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Can Iran's Charm Offensive Remake The Middle East?

Sunset over Tehran
Sunset over Tehran
Tomas Avenarius

TEHRAN — The charm and media savvy of Iran Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have made him Tehran’s new wonder weapon. And over the last few days, he has put his arsenal to use in visits to four of the six Gulf States on a trust-building tour designed to cement links between the countries.

“There are no limits to our friendly and brotherly cooperation with the Gulf States,” Zarif proclaims.

Coming immediately after the provisional nuclear agreement with the West, Zarif’s charm offensive is targeted at the countries that could be the biggest losers if the 30-year enmity between Iran and the U.S. continues to thaw. The Arab monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) welcomed the nuclear agreement and Iran’s “new approach,” but warned that it must lead to “concrete steps towards peace, security and stability in the region.”

At the same time they stepped up their own military activity, while Washington promised the Arab countries closer military cooperation and new weapons.

It is clear that the charismatic Zarif has not won over every country in the region. Saudi Arabia, the dominant power in the Gulf that may well hold the key to Iran’s successful reintegration, fears that a rehabilitated Iran could threaten its position as a major oil and gas producer for the global market.

The nervous Saudis are also fighting to resist Iran’s growing influence in the Arab world. In Lebanon, for example, Tehran exercises influence through Hezbollah, while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is only able to cling to power because of Iranian support.

The religious differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran only serve to complicate the matter further. Iran is the leading Shiite power, and the Saudis see themselves as the dominant Sunni force.

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Iran Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif — Photo: Max Talbot-Minkin

Still, Zarif’s words show that he understands the importance of the relationship between the two countries. “We believe that Iran and Saudi Arabia should work together towards peace and security in the region,” he says.

Other Gulf States are reacting more positively to Iran’s efforts to build relationships in the region. Oman and Qatar have made it clear that they do not share all of Saudi Arabia’s security concerns. Oman traditionally has close ties with Iran, and does not want to rule out the possibility of extending the GCC into a kind of Arab Union. Qatar shares its largest natural gas reservoir with the Persians, and there has been successful cooperation between the two powers for many years. Tehran has reportedly offered to resolve an ongoing conflict with the United Arab Emirates by handing over disputed islands in the Persian Gulf.

The fact is that harsh sanctions on the oil industry and ongoing power struggles within the regime have brought Iran to the end of its economic capabilities. Now it is prepared to pay a price to end its isolation. At the same time, Tehran is trying to exploit divisions between the Gulf States as it jostles for influence.

American influence

The Gulf States cannot necessarily rely on the same level of help from their American friends as they could in the past. The U.S. is now focusing on the Far East and may even become an oil exporter itself if new techniques to exploit natural resources prove successful, which could mean the Middle East loses some of its geopolitical importance. It may be in Washington’s interest to establish a new peacekeeper in the region.

Still, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recently made it clear that the U.S. is not retreating from the region, revealing that the United States uses a military base in al-Udeid, Qatar to keep a close eye on Middle Eastern hot spots, including Iran, Afghanistan and Syria.

Hagel also assured the Gulf States that Washington wants to work together with them on anti-ballistic missile defense systems — a warning sign for Tehran. Washington reportedly wants to install a high-performance radar in Qatar, whereas in the past it has only had such equipment in Turkey and Israel.

“The U.S. military is building new strategic agility in the Middle East,” says Hagel. “I will assure our partners that we’re not going anywhere.”

These promises alone will not be enough to convince the leaders of the Gulf States, as they are aware that Iran believes its desire to play a central role in the region is historically justified.

“There is no doubt that Iran is the dominant power in the Persian Gulf,” says Hamid Reza Traghi, a political scientist who is close to the Iranian hardliners. “That is a given due to its geographical situation.”

Traghi notes that power is not only measured in military and economic terms. “Iran is also the leading cultural power. What other country in the region can point to a 5,000-year history?”

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