Analysts believe that the Gulf Arab governments will not be discouraged from engaging in discussion to improve relations with Iran now that a conservative jurist has won the presidency, but that their negotiations with Tehran may become more difficult.
Prospects for improved ties between Muslim Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Gulf Arab monarchies may ultimately rely on success in reviving Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with international powers, experts say, following Ebrahim Raisi’s election victory on Friday.
The Iranian judge and cleric, who is sanctioned by the US, enters office in August, when nuclear discussions in Vienna are still underway under outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, a more moderate cleric.
Saudi Arabia and Iran, longtime regional foes, began direct talks in April to contain tensions at the same time as global powers have been embroiled in nuclear negotiations.
“Iran has now sent a clear message that they are tilting to a more radical, more conservative position,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a UAE political analyst, adding that Raisi’s election might make improving Gulf ties a tougher challenge.
“Nevertheless, Iran is not in a position to become more radical … because the region is becoming very difficult and very dangerous,” he added.
The United Arab Emirates, whose commercial hub Dubai has been a trade gateway for Iran, and Oman, which has often played a regional mediation role, were swift to congratulate Raisi.
Saudi Arabia has yet to comment.
Raisi, an implacable critic of the West and an ally of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds ultimate power in Iran, has voiced support for continuing the nuclear negotiations.
“If the Vienna talks succeed and there is a better situation with America, then (with) hardliners in power, who are close to the supreme leader, the situation may improve,” said Abdulaziz Sager, chairman of Gulf Research Center.
A revived nuclear deal and the lifting of U.S. sanctions on the Islamic Republic would boost Raisi, easing Iran’s economic crisis and offering leverage in Gulf talks, said Jean-Marc Rickli, an analyst at Geneva Centre for Security Policy.
Neither Iran nor Gulf Arabs want a return to the kind of tensions seen in 2019 that spiralled after the U.S. killing, under former U.S. President Donald Trump, of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. Gulf states blamed Iran or its proxies for a spate of attacks on oil tankers and Saudi oil plants.
A perception that Washington was now disengaging militarily from the area under U.S. President Joe Biden has prompted a more pragmatic Gulf approach, analysts said.
Nevertheless, Biden has demanded Iran rein in its missile programme and end its support for proxies in the region, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthi movement in Yemen, demands that have strong support from Gulf Arab nations.
“The Saudis have realised they can no longer rely on the Americans for their security … and have seen that Iran has the means to really put pressure on the kingdom through direct attacks and also with the quagmire of Yemen,” Rickli said.
Saudi-Iran talks have focused mainly on Yemen, where a military campaign led by Riyadh against the Iran-aligned Houthi movement for over six years no longer has U.S. backing.
The UAE has maintained contacts with Tehran since 2019, while also forging ties with Israel, Iran’s arch regional foe.
Sanam Vakil, an analyst at Britain’s Chatham House, wrote last week that regional conversations, particularly on maritime security, were expected to continue but “can only gain momentum if Tehran demonstrates meaningful goodwill”.
Reporting by Ghaida Ghantous; Additional reporting by Raya Jalabi; Editing by Edmund Blair