x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Rouhani must offer Gulf more than just words

Iran's new president will be offering soft words to the countries of the Arabian Peninsula. But the policies set by Iran's Supreme Leader continue to create problems.

During negotiations with the Soviet Union over reductions in their nuclear arsenals in the 1980s, the former US president Ronald Reagan was fond of repeating the Russian proverb "doveryai, no proveryai", which means trust but verify.

Another century, another country, but against a similar backdrop of nuclear power, that same proverb is still the best way for the Arab world to react to the charm offensive that Iran's new president says he intends to embark on.

Hassan Rouhani, who is not a moderate but is decidedly different from his predecessor, will take office next month and is said to be seeking "friendly and close relations" with Iran's neighbours. Such a policy, called "zero problems with neighbours", was championed by Turkey during the early years of the AKP's rule and worked very well in that nation's rise as a regional player.

Iran, however, is starting from a much more compromised position. The bruising years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's leadership, the low-level proxy wars fought against the US and regional interests across the Greater Middle East, and the lack of clarity over Iran's nuclear programme have all contributed to a general sense that Iran is not willing to play a constructive role in the region.

Still, if Iran will extend a hand, the Gulf will be willing to meet it. For the GCC states, the "trust" part will be easy. The UAE has long made it clear it favours a diplomatic solution to the dispute over Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs. Saudi Arabia has openly welcomed the presidency of Mr Rouhani. But the "verify" part will be harder. Mr Rouhani, after all, is not the ultimate arbiter of foreign policy in Iran and what he can and can't do will be heavily constrained by the wishes of the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Yet even a small gesture could go a long way. All the Gulf states want to see Iran play a constructive role in the region, but its rivalry with Saudi Arabia has too often defined its involvement in the Middle East. Better relations between the two countries could go a long way towards calming tensions. Better relations would also make a tangible difference to many countries where Iran and Saudi Arabia find themselves on opposite sides, most notably on Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

So Mr Rouhani's charm offensive, if it comes, will be welcome. But the region will be looking for deeds, not merely gentle words.