Qatar on Tuesday said that deepening dialogue with Iran was a major priority for helping the region resolve some of its most difficult conflicts, a day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met in Doha with Gulf Arab countries to discuss the Iran nuclear deal. A renewed dialogue to address the Iran-Gulf Arab tensions fueling many conflicts across the region from Syria to Yemen would potentially mark an important strategic shift, but detente between the region’s key power centers may be a long way off.
“We should have a serious dialogue with our neighbor, the Iranians, and ... lay down our concerns from both sides, and solve them together,” said Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiyah in an interview with The Associated Press. “Iran is our neighbor in the region. We have to live together.”
Attiyah’s remarks came a day after Qatar and other Gulf Arab allies on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) cautiously welcomed the Iranian nuclear deal in a joint meeting Kerry in Doha, while also reaffirming their opposition to Tehran’s regional policies and ambitions.
As a part of the U.S. strategy to stabilize the region, the Obama administration has combined rapprochement with Tehran through the nuclear deal and strengthened security cooperation with Gulf Arab allies that seek to push back against Iranian influence in the region. The GCC, led by Saudi Arabia, has sought to counter growing Iranian influence by backing allies and proxy forces in battlefields in Yemen and Syria, and to a lesser extent in Lebanon and Iraq.
The Obama administration has used the incentive of increased security ties and backing GCC efforts on the ground, particularly in Yemen, to help offset to GCC concerns about the wisdom of the Iran deal.
Efforts to reassure the GCC over Washington’s new direction began in earnest during a May meeting hosted by President Obama at Camp David, after the U.S. and five world powers had reached an interim nuclear agreement with Iran. There the U.S. pledged increase security ties, including through discussing ballistic missile defense and providing for increases arms transfer.
That meeting came nearly two months into the conflict in Yemen, where the U.S. backed the Saudi-led intervention to against Houthi rebels deemed by Riyadh to be proxies of Tehran. The Obama administration has refrained from publicly questioning the ongoing military campaign despite the humanitarian disaster that has resulted, and the significant on the ground gains by Al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate, which has been a key element in the ground war against the Houthis.
In Doha this week, Kerry reiterated what was agreed at Camp David, and released a statement together with his GCC counterparts that, while commending the Iran deal’s contribution to regional security, expressed a mutual declaration of “opposition to Iran’s support for terrorism and its destabilizing activities in the region and pledged to work together to counter its interference.”
Nonetheless, Tuesday’s comments by the Qatari foreign minister, as well as similar remarks made this week by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, suggest a preference for diplomatic rapprochement in a region where conflict, especially in Syria and Yemen continues to grind on unabated.
Writing ahead of Monday’s GCC summit in an op-ed carried in a number of Arab-language newspapers in the region, Zarif said “permanent security cannot be achieved by endangering the security of others.” He added that it would be “a gain for all our region by putting an end to needless tensions that lasted 12 years,” and said “we must all accept the fact that the era of zero-sum games is over, and we all win or lose together.”
It remains to be seen whether such public sentiments on all sides will translate into a change in tensions on the ground remains to be seen. Many previous expressions of a need to bridge differences by leaders of Sunni Gulf Arab countries and Shia Iran have come to nothing, although the two camps have previous experience of reaching stability accords in the 1989 Taif Agreement that ended Lebanon’s civil war.
The call for dialogue from Qatar’s foreign minister has yet to be echoed by Saudi Arabia.
“The nuclear agreement with Iran has propelled Saudi Arabia to make rolling back Iran’s regional influence a priority,” wrote Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute. “Its strategy is to unite as much as possible of the Sunni Middle East (excepting extremists like the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda).”
For now, the U.S. seems to be trying to delicately navigate this fault line without triggering long-established trip wires. “Consolidating already sharp sectarian divisions in the Middle East,” said Ibish, “will make matters more difficult for outside powers like the Unites States.”