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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Iran lacks a strategy to counter Saudi influence: Chatham House

New report sees Iran’s relations in the Gulf as “guided by opportunism.”

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani. AP 
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani. AP 

Despite its aggressive foreign policy agenda across the Middle East, Iran is confronted by its failure to develop meaningful bilateral relationships in the region and suffers from a lack of an overarching strategy towards its neighbours, a newly-released report by Chatham House found.

Tehran pursued bilateral initiatives to reach out to some states such Oman and Kuwait while neglecting or alienating others. Its attempts to capitalise on internal GCC tensions since the2017 boycott of Qatar have been opportunistic and limited in effect. Its drive to alleviate its isolation, has failed to translate into a hedging strategy to balance against Riyadh’s influence, the 17-page analysis found.

Hence, relations among Arab Gulf states remain fragmented, with Saudi-Iranian ties particularly strained after a period of rapprochement. While Tehran has failed to see Riyadh as a serious regional challenge in the past decades, Saudi cooperation with President Donald Trump and his administration has paid dividend. Now in the wake of renewed economic sanctions, Iran and President Hassan Rouhani’s government has little logical choice but to call for dialogue between the two countries.

The US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal should lead the country to slowly acknowledge that resolving regional tensions is a “necessary ingredient for its domestic and regional stability,” the report found.

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It also highlighted the potential role of smaller Gulf states, as well as extra-regional actors, to encourage Iran and Saudi Arabia to take action in favour of long-term stability.

Iran’s proposed route to regional harmony – the creation of a “security networking structure where small and large states in the Persian Gulf contribute together to a regional security framework – could be seen a “worthy goal” but has so far failed to gain traction.

But in light of President Trump’s support, Saudi Arabia has shown no appetite for such engagement. It instead hopes that greater multilateral pressure on Iran will weaken it and perhaps force it to abandon its support for proxy groups throughout the region, including its support for Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war, its military support for the Houthis in the Yemen civil war, its ongoing relationship with Lebanon’s Hezbollah and its relations with Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Iraq.

According to Chatham House, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to alter its position until there is a change in Iran’s leadership or until its own political transition is complete, resulting in Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman becoming king.

Ultimately, to be successful and durable, regional de-escalation will depend upon the ability of regional actors to reach a compromise on the major security issues before addressing the economic and humanitarian portfolios.