproliferation, the Emirates’ national report to the Convention on Nuclear Safety shows it is meeting international benchmarks.

A security official talks to journalists in front of Bushehr main nuclear reactor

A security official talks to journalists in front of Bushehr main nuclear reactor, 1,200 km (746 miles) south of Tehran, August 21, 2010. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

The Gulf Arab states most anxious about Iran’s foreign forays are necessary partners for any regional dialogue. The Emirates, for example, has expressed unease as talks with Iran moved forward, yet it also hosts a sizeable Iranian expatriate community with strong commercial ties to Iran.

The Saudi succession shakeup that made the former U.S. ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir, the kingdom’s new foreign minister offers another opportunity to cement a constructive approach toward Iran. Despite current tensions with Washington, Saudi Arabia remains an ally that understands the need to limit Iran’s reach through diplomacy and nonmilitary means wherever possible.

For its part, the United States must continue to demonstrate that a nuclear deal with Iran does not mean abandonment of the Gulf Arab states. Washington needs to address persistent concerns that the nuclear deal would re-order longtime partnerships, and the United States would gradually turn away from its traditional Sunni allies to focus on Iran.

It is vital that Washington make clear that even though the United States has overlapping interests with Iran, it also has longstanding differences that are not easily eliminated. The news that the White House plans to discuss at the Camp David summit meeting on May 14 expanded defense cooperation and intelligence sharing with Gulf states should help allay at least some of these worries.

The Camp David meeting will likely focus on Arab desires for security assurances and military hardware. There could also be frank discussions about Iranian intentions in the region and how to counter them. Bringing up “soft power” issues, such as nuclear safety, is one way for Washington to help bring Iran and the Gulf states to the table together.

6 comments

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No mention of the fact that the gulf states are the source and supporters of Wahhabism and Terrorism. And that they kill the Shiites in their own countries and the region, all with US support and arms.

But I know Reuters may not publish this, as the propaganda machine will not allow criticism of our very liberal democratic Persian Gulf allies!!

Reuters has not published some of my comments about the apartheid state of Israel or the terrorist kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

So much for freedom of press!

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

To Reuters – You have failed to mention that Saudi Arabia pulled out of this meeting at the last minute. This is very important and I have heard very little about this from the liberal media for some reason. Dig deeper and find out why, please. Thanks!

Posted by LauraEllen777 | Report as abusive

What a steaming pile. This reads like a Saudi press release. “Tensions fueled by Iran’s provocative actions”? Do you mean like being the only foreign country actually fighting ISIS in Iraq? Condemn al Assad all you like, an moan about missed opportunities to get rid of him years ago, but now, the ‘rebel’ really are Sunni extremeists; al Nusra, al Qaeda and ISIS.

These groups have all been funded and supported at one time or another by Sunni nations. There were plenty of warnings that Syrian opposition was being radicalized…but more billions kept pouring in and soon enough, they decided to take matters into their own hands…with little regard for their former masters.

Even now, Saudi is content to let al Qaeda in Yemen roam free while bombing the hell out of the only group which was fighting them.

Come on Reuters…at least pretend to do real journalism.

Posted by joekanuck | Report as abusive

Are the authors of this piece paid by column-inch or are they permanently seconded to the propaganda apparatus of the Saudi regime of latter-day “princes”?

Posted by Procivic | Report as abusive

Number of Israeli soldiers deployed to fight ISIS: 0

Number of Saudi soldiers deployed to fight ISIS: 0

Number of IRANIAN soldiers deployed to fight ISIS: 53,287

We are on the wrong side over there. Seriously.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Well, I see that is was not worth my time to post comments here because neither one of the two that I took the time to write were posted. There was nothing wrong with those comments, except that they were probably not in agreement with your liberal bent.
Therefore, I will not be following Reuters news on Twitter, You Tube, or anywhere else for that matter. Reuters=antisemitic
Ms. Laura Stern

Posted by LauraEllen777 | Report as abusive