Can Iran build bridges to regional foes?

Islamic State extremists in Iraq have created a common enemy in the region. But Iran has to tackle deep distrust – and keep nuclear talks on track – to forge a new relationship with its Arab neighbors.

Iran’s president waves before giving a speech outside Tehran, Iran, June 3. He has pledged a policy of moderation toward Iran’s neighbors.

To clinch a nuclear deal, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has to reassure world powers. But to achieve long-term regional stability, he has to overcome deeply sown suspicions and rivalries with Iran’s Persian Gulf neighbors at a time of tremendous sectarian tension.

Iran and five world powers agreed on July 18 to extend by four months a deadline for reaching a final deal aimed at preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb, in exchange for sanctions relief. 

The negotiators now have until November 20 to reach a deal. But Mr. Rouhani is up against more than 30 years of distrust. In 1987, Iranian revolutionaries carrying images of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini sparked riots during the hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, leaving more than 400 dead. For years, Saudi Arabia and smaller Gulf states have accused Iran of sowing discord within their own Shiite communities. And in 2010, WikiLeaks revealed that Saudi King Abdullah had been secretly and repeatedly pushing Washington to “cut off the head of the snake” by launching military strikes against Iran.

The rivalry between these regional heavyweights has defined power politics in the Gulf for decades. But today Rouhani calls Saudi Arabia a “friend and brother.” He traveled to Oman in March, and he hosted the emir of Kuwait in early June. His outreach has helped set hard-liners in Sunni states back on their heels. 

“The moderation discourse brought by Dr. Rouhani is isolating the extremist voices inside these [Persian Gulf] countries,” says Kayhan Barzegar, head of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran. 

“Saudi Arabia, under pressure to accept the new reality of Iran, is trying to manage its relations with Iran – they can’t just ignore that something new has happened inside Iran, the moderate government,” Mr. Barzegar says.

The enmity cuts both ways. Though Iran has always couched its 1979 revolution in Pan-Islamic terms – as an example of religious rule to be followed by both Shiites and Sunnis – its majority ethnic Persians have historically looked down on their Arab neighbors. In the devastating Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, every Arab nation but Syria lined up to support Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein – a link with Syria that continues today. 

“If Iran is a strong state, past experience shows that the Arab states try to get much closer to us,” says Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a political analyst and professor in Tehran. “Whenever and wherever we are in a very weak position, they try to develop a sense of hostility towards Iran. This is a reality.”

The Syrian war is driving Iran and the Gulf further apart. Iran has backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Syrian rebels and foreign jihadists fighting alongside them have received critical support from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait.

Mutual danger 

The Gulf support – which has included calls from some radical clerics to wage an anti-Shiite battle in Syria – has strengthened the most radical and best-equipped group, the Islamic State (formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), which in early June advanced across north and central Iraq, where it now threatens Shiite shrines.

But Islamic State’s threats extend to Sunni states that cooperate with the West – aspirational maps of the new Islamic State stretch from Algeria to Afghanistan, gobbling up every Persian Gulf state.

The mutual danger could help mend relations. With Islamic State militants controlling chunks of two Arab countries (Syria and Iraq), capturing military equipment, and attracting recruits with the declaration of the first Sunni caliphate in 90 years, Iran and its neighbors have plenty to talk about other than their differences. 

The menace of Islamic State has created common ground between even Iran and its greatest enemy, the United States. Rouhani announced in mid-June he might be willing to work with the US in Iraq, though other officials reject that possibility. 

Accused of meddling 

While Rouhani has pledged to extend his message of “moderation” and “wisdom” to ties with neighbors, the view looking back across the Persian Gulf is skeptical.

“[Iran] has never been an easy neighbor,” says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political scientist in the United Arab Emirates. “It’s difficult as a society, as a political system, as a negotiator. Sometimes it becomes more difficult, sometimes less difficult, but it is always difficult.”

Iran has long been accused of interfering in many other countries – including in Iraq, where it has supported the Shiite-first government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and backed Shiite militias. The two helped alienate the Sunni minority and paved the way for Islamic State’s surge. Iran is also accused of supporting Houthi rebels on the Yemen-Saudi border, and adding to Shiite agitation in Bahrain – though it denies such meddling. 

“The Persian Gulf countries would like to have relations with Iran, confident that Iran does not want to create any tensions in their countries,” says Seyyed Reza Borgaei, Mr. Khomeini’s representative to Persian Gulf countries in the 1980s, noting longstanding accusations by Sunni governments of Iranian meddling with Shiite communities within their borders. 

But the specter of an Iranian nuclear bomb – despite repeated assertions from officials that they reject nuclear weapons – has given Persian Gulf countries an excuse to ask the US and Europe for billions of dollars in weaponry.

“Nuclear technology turned out to be an excuse for the Arab world, because Saudi Arabia has been very interested in having American involvement in their hardware strategy vis-à-vis Iran,” says Mr. Bavand, the Iranian political analyst.

'We should think of the future'

Seeking solutions has high backing in Iran. Mr. Borgaei was in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, during those riots in 1987. He says it was the Saudis who wanted to ban annual protests by Iranians, and thereby “ruined the peace of that place after 14 centuries.” 

But he also says there is no reason today to even bring up such divisive history, which could cloud the need to work together now.

“It is our belief that any step taken to become closer with these countries will mean many, many problems will be solved exponentially, for every step taken,” says Borgaei, now a cleric in Iran’s holy city of Qom.

“Today we should think of the future, of the interests of Islam,” Borgaei adds. “We should emphasize our common beliefs and work on these, and respect the differences we have.” 

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