The last three months have witnessed a major shift in the geopolitics of the Gulf. For the first time in at least two decades, the GCC states and Iran established a new framework through which to approach bilateral relations, with a new understanding of how to collaborate on shared topics and manage disagreements. The importance of this transformation is difficult to overstate: if Iran follows the new agreements, the Gulf region will move from endless confrontation into dialogue and diplomacy, an approach that the majority of the international community urged Gulf states to adopt.
It is obvious that there are new regional policy changes adopted by many Gulf states. In recent weeks, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian toured many of the GCC states, proposing initiatives to resolve disputes between Iran and its Arab neighbors and attempting to initiate dialogue to discuss international crises that can affect regional stability.
The success of Iran’s new wave of diplomacy is most apparent in Saudi Arabia, with which it recently agreed to restore formal diplomatic relations for the first time since 2016. The two countries also committed to reopening their respective embassies, and Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan visited Tehran to engage on a wide range of issues—including the ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Gaza, and Iran’s behavior in the waters of the Gulf—with Saudi counterparts.
The intentions of Amir-Abdollahian’s tour of the GCC were also reflected in the Iranian foreign ministry’s spokesperson, who sent positive messages to Saudi Arabia and other GCC states when he announced Tehran’s willingness to improve regional relations and support stability. However, Iran’s recent political history suggests that there is a clear link between growth in Iran’s domestic unrest and developments in its regional adventurism.
All Politics is Local
Right now, Iran’s central concern is addressing the prolonged period of protests, riots, and unrest following the death of Mahsa Amini in September 2022. On top of the Iranian government’s ideological confrontation with its disillusioned youth population, the country is also facing a serious decline in governmental services, and basic necessities are increasingly difficult to find in Iranian markets. This problem has been exacerbated by the government’s crackdown on women and ethnic and religious minorities, leading Iranians to fight for their freedom and civil liberties as well as their basic needs.
Over the last two years, the Iranian government has attempted to forcefully reinstate the ideals of the Islamic revolution—widening the gap between the clerical government and the youth, which has displayed no interest in, and indeed direct opposition to, the system of government on which the post-1979 regime was founded. The non-stop waves of domestic unrest in Iran and the deteriorating economic situation has increased concerns of aggressive Iranian behavior in the region in an attempt to rally support at home.
Over the past year, the Islamic Republic’s leadership has likely concluded that it is facing unprecedented confrontation at home and in the region. Tehran has overplayed its hand in the region, causing backlash and leaving it less prepared to confront the domestic protests. Iran’s decision to back Russia in its war in Ukraine and expand its influence into Latin America has only deepened its divide with the population—many of whom deeply distrust the Kremlin—as well as further isolating Iran on the world stage. Before that, Iran’s support of its proxies in Lebanon and Syria has drained government resources, exacerbating Iran’s economic hardships. All these factors have pushed Tehran into embracing a new approach with its Arab neighbors and presenting a principle of mutual interest and non-interference as their new regional policies.
Striking a Bargain
Saudi foreign minister’s visit to Tehran has again put forward Riyadh’s expectation that the Iranian leadership will abide by the new agreement signed in Beijing, which puts non-interference and regional stability as a priority for the entire region and prioritizes economic interests over political ones. Crucially, the GCC states are expecting Iran’s newfound willingness to negotiate to translate into concrete actions, whether on its support for foreign militias, its nuclear activities, or other issues affecting the security of the region.
In order to settle all these disagreements, Iran will also need to negotiate with the United States and Europe, reaching another bargain regarding its nuclear program in which it agrees to suspend nuclear enrichment in exchange for sanctions relief. The Middle East, and particularly the GCC states, will flatly refuse to accept a nuclear-armed Iran, and if Tehran continues to develop nuclear weapons, there is a real concern in the region that the United States and Israel could attack it—leading to a war in which the GCC states would be unwillingly caught in the middle.
To be sure, the Iranian nuclear program is a serious concern for the GCC on its own, but the far more pressing threat to regional stability is Tehran’s network of proxy forces in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, which have done much to drive the Middle East’s decade-long civil wars. Iran’s reliance on proxies to advance its influence across the region has drained its resources, pushed Israel to counter their expansion in Syria through military action, and exacerbated tensions with some GCC states, particularly those affected by Iran’s support for the Houthis in Yemen. Because Tehran is short on funds and must devote a growing share of its resources toward containing the unrest at home, the GCC states are cautiously optimistic that the clerical government might be open to curtailing proxy activity as part of a broader settlement.
Right now, Iran is balancing between two possible choices: a regional detente with its Arab neighbors, stabilizing its domestic political situation and helping to ensure the survival of the Islamic Revolution; or, alternatively, the continuation of its quest for regional hegemony, leading to further confrontation with the international community and with Iran’s disillusioned youth. The GCC states must do what they can to help Tehran make the right choice.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.