Since its 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has had a complicated relationship with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Some of the GCC states, notably Saudi Arabia, have been openly antagonistic towards the new Iran, and the rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh has spread to proxy conflicts in third countries around the Middle East. The Saudi government has long objected to Iran’s development of ballistic missiles, its nuclear program, and its support for militias in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. For its part, Tehran is nervous about the Saudis’ influence in Washington, and their seeming ability to sway Western policy and opinion against Iran, particularly during the Trump administration. Other GCC states have been more pragmatic; Kuwait and Oman have maintained cordial relations with Iran, while Qatar relied on Tehran during the 2017-2021 Gulf Crisis.
The election of Joe Biden changed the calculations of both the GCC and Iran. President Trump’s Iran policy was firmly aligned with Saudi Arabia’s objectives – “maximum pressure” through economic sanctions and diplomatic and military support for Riyadh. By contrast, President Biden promised more diplomatic engagement, ended U.S. support to Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen, and promised to re-engage with Iran and resume participation in the JCPOA nuclear deal.
The recent changes are not limited to Washington. In recent weeks, several Gulf states’ officials have called for a renewed intra-regional dialogue with the current prospect of a less confrontational United States. The conditions might finally be right for an easing of tensions between Iran and its other Gulf neighbors.
Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have called for a dialogue in the past. What would constitute such a dialogue? If it were to take place, what outcomes would be likely? What role could the United States and the politically neutral GCC states play in a Saudi-Iranian détente? Finally, what conditions could lead to an end to Saudi-Iranian opposition and a stable peace in the Gulf?
Featured speakers: Dr. Dania Thafer (moderator), Professor Ross Harisson, Dr. Ali Vaez, Dr. Abdulhadi AlAjmi, and Dr. Azadeh Zamirirad.
Dr. Dania Thafer (moderator)
Executive Director, Gulf International Forum
Dr. Dania Thafer is the Executive Director of Gulf International Forum. Her area of expertise is on the Gulf region’s geopolitics, US-Gulf relations, and the political economy of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. She is also a Professorial Lecturer at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.
Dr. Thafer been widely published on matters concerning the Arab Gulf states including several articles and publications. She has co-authored two edited books “The Arms Trade, Military Services and the Security Market in the Gulf States: Trends and Implications” and “The Dilemma of Security and Defense in the Gulf Region”. Dr. Thafer is currently writing a book focused on the effect of state-business relations on economic reform in the GCC states. Previously, she worked at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies.
Dr. Thafer has a master’s degree in Political Economy from New York University, and PhD specialized in the Political Economy and International Relations of the GCC states from American University in Washington, DC.
Dr. Ali Vaez
Iran Project Director and Senior Adviser to the President, Crisis Group
Ali Vaez is Crisis Group’s Iran Project Director and Senior Adviser to the President. He led Crisis Group’s efforts in helping to bridge the gaps between Iran and the P5+1 that led to the landmark 2015 nuclear deal. Previously, he served as a Senior Political Affairs Officer at the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and was the Iran Project Director at the Federation of American Scientists. He is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Trained as a scientist, Vaez has more than a decade of experience in journalism. He has written widely on Iranian affairs and is a regular contributor to mainstream media outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and Foreign Affairs. He is a frequent guest on CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, and NPR. Vaez was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University from 2008 to 2010 and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Geneva and a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Professor Ross Harrison
Senior Fellow and Director of Research, the Middle East Institute
Senior Fellow and Director of Research at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC. He is also on the faculty of the Political Science department at the University of Pittsburgh, where he teaches courses in Middle East Politics and U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East. Harrison was Professor in the Practice of International Affairs at Georgetown University from 2004-2020.
Harrison authored Strategic Thinking in 3D: A Guide for National Security, Foreign Policy and Business Professionals, which has been a required strategy text at the National War College. He co-edited with Paul Salem a 2017 book, From Chaos to Cooperation: Toward Regional Order in the Middle East, and a 2019 book, Escaping the Conflict Trap: Toward Ending Civil Wars in the Middle East. He is working on a new book on Iran’s Foreign Policy.
Dr. Azadeh Zamirirad
Deputy Head, SWP Middle East and Africa Division
Dr. Azadeh Zamirirad is Deputy Head of the Middle East and Africa Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. She covers Iran’s domestic and foreign policy, with a special focus on Iran´s nuclear program. As SWP´s Senior Iran analyst, she provides policy advice to the German government, the Bundestag, and other decision-makers in Europe.
Dr. Zamirirad holds a doctoral degree in political science and has written extensively on Iranian politics, including several edited publications on Iran’s political system and internal dynamics as well as on its neighborhood policy. She is also the author of a monograph on Iranian nuclear discourse and diplomacy. Prior to her work at SWP, she was editor of the international affairs journal WeltTrends and a lecturer of International Relations and Comparative Studies, focusing on the MENA region.
Dr. Abdulhadi Naser Al-Ajmi
Professor, Kuwait University
Dr. Abdul Hadi Nasser Al-Ajmi has held many academic and research positions since 2004. He is Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs and Graduate Studies in the College of Arts, Kuwait University, as well as the Head of History Department and the Deanship of Consulting, Training, and Development. Dr. Al-Ajmi is also the Secretary-General of the Kuwaiti Historical Society and member of the Board of Trustees of Dar Al-Athar Al-Islamiyyah, and recently assumed the presidency of the Association of History and Antiquities of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Dr. Al-Ajmi’s research interests are in Islamic history, the concept of political and legal systems and their relations with societies.
Dr. Al-Ajmi has published more than 30 researches, books, and other publications in English and Arabic in Kuwait, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Germany, U.K., Egypt, Greece, and other countries. Dr. Al-Ajmi holds Masters of Middle East Studies from the University of Chicago and PhD in Islamic History from Durham University.