Originally Published 2013-08-09 12:31:49 Published on Aug 09, 2013
New Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's emphasis on political moderation and ending Iran's isolation is drawing attention to the potential reconciliation between Tehran and some of its Arab Gulf neighbours. He has also raised hopes for a productive engagement between Tehran and the West.
Rouhani and the Arab Gulf: Towards reconciliation?
"The swearing-in of Hassan Rouhani as the seventh President of the Islamic Republic of Iran has raised hopes of a productive engagement between Tehran and the West. Rouhani's emphasis on political moderation and ending Iran's isolation are also drawing attention to the potential reconciliation between Tehran and some of its Arab Gulf neighbours. Tehran's historically complex relations with the Arab States have suffered a setback after the Arab Spring. Uprisings in Egypt and Bahrain, and the on-going conflict in Syria have exacerbated sectarian sentiments and intensified the geostrategic struggle in the region. Saudi Arabia and Iran, for instance, have been directly involved in the Syrian civil war and are supporting opposing forces. While Tehran is allegedly providing substantial military and financial assistance to forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, Saudi Arabia has been accused of arming the anti-Assad opposition forces1. This has worsened the already turbulent relations between the two countries, which have always been rooted in a 'mutual threat' perception. Iran's growing clout in Iraq since the US led invasion in 2003 has been viewed with great concern within the Sunni Arab world.2. Iran's relationship with Egypt too has been predominantly tumultuous, due to the differing responses to regional issues. The Iran-Iraq war, the Camp David accords, and more recently, the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi have prevented relations between Tehran and Cairo from thawing3. Now President Rouhani has stressed the importance of improved ties with the Persian Gulf littoral states and Arab countries. What remains to be seen is whether he can translate this intent into reality. Rouhani was elected with almost 51 per cent of the votes, which amounted to a record-breaking 18.6 million votes. He had formerly served as the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council for 16 years. His campaign rested on the premise of the 'path of moderation'4, which he says neither means 'deviating from principles' and nor it imply 'conservatism in the face of change and development'5. In his inaugural speech, President Rouhani stated that his policies would be oriented towards 'constructive interaction with the world' as long as the dialogue is based on 'equal footing, confidence-building, mutual respect as well as a mutual reduction of antagonism and aggression'6. His stance towards the Gulf States is conciliatory. In more than one public address, he has expressed the hope that other countries will recognise the mutual benefits of cooperation given the economic and political hardships the region is facing today7. He specifically referred to Tehran's desire to improve relations with adversarial neighbour Saudi Arabia. He said Tehran has had 'very close relations culturally, historically and regionally' with Saudi Arabia 8 and therefore, there is considerable scope for closer ties. Morteza Bank, the deputy chief of Rouhani's election campaign, has also acknowledged that Saudi Arabia is the President's top priority9. While President Rouhani spoke about the political, economic and strategic importance of warmer relations with the Gulf States, he also made statements about 'bringing warmongers under control'. He stated that 'Iran seeks peace and stability in the region' and does not wish to 'change the demarcations and borders' of any country in the region10. While it is not clear whether or not he was referring to a particular country, it has been suggested that the comments were aimed towards Israel11. On the other hand, President Rouhani made very clear references to Tehran's stance on the Syrian stalemate. He said that the Syrian people themselves should resolve the Syrian issue and that Tehran is opposed to any foreign interference in Syria's internal affairs. He claimed an unshakeable alliance with President Al-Assad 12 and pledged to stand by the war-torn nation in facing all challenges13. Even though he has refrained from making statements about sectarianism in Syria, according to Mr Bank, President Rouhani believes that a political solution to the crisis must be based on resolving the sectarian dispute and the 'two major religious groups....must play special roles in the future government'14. President Rouhani's apparent pragmatism has been boosted by endorsements from State leaders and supporters, as well as the presence of significant foreign dignitaries at his oath-taking ceremony. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia congratulated President Rouhani on his election and lauded his 'keenness to cooperate'15. While Musaid bin Mohammed al-Ayban, a Saudi Minister of State, was the official representative of the Kingdom at the ceremony, the Prime Minister of Syria, the Turkish Foreign Minister, Kuwait's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Lebanese President Michel Sleiman were amongst the high-ranking dignitaries in attendance. Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri-Al-Maliki extended congratulations to President Rouhani over the phone and the Vice-President, Khazir Al-Khazai was in attendance at the oath-taking ceremony. Just a month before the ceremony, news reports had quoted Western officials as saying that Mr. Maliki had conveyed to the American Ambassador in Baghdad that President Rouhani is 'serious' about discussions with the United States and Tehran is interested in direct talks. He also suggested that Iraq is willing to facilitate the talks16. The Iranian ambassador to Iraq has dismissed the news reports17, and Washington too is tight-lipped on the issue. American officials have said that "Mr. Maliki is not a pawn of Iran and the US should try and expand its influence in Iraq"18. The government in Baghdad is in the 'unique position' of being close to both, Washington and Tehran19, and has shared interests with Iran on certain regional issues. For instance, Mr. Maliki is concerned of the Sunni threat to his government if Al-Assad's regime in Syria collapses. Although it was speculated that Khalid Omran, the head of Egyptian Interest Section, would attend the swearing-in, news reports suggest that Egypt was absent from the ceremony. The relations between Tehran and Cairo had begun to thaw as former President Ahmedinejad became the first Iranian President to visit Egypt since the 1979 revolution. His visit had been preceded by Mohammed Morsi's visit to Iran last year, following which both countries agreed to resume diplomatic relations20. Even though Mr. Morsi's government was strongly opposed to President Al-Assad's regime in Syria, Cairo and Tehran were engaged in talks to resolve the Syrian dispute. However, President Morsi's ouster has caused a disruption in Iran-Egypt relations. Tehran has strongly condemned the ouster by referring to it as 'improper' and 'unacceptable'21. Egypt's foreign ministry expressed 'strong disapproval' over Iran's reactions and called them interference in the country's internal matters. Moreover, following a meeting between Turkish minister Davutoglu and President Rouhani, Mr Davutoglu disclosed that both leaders had discussed Egypt and agreed that for the crisis to end, 'the release of Mr. Morsi and all other political leaders is of critical importance'22. Therefore, Egypt's absence at the ceremony is perhaps indicative of worsening relations between the two countries. President Rouhani's conciliatory approach to Iran's foreign policy has thus far received a positive albeit wait-and-watch response from the neighbouring States. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey have echoed his tone, but made no further advances especially towards resolving dead-lock issues like the conflict in Syria. Given the multiplicity of regional actors, their motivation to engage, negotiate and concede will determine the course of relations in the Gulf. Therefore, the success of President Rouhani's policies is now largely dependent on the space, opportunities and responses granted to him by his Gulf counterparts. Another obstruction in the path to change is the question of whether or not President Rouhani is able to exert considerable influence over Iran's foreign policy. A dichotomous constitution wherein the Supreme Leader rules on the basis of velayat-e-faqih implies that the President has little power. Thus far, President Rouhani appears to share a good relationship with Ayatollah Khamenei and may be able to 'sway' his opinions on certain issues23. Of his relationship with the Supreme Leader, President Rouhani has said, "Decisions on major foreign policy issues constitutionally require the support of the Supreme Leader...I am privileged to have a long experience of working closely with the Supreme Leader. I expect to receive the same support and trust from the Supreme Leader on initiatives and measures I adopt to advance our foreign policy agenda24." Iran's political system is also characterised by a multiplicity of views but the domination by hard-line conservatives has always kept Tehran's policies ideologically driven. Iran's policies towards Syria, for instance, have remained unchanged and according to analysts, must be viewed through a religious and geopolitical spectrum, rather than a human rights one25. Iran has always projected itself as a guardian of Islamic, particularly Shiite values and therefore, other Shiite aligned regimes are critical elements of Tehran's foreign policy objectives26. In the light of these factors, Iran's approach to regional security is largely characterised by geopolitical and ideological elements. The dominance of Sunni regimes is perceived as a 'shift in regional and international balance of power against Iran and in favour of the Arab Gulf States'27. (Kanchi Gupta is a Junior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi) 1.    https://www.fpri.org/articles/2012/10/syrian-crisis-and-saudi-iranian-rivalry 2.    http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/politics/2013/04/iran-iraq-relations-possible-alliance.html 3.    http://www.iss.europa.eu/de/publikationen/detail/article/iran-and-egypt-a-complicated-tango/ 4.    http://www.aljazeera.com/video/middleeast/2013/08/2013843428202796.html 5.    http://www.arabnews.com/news/460094 6.    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/04/hassan-rouhani-sworn-in-president-iran 7.    http://www.presstv.com/detail/2013/06/17/309475/rohani-vows-constructive-interaction/ 8.    http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2013/07/08/rouhanis-warm-words-wont-bring-thaw-in-saudi-ties/ 9.    http://www.aawsat.net/2013/06/article55305491 10.    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iran/10221696/Hassan-Rouhani-makes-bid-for-new-understanding-between-Iran-and-the-West.html 11.    Ibid 12.    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/irans-new-president-hassan-rouhani-vows-to-support-syrian-regime-as-president-assad-vows-to-crush-rebels-with-iron-fist-8745857.html 13.    ibid 14.    http://www.aawsat.net/2013/06/article55305491 15.    http://voiceofrussia.com/news/2013_06_17/Saudi-King-congratulates-Rowhani-on-winning-Irans-presidential-election-8308/ 16.    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/26/world/middleeast/iran-is-said-to-want-direct-talks-with-us-on-nuclear-program.html?ref=world&_r=0 17.    http://www.payvand.com/news/13/jul/1213.html 18.    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/26/world/middleeast/iran-is-said-to-want-direct-talks-with-us-on-nuclear-program.html?ref=world&_r=0 19.    http://www.commentarymagazine.com/2013/07/26/has-irans-maliki-ploy-hooked-obama-nuclear/ 20.    http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/63972/Egypt/Politics-/Ahmadinejad-to-make-first-Egypt-visit-by-Iran-head.aspx 21.    http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContentP/1/76193/Egypt/Iran-reaction-to-Morsis-removal-unacceptable-inter.aspx 22.    http://www.worldbulletin.net/?aType=haber&ArticleID=114560 23.    http://www.lowyinterpreter.org/post/2013/08/06/Rouhani-needs-willing-foreign-partners.aspx 24.    http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/3776/hassan-rouhani-quotes 25.    http://edition.cnn.com/2013/06/16/opinion/iran-rouhani-syria-rafizadeh 26.    Ibid 27.    Ibid "
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