TEHRAN — After reaching an interim nuclear deal with major world powers, Iran’s government is turning its attention to mending strained relations with its Arab neighbors.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has spent the past week crisscrossing the Persian Gulf region, visiting leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries to advance what he called a shared desire to ease Iranian-Arab hostility.
“These countries, as a whole, are very interested in opening a new chapter in their ties with the Islamic republic, which we hope will benefit peace and stability, as well as the progress of the people of this region,” Zarif said Monday after meeting with counterparts from Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
The rivalry between Iran and its Arab neighbors is often viewed in sectarian terms, as Iran is overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim while most of the other countries in the region have predominantly Sunni Muslim populations. But that oversimplifies larger strategic issues, according to foreign policy analysts.
“I don’t believe the sectarianism in the region has truly sectarian roots,” said Mohammad Ali Shabani, a leading Middle East expert in Tehran. “It’s more about power dynamics and legitimacy issues, often on a domestic level.”
As the largest country in the Persian Gulf region, Iran has always been an important cultural, economic and military force. With alliances beginning to shift, Arab leaders appear eager to fortify trade ties with Iran that were strong before being eroded by international sanctions over the country’s nuclear program.
Any thawing in relations would have other implications that reach far beyond the warm Persian Gulf waters, through which a fifth of the world’s oil supply must pass to reach global markets.
Closer ties also would affect how world powers choose to approach long-isolated Iran. Some of that isolation came at the behest of Arab leaders who viewed Iran as a dominant force that they could not keep in check without Western support.
“The Western military presence in the Persian Gulf region is ostensibly directed at Iran, and GCC states help ensure that the oil embargo on Tehran remains intact,” Shabani said. “Improved GCC-Iran relations will thus weaken the West’s position in dialogue with Iran, making Western powers more amenable to compromises.”
But although Iran has found a receptive audience among smaller GCC states, its rivalry with oil-rich Saudi Arabia may prove a greater challenge, as Iran vies to boost its oil exports if sanctions are lifted.
Zarif posted a report on his Facebook page Tuesday about his trip, but he also sent a message to Riyadh that Iranian officials are ready to meet with Saudi officials. Such a meeting, Zarif wrote, would be “good for both countries, our region and the Islamic world.”
During the controversial eight-year presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that ended in August, relations between Tehran and Persian Gulf kingdoms were marked by mistrust and accusations. According to one of the U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2010, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah urged the United States to attack Iran to “cut off the head of the snake.”
“Saudi Arabia considers Iran a threat, but Iran is trying to reach out to them and say that peace, security and stability in the region can be mutually beneficial,” said Hassan Beheshtipour, a Tehran-based political commentator.
Should Iran and Saudi Arabia draw closer, they could help broker a peace in Syria’s protracted civil war, in which they support opposite sides.
Zarif and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani are “not only establishing good relations with neighbor countries, which has many fruitful consequences in political and economic terms,” said Saeed Laylaz, an analyst of Iranian politics. The new government’s policies also could provide “a way to solve the conflict in Syria and control the threat of terrorist and hard-line groups in the region,” he said.
On Wednesday, Zarif paid a one-day visit to the United Arab Emirates, another country with which Iran has a long and complicated relationship. Despite a dispute over a chain of islands that both countries claim, and although the federation maintains an important alliance with Washington, UAE leaders appear eager to return to more-constructive ties with Iran.
Many Emiratis, especially in Dubai, have ancestral roots in Iran, and an estimated 400,000 Iranian nationals live in Dubai, many of them involved in direct trade between the two countries that was valued at $12 billion last year.
If Iran and its neighbors find ways to resolve their old differences, Iran could return to regional and international prominence. The Arab leaders in the gulf must decide whether that is in their interest, analysts said.