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Iran-GCC Engagement Deserves a Chance

The future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) remains uncertain. For months, the nuclear accord’s signatories and the United States have been negotiating the terms of a ‘JCPOA 2.0’ in Vienna. So far, however, these talks have failed to produce a breakthrough. Negotiations with Iran come as part of a broader draw down—a military and political withdrawal that Washington is conducting in separate areas.

Haste appears to be one of the main reasons behind the return of the United States to the nuclear negotiations with Iran; talks with the Islamic Republic seem to align with President Joe Biden’s broader shift from the Middle East, as Washington prioritizes employing its resources for domestic needs and for the increased tension with China. This does not mean that Washington is withdrawing from the Middle East altogether, but it is very clear that it aims to reduce the hostility and return to dialogue with Iran.

One key factor preventing the parties from quickly salvaging the 2015 deal is the fact that the Iranians have no assurances that President Biden’s successor will not withdraw from the agreement. Republicans in the House and Senate have made their opposition to the renewal of the JCPOA explicit; if one of them is elected in 2024, he or she will most likely withdraw from the renewed deal, as President Trump did from the original one in May 2018. Because this problem has no obvious solution, the Biden team will be unable to mollify these Iranian concerns. Meanwhile, the U.S. and France have signaled to Tehran that the window of time for negotiating the accord’s revival will close at some point with or without a ‘JCPOA 2.0’, implying that Washington and Paris may soon pull out of the talks altogether and accept the accord’s demise as fact.

The View From the Gulf

For the Gulf Arabs, there is no clear consensus on whether it would be good or bad to have the JCPOA reconstituted. Within the GCC states, there are mixed views on what a revival of the 2015 nuclear deal would mean for the region. This divergence is consistent with the GCC’s history; the member states have always had their differences in foreign policy, particularly with regard to Iran.

During the past four years, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain hoped that the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy would result in the exhaustion and undermining of Iran and the “axis of resistance” alliance. Consequently, it went so far as to reject any offer of dialogue that might lead to a breakthrough with Tehran. Indeed, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) threatened to “move the battle inside Iran.”

However, with the departure of Trump and the accession of Biden, America’s unconditional support for the three GCC states against Iran disappeared, and the conditions in the region changed. As a result, the three Gulf capitals have realized the importance of changing their tone toward Tehran, to the extent that MBS expressed his hope for improving relations with Iran. However, the ongoing war in Yemen and the Iranian missile attacks against Saudi Arabia by Yemen’s Houthis leads to skepticism about the two sides reaching a security agreement.

Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar, on the other hand, have rulers whose views on Iran are more nuanced. Their monarchs see the challenges posed by Iran as representing difficult geopolitical issues in the region, but not necessarily any form of internal threats within their countries. On the contrary, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Abu Dhabi continue to view Tehran’s foreign policy as dangerously threatening to the internal security of the GCC states.

A Nuclear Iran is Not the GCC’s Main Problem

While the idea of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon in the long run is a major concern for many Arabs in the Gulf region, it is not their most serious concern regarding the Islamic Republic. Their main fears about Iran pertain to Tehran’s ability to support armed factions that become powerful political actors in unstable parts of the Arab world—for instance, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. For many Gulf Arabs, the main point of opposition to the JCPOA has been the fear that the deal serves to ‘legitimize’ Iran in the international system, while Tehran continues to support powerful non-state actors in the Middle East that are openly hostile to some Gulf states.

However, no matter the result of the 2021 U.S.-Iran negotiations, the GCC members and Iran should continue trying to manage, rather than exacerbate, their tensions amid a period in which Middle Eastern states are embracing more dialogue, pragmatism, and compromises in their foreign policies. Regardless of the JCPOA’s future, there is a growing realization on the part of Riyadh that the U.S. cannot be relied upon to systematically back up the Kingdom in each of its confrontations with Tehran. While the Biden administration has had a particularly acrimonious relationship with King Salman and MBS, this was true of the Trump administration as well; the lack of a response to the September 2019 Aramco attacks demonstrated this point.

While the recent victory of Ebrahim Raisi in the June 2021 Iranian presidential election will probably make the road to a ‘JCPOA 2.0’ more difficult, the rise of a “hardliner” president in Tehran could actually bode positively for GCC-Iran dialogue on regional issues. To a much greater extent than his predecessor Hassan Rouhani, President-elect Raisi is aligned with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the “deep state” within Iran that shapes its foreign policy far from the public eye and the ballot box. Throughout the original JCPOA negotiations, the IRGC sought to undermine President Hassan Rouhani and his team; relations between the IRGC and other institutions in Iran’s security apparatus and the next president will probably be much better.

This means Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies could have an Iranian administration to work with that is actually capable of making good on the compromises reached in Saudi-Iranian talks, including those that began in Baghdad in April. Therefore, there is good reason to be cautiously optimistic about Riyadh and Tehran successfully building on any future constructive dialogue.

Diplomacy Has a Chance

With or without a ‘JCPOA 2.0’, there will be opportunities for regional actors to engage with Iran on the non-nuclear issues that the 2015 deal did not touch, such as Iran’s ballistic missile activity and sponsorship of militias in the Arab world.

A key question now is, what will the ongoing Iranian-Saudi engagement in Baghdad produce? As Dr. Dina Esfandiary of the International Crisis Group recently argued, a fair concern is that the Saudis may believe that Iran has more control over the Houthis than it actually does. With the Houthis, now the most powerful force in Yemen, not wanting to end the war without achieving victory, there could be disappointment if Saudi Arabia and Iran agree to terms for ending the war in Yemen, but these terms become irrelevant after Tehran is unable to force the Houthis to agree to them.

Still, it is a positive sign that a dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia has opened this year. The absence of any direct engagement following the diplomatic crisis that erupted in January 2016 only increased the dangers of greater conflict in the region. Although diplomacy will have its limits, it is clear that it can achieve much when given an opportunity to flourish.

The Biden administration should strongly encourage regional actors—mainly Iran and Saudi Arabia—to continue their bilateral talks, irrespective of what comes out of Vienna. A new understanding between Tehran and Riyadh on even few issues can create new chances for trust to be built upon. Confidence-building measures that can help ease regional frictions would be a good place to start, especially in terms of limiting the flows of arms around the Middle East.

In all probability, given how much animosity has built up between the Iranian and Saudi governments, and given how much these two states disagree on regional issues, there will continue to be serious problems between the two for the foreseeable future. But if some degree of trust could be built between Tehran and Riyadh, the two neighbors could find effective ways to manage and contain their frictions to the benefit of both their countries and the Middle East at large.


Dr. Khalid al-Jaber is the Director of MENA Center in Washington D.C. Previously, he served at al-Sharq Studies & Research Center and as Editor-in-Chief of The Peninsula, Qatar’s leading English language daily newspaper.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Dr. Khalid al-Jaber is the Director of MENA Center in Washington D.C. Previously, he served at al-Sharq Studies & Research Center and as Editor-in-Chief of The Peninsula, Qatar’s leading English language daily newspaper.

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