As the Middle East awaits the outcome of the Vienna talks on reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5+1, Gulf states and other powers in the Middle East engage in multi-party consultations on the future of the region. All are preparing for a new geopolitical stage to be set when, or if, Iran rejoins the regional economy and any changed stipulations of a new JCPOA. Should these talks succeed, Iran will likely seek to maintain (or even grow) its influence in the region, while enhancing its trade and economic relations. Various GCC states have anticipated this shift in the geopolitical conditions by opening talks with Tehran. In late 2021, the UAE’s national security adviser, Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan, visited Tehran while the Saudis and Iranians have had an ongoing direct dialogue for a year in Baghdad. The United States has played a role in improving cross-regional talks as well. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently visited Morocco, Algeria, Bahrain, UAE, and Israel. Blinken sequentially met with the foreign ministers of the UAE, Morocco, Bahrain, and Israel in Tel Aviv, and leaders of Iraq, UAE, Jordan, and Egypt met in Aqaba a day before. The war in Ukraine has also introduced new possibilities for improved regional relations, as it disrupts energy, trade, and economies in general.
Should these JCPOA talks prove unsuccessful, however, the Gulf states may be more hesitant to continue their de-escalation efforts with Iran. Growing normalization with Israel could also impact some GCC relations with Iran, regardless of whether a new JCPOA is agreed or not. The UAE, Morocco, and Bahrain signed normalization agreements with Israel in 2020 and 2021, and other Arab countries have seemingly warmed to the idea of opening channels of communication as well. Ongoing proxy conflicts between Iran, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, especially in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, have left the geopolitics of the region in an even more complicated position, with a strong potential for change in historic alignments and rivalry in the region. Whether the new JCPOA is signed or not, the Gulf states will see a direct impact on the geopolitics of the region, with the balance of power potentially shifting, and creating a potential for increased conflict.
How will the new geopolitical scene impact seemingly strong bilateral Gulf ties? Will it create new relationships? How do the GCC states see their relationships with Israel and Iran playing out? Will the U.S. continue to play the major security role in the Gulf in a post-JCPOA situation? How do other international parties see the situation evolving?
Featured speakers: Ambassador Patrick Theros, Dr. David Pollock, Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, and Dr. Banafseh Keynoush.
Ambassador Patrick Theros (moderator)
Strategic Advisor, Gulf International Forum
Ambassador Theros has held such positions as Political Advisor to the Commander in Chief, Central Command; Deputy Chief of Mission and Political officer in Amman; Charge D’affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission in Abu Dhabi; Economic Counselor in Damascus; and U.S. Ambassador to the State of Qatar. In a career spanning almost 36 years, he also has served in diplomatic positions in Beirut, Managua, Dharan and Abu Dhabi, as well as in the Department of State. During that period, he earned four Superior Honor Awards. After retirement Ambassador Theros served as President of the U.S. Qatar Business Council in 2000-2017.
Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
Baker Institute Fellow for the Middle East, Rice University; Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Gulf International Forum
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Ph.D., is a Baker Institute fellow for the Middle East. Working across the disciplines of political science, international relations and international political economy, his research examines the changing position of Persian Gulf states in the global order, as well as the emergence of longer-term, nonmilitary challenges to regional security. Previously, he worked as a senior Gulf analyst at the Gulf Center for Strategic Studies between 2006 and 2008 and as co-director of the Kuwait Program on Development, Governance and Globalization in the Gulf States at the London School of Economics (LSE) from 2008 until 2013.
Dr. Banafsheh Keynoush
President of MidEast Analysts
Dr. Banafsheh Keynoush is a scholar of international affairs, an international geopolitical consultant, and the President of MidEast Analysts. She is a fellow at the International Institute for Iranian Studies, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, and a team member at the Carnegie-funded Sectarianism, Proxies and De-sectarianisation Project. She also served as the Vice-Chair of the Middle East Forum at the Commonwealth Club of California. Her other professional experiences include advisory, public affairs, and analytical work for government agencies, international organizations, policy centers, and private companies across a multitude of sectors. An academic for over thirteen years, she has conducted fieldwork in the Middle East for two decades, including in Saudi Arabia and Iran, was a visiting scholar at Princeton University, and a visiting fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. She received her Ph.D. from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and completed her coursework at The John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
The author of Saudi Arabia and Iran: Friends or Foes? (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), translated into Arabic and Persian, Dr. Keynoush is also the editor of Iran’s Interregional Dynamics in the Near East (New York: Peter Lang, 2021), and the author of The World Powers and Iran: Before, During and After the Nuclear Deal (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming 2022). Her other publications include articles published in academic journals, policy papers, and media reports. In addition, she is the translator and editor of Refugee Rights in Iran (London: Saqi, 2008), and the editor of five volumes of Persian poetry entitled the Five Treasures of Ferdowsi (Tehran: Iranian Calligraphy Society, 1999).
Dr. David Pollock
The Bernstein Fellow and Director of Project Fikra, The Washington Institute
Dr. Pollock focuses on the political dynamics of Middle East countries. He is the director of Project Fikra, a program of research, publication, and network-building designed to generate policy ideas for promoting positive change and countering the spread of extremism in the Middle East. At the forefront of this effort is Fikra Forum, a unique Arabic-English bilingual online platform that promotes exchanges between mainstream Muslims and Arab democrats and U.S. decisionmakers and opinion leaders.
Dr. Pollock served previously as senior advisor for the Broader Middle East at the State Department, a post he assumed in 2002. In that capacity, he provided policy advice on issues of democracy and reform in the region, with a focus on women’s rights. He also helped launch the department’s $15 million Iraqi Women’s Democracy Initiative and the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, working directly with advocates across the Middle East.
From 1996 to 2001, Dr. Pollock served in several other State Department policy advisory positions covering South Asia and the Middle East, including four years as regional expert on the secretary of state’s Policy Planning Staff. Previously, he was chief of Near East/South Asia/Africa research at the U.S. Information Agency, where he supervised the government’s study of public opinion, elite attitudes, and media content across the three regions. In 1995-1996, he was a scholar-in-residence at The Washington Institute, where he authored the widely read Policy Paper The ‘Arab Street’? Public Opinion in the Arab World. Dr. Pollock has served as a visiting lecturer at Harvard University and as assistant professor at George Washington University. He has traveled widely in the Middle East and maintains a large network of contacts in government, academia, and business throughout the region.