x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

GCC expects little change from Rowhani administration

Even if the Iran's new president acts on promises to improve foreign ties, issues will be difficult to resolve.

ABU DHABI // GCC countries showed little optimism for a thawing of relations despite the victory yesterday of Iran's most reform-leaning presidential candidate.

"Iran after the elections … Like Iran ahead of the elections," read the headline on the Saudi daily Al-Yaum's editorial yesterday, which argued that nothing would change even if Hassan Rowhani won.

Despite Mr Rowhani's promises to "reconcile with the world", many in the Arabian Gulf remained sceptical that any new president could make the fundamental shifts in foreign policy that Gulf Cooperation Council states have argued would be necessary for better relations.

"A new Iranian president will need substantial time and effort to ease the strain in GCC-Iran relations caused by Ahmadinejad's controversial foreign policy during the past eight years," said Bashir Zain Al Abdin, researcher at the Bahrain Center for International Strategic and Energy Studies.

From early on in the campaign, Mr Rowhani was consistently the only candidate to argue for improving Iran's relations with neighbours and the West.

"We won't let the past eight years be continued," he said in a speech on June 8, promising to warm foreign ties.But most analysts expect the biggest change will simply be in demeanour.

What Gulf capitals are most interested in is which candidate would lessen the hostile rhetoric from Iran, said Mehran Kamrava, the director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Qatar.

Cables of congratulations were sent to Mr Rowhani on Saturday evening by Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE; Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai; and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

"We are keen on maintaining relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran that are based on cooperation," Sheikh Khalifa said.

But the disputes between Gulf countries and Iran do not lend themselves to easy fixes. Mr Rowhani and the other candidates all stood firmly behind maintaining Iran's nuclear programme, which some western countries say is being used to develop nuclear weapons. Iran insists the programme is for peaceful purposes.

On its dispute with the UAE, Saeed Jalili, a candidate who had been seen as having the backing of the supreme leader, said on June 10 that Iran's claim to the Emirates' three islands in the Gulf, Abu Musa, the Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb, was "non-negotiable".

Perhaps most pointedly, GCC countries accuse Tehran of meddling in their affairs, including in Bahrain's 2011 uprising, as well as more broadly in the region. Though Iran denies the charge in Bahrain, few dispute Iranian support for Syria, where Iran-backed Hizbollah fighters have supported Bashar Al Assad's regime.

Gulf states have reacted to Hizbollah's entrance with alarm, promising to crack down on the group's interests within the GCC.

"The major concern … is Iran's approach towards the Syrian crisis," said Mr Al Abdin. "Iran's indirect military engagement in the conflict has widened the existing sectarian rift within some GCC communities."

The charged regional atmosphere is one reason the election has been closely followed, despite the low expectations for change.

"There's an intense interest" in who wins among Gulf countries, said Bruce Riedel, a former US CIA official and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, speaking by phone during a visit to Doha.

"The bigger issue here is that overlaid on the historic tensions between the United States and its Gulf allies with Iran you now have this intense sectarian animosity," he said.

Yet even if Mr Rowhani can prove more conciliatory, Mr Kamrava said that not everyone in the Gulf would welcome warmer relations between the United States and Iran. Countries have based 35 years of foreign policy on a world in which Washington and Tehran were at opposite poles, he said.

"Gulf countries have capitalised on US-Iranian tensions."

And foreign policy is not high on the president's agenda, warned Mr Al Abdin. Reformist intentions abroad would require hard work to break old habits - and vested interests - of the past, he said. Mr Rowhani, he said, will still "face enormous challenges locally before he can gain the trust of the international community".

edickinson@thenational.ae