By Dr. Mohammad Hossein Hafeziyan
Source: Center for Scientific Research and Middle East Strategic Studies (MERC)
Translated By: Iran Review
Review of Iran's Relations with PGCC during President Ahmadinejad's First Term
Mr. Ahmadinejad is the first Iranian president to have taken part in a summit meeting of the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council (PGCC) during the past three decades.
He is also the sole Iranian leader who has visited the United Arab Emirates. The main question is what factor has caused unprecedented developments in bilateral relations which have finally maintained those relations at a reasonable level despite predictions about more tension between Iran and PGCC under President Ahmadinejad?
The main hypothesis of this paper which aims to answer the above questions is that mutual interest in maintaining those relations and unprecedented initiatives by President Ahmadinejad are major reasons which have kept bilateral relations at a high level similar to a decade before.
Arabs' first reactions to new Iranian president
Interestingly, most Arab countries welcomed election of President Ahmadinejad despite historical background of tense relations with Iran. Ignoring longstanding differences with Tehran, the oil-rich neighbors of Iran along the southern rim of the Persian Gulf sent warm felicitation messages to the new president who asserted that he would give priority to improvement of Iran's relations with the Arab and Muslim world. Saudi leaders, especially the ailing King Fahd, were among the first heads of state to congratulate President Ahmadinejad and similar sentiments were expressed by Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates despite longstanding differences between the latter country and Iran over three strategic islands in the Persian Gulf. PGCC, whose members consist of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, expressed hope that the new Iranian president would "turn a new leaf" in Iran's relations with its southern neighbors.
At the same time, however, some Arab analysts warned that election of President Ahmadinejad will worsen tensions between Iran and some oil-rich countries of the Persian Gulf. Ahmad al-Rabi', who teaches at Kuwait's Liberal University and a former parliamentarian, noted that election of the new Iranian president will lead to regional isolation of Iran. Iran, on the other hand, announced that it would continue to pursue détente with the Arab and the Muslim world. In his first press conference after the election, President Ahmadinejad said, "Considerable progress has been made thus far and more progress will be made. We will witness expansion of relations with the Muslim world and regional states." He added that "this is a priority for our foreign policy. The Persian Gulf is the gulf of peace and justice and we seek understanding with the Persian Gulf states and friendly relations to defend its interests."
Meanwhile, in a surprising state of affairs, President Ahmadinejad received a letter of invitation to take part in the annual summit meeting of PGCC in Doha, Qatar, in 2007. In fact, he was the first Iranian president to take part in such a meeting since the Council was established 26 years ago. During the meeting, the Iranian president noted that Iran sought peace and security without influence of foreign powers and proposed conclusion of economic and security treaties among seven members of PGCC in order to serve people of the region and maintain peace and stability. Many analysts maintained that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presence in that meeting was a highlight of the 28th summit of the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council. However, the final statement of the meeting contained nothing about participation of Iran or proposals forwarded by the Iranian president. The only response to Iran's initiative was short remarks by Qatari chairman of the meeting who welcomed the Iranian president and promised that participants would go through his proposals.
Dispute over three Iranian islands
During the past 15 years, territorial disputes between Iran and UAE over three Iranian islands in the Persian Gulf have overshadowed Iran's relations with all members of PGCC. Even friendly gestures by Mr. Khatami failed to resolve those differences, but simply controlled them. As usual, this issue was brought up in the first meeting of PGCC after election of the new Iranian president. Secretary-general of the Council claimed in Abu Dhabi on December 18, 2005, that despite UAE's frequent requests for peaceful negotiation over the islands or referring the case to International Court of Justice, Iran continued to occupy those islands. The then spokesman of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hamid Reza Asefi, announced on December 19, 2005, that PGCC claims on three Iranian islands were "baseless and unacceptable" and repetitive. He added that Iran and UAE should determine the fate of Abu Mousa Island through bilateral talks. The dispute raged at a time that, according to a report released by an Iranian cultural publication, an estimated population of 400,000 Iranians controlled about 300 billion dollars of liquidity in Dubai. Other studies produced a much lower figure of about 20 billion dollars, which is still a remarkable amount of money. Iranian economic entities account for nearly one-tenth of companies in Dubai free zone which is a tax-free zone. Such exchanges have increased trade volume between UAE and Iran from 4 billion dollars in 2003 to 7 billion dollars in 2005. This figure excludes the volume of illegal trade on which no accurate statistics has ever existed.
Despite diplomatic disputes between the two sides of the Persian Gulf, both Arabs and Iranians are willing to continue interactions. Following adoption of sanctions resolutions against Iran by the United Nations Security Council, which included sanctions against the Iranian banks, the United Arab Emirates continued trade with Iran despite pressures from the United States to sever financial relations with Tehran. There are about 300 weekly flights between the two countries and about 9,500 companies in UAE have Iranian partners which own up to 49 percent of their stocks.
Anyway, disputes over three islands were not resolved during President Ahmadinejad's first term in office because neither party to that depute was ready to agree on dispute settlement arrangements. Although in May 2007, President Ahmadinejad became the first Iranian head of state to have visited the United Arab Emirates since its independence in 1971, the visit did nothing to reduce tension. In addition, although Arab countries of the Persian Gulf and Iran have different viewpoints on three islands, the dispute has not affected all aspects of bilateral relations. There are also mutual concerns over geographical, political, economic, security and cultural issues. Therefore, mutual trust is of utmost importance to both sides.
Aftershocks of Iran's nuclear program
Arab countries of the Persian Gulf have preferred to remain silent about Iran's nuclear program during most of the period that it has been a hot debate. That silence concerned the United States and American analysts maintained that any public remarks by the Persian Gulf state officials on the consequences of a possible nuclear mishap in Iran was greatly pleasing to Washington. Since Iran is located in a quake-prone region, a nuclear accident is quite probable and has been a repetitive theme of US diplomatic efforts in recent years. It seems that Arab states expected Iran to reward countries which had taken less aggressive positions on the nuclear crisis, or at least, remember their cooperation. Perhaps, this is why Qatar voted negative to Security Council resolution 1696 on Iran's nuclear program in July 2006. In fact, Qatar was the only non-permanent member of the Security Council to vote against that resolution. Arab countries of the Persian Gulf have little, if any, leverage against Iran and are not willing to pay the high price of a lost war. They know that Iran is willing to get economic advantages and security guarantees which can be only accorded by the United States and the European countries. They can do little within this context. They just thanked Iran once for its acceptance of a deal proposed by the European countries which served to reduce tension between the two sides.
However, after escalation of tension over Iran's nuclear program which amounted to adoption of three sanctions resolutions against Iran by the United Nations Security Council, Arab countries of the Persian Gulf believed that they should play a more active role in the crisis. Therefore, they met with permanent members of the Security Council on December 16, 2008, after which they came under severe fire from Iran.
The British Foreign Minister David Miliband, announced that the meeting was convened to allow 5+1 discuss concerns of Arab countries over Iran's nuclear ambitions. Following the meeting, Iran warned the Arab countries that they should not take sides with the west in the nuclear case. The speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Larijani, for example, called on the Arab countries not to get involved in Iran's nuclear case. He advised Arab states not to interfere in the nuclear case because it would "damage their prestige." Therefore, Iran prefers Arab countries to remain silent in the nuclear case if they are not willing to back Iran because their involvement will change the nature of the nuclear standoff from a dispute between Iran and the west to a dispute between Iran and international community.
A new chapter has been opened in Iran's relations with its southern neighbors which is not necessarily marked with tension and hostility as was the case during the first decade following the Islamic Revolution. The fact that President Ahmadinejad is the first Iranian president to take part in PGCC summit and visit the United Arab Emirates proves that some early analyses were based on misunderstandings and relations between Iran and the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council are too deep-rooted to be influenced by changes in government. The reason is clear: both sides need each other in order to keep the whole region safe and secure. The way Iranians will finally solve the existing nuclear crisis with western powers will have great bearing on political relations between the two sides of the Persian Gulf. However, there is no doubt that in case of military faceoff between Iran and the United States, Arab countries of the Persian Gulf will not take sides with Washington as this will save them from Iran's retaliation. Of course, they will be happy to see a weakened Iran.
Maintaining the status quo while US sanctions against Iran are in force would be a great economic and diplomatic advantage for most Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, especially the United Arab Emirates. A weakened Iran will serve their interests, but serious crisis in the region will deal serious blows to their economies. Therefore, any step aimed at reducing tension between Tehran and Washington or possible rapprochement will not be a desirable option for the Arab states.
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