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Beyond the Arab-Iranian Divide in the Gulf

Dr. M. Mahtab Alam Rizvi is Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • January 23, 2008

    In an interesting development, the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) invited Iran for the first time last month to attend its summit meeting held in Doha. The GCC was established in 1981 to foster multilateral co-operation in the Persian Gulf, but had adopted an exclusionary policy vis-à-vis Iran though the latter was an important actor in regional politics and economy. The invitation to Iran seems to point to a GCC initiative to overcome differences and act together for the larger good of the region. This is especially significant in the context of the GCC’s serious contemplation to work towards regional economic integration. Iran’s entry into such a group would only add to the organisation’s strength and significance.

    The two-day GCC summit kicked off with regional security and economic integration at the top of its agenda. In his opening remarks, Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifah Al-Thani, urged the adoption of measures to prevent existing regional tensions from spinning out of control. He made particular reference to the Iranian nuclear programme, the military build-up in the Gulf, the situation in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon as well as the growing threat of terrorism in the region.

    Iran, for the first time, had an opportunity to participate in the gathering and put across its views to its neighbours. Till now, revolutionary Iran has had rocky ties with GCC states, particularly because of the threat it perceivably posed to the political status quo in the Gulf States. For its part, the Iranian leadership looked at the GCC as an instrument of US policy in the region.

    Be that as it may, Ahmadenejad’s remarks at the opening session of the 28th GCC summit suggested support for the idea of closer economic co-operation among Gulf countries. He advocated that the six oil-rich Gulf Arab states and Iran work together to establish ‘regional security and economic pacts’ without foreign interference. He put forward a string of proposals including the abolition of visas between Iran and Gulf states to facilitate free movement of people, protection of the regional environment, the establishment of a free trade zone and common investments in the petroleum sector. Ahmadinejad also indicated readiness to enhance co-operation in the fields of commerce, tourism, cultural exchanges and collaboration in science and technology. In addition, he expressed his inclination to offer the GCC a free corridor from North to South for the transportation of goods across its territory.

    Over the last couple of years, there have been arguments about the re-emergence of Shia-Sunni divide in the region. Shia-Sunni conflicts, along the lines of those seen in Iraq, will constitute a major fault line in Middle East politics. Viewed from this perspective, the political conduct of Iran or Hezbollah could be interpreted as a reawakening of Shia identity.

    But this view is questionable. Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary General of Hezbollah, for example has asserted that Shias “cannot be lumped together in one basket”. There is also the view that the Shia-Sunni divide is over exaggerated and is being promoted by the West.

    There is also suspicion in the Islamic world that the US and its Western allies are making use of the Saudis to widen the gulf between the two sects. However, the Saudis seem to have realised Iran’s importance as a regional power and appear willing to tolerate Iranian influence in the region. They do not want to antagonise Iran at this juncture when American forces could be planning to leave Iraq. Hence, the wish to engage Iran. But this is not to deny that the Saudis are indeed concerned about the growing Shia influence in the region. Some commentators even argue that Saudi mediation for effecting the Mecca agreement between the two main Palestinian factions was a product of Riyadh’s desire to reassert Sunni influence in the region.

    While the West might be seeking to manipulate the Shia-Sunni divide, moves seem to be afoot to bridge the sectarian gap. The Arab League has called for a high-level dialogue between the Arabs and Iran. The GCC initiative to host Iran at its annual summit can also be seen from this perspective. The GCC invitation also has to be seen in the context of apprehensions about an US attack on Iran and consequently the need to engage Tehran and prevent he region hurtling into a fresh crisis. These regional efforts also aim to bring peace to Iraq and the entire region. At the same time, Iran has also shown its desire to join these efforts. Iran’s interest in improving ties with GCC countries seem to stem from the need to avoid international isolation because of its nuclear programme.

    GCC member states have their own concerns regarding a nuclear Iran, which they articulated at the summit. Bahrain’s crown prince, Sheikh Salman bin al-Khalifa, accused the Islamic Republic of seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. The UAE Foreign Minister also expressed his concerns on the issue. At the same time, the GCC states made it clear that their criticism was not directed at the Iranian nuclear programme per se but at the Iranian conduct on the issue.

    In any event, this is undoubtedly a welcome departure from past trends in regional politics. The GCC has taken a positive step forward. It is now Iran’s turn to make the best of the opportunity provided to it.