Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme

If key Gulf powers and Iran remain at loggerheads, the prospect of a historic international agreement over Iran’s nuclear programme risks deepening – rather than easing – the conflicts afflicting the Middle East, writes Jane Kinninmont.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani greets Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah upon his arrival in Tehran on June 1, 2014. Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images.Iranian President Hassan Rouhani greets Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah upon his arrival in Tehran on June 1, 2014. Photo: Getty Images.
  • The prospect of an international agreement over Iran’s nuclear programme – and of a related easing of tensions between Iran and the United States – has intensified the political tensions between Iran and some of its Gulf neighbours. The ‘internationalization’ of the conflict in Yemen is only the latest symptom of this.
  • Better relations between Iran and the United States could remove one of the long-standing points of friction between Iran, which has styled itself as part of the resistance to the US role in the region, and the Gulf Arab monarchies, which are allied with the United States. Instead, however, the prospect of such a rapprochement is being viewed in the region as a ‘zero-sum’ game between Iran and the Gulf Arab states.
  • This zero-sum mentality partly reflects the conflicts in Iraq since 2003 and in Syria since 2011. In both cases, Iran and key Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have usually backed opposing sides in contexts of extreme brutality.
  • Beyond this, the rivalries between Iranian and Gulf Arab leaders – particularly between Iran and Saudi Arabia – are deep-rooted, and their competing claims to a regional role have been fuelled by the pronounced ideological differences of the last three decades.
  • Tensions have not always been as high as they are at present. There are some areas of common interest and shared identity that could potentially be built on to facilitate a rapprochement between Iran and its regional neighbours.
  • While the GCC governments would prefer the United States to continue policing the Gulf, Iran seeks a regional Gulf security architecture. GCC states fear that this would simply be dominated by Iran, as by far the largest country.
  • Gulf security could be reconceptualized as a ‘global public good’, to be governed multilaterally.
  • The P5+1 negotiators have opted to keep the nuclear talks with Iran separate from issues of regional politics. This has helped to insulate the process from various regional risks, and also, crucially, has helped maintain a united front among the P5+1.
  • A parallel diplomatic track, focusing on the regional issues, is needed to guard against the benefits of any deal being outweighed by its costs.
  • A rapprochement between Iran and the Gulf states could help prepare the ground for the resolution of a number of regional conflicts. Conversely, if key Gulf powers and Iran remain at loggerheads, the prospect of a historic international agreement over Iran’s nuclear programme faces the risk of deepening – rather than easing – the conflicts afflicting the Middle East.