De-escalating Tension in the Gulf: Why Efforts to Facilitate Arab-Iranian Dialogue should be Intensified

by Tamer Badawi (Policy Leader Fellow, STG) and Luigi Narbone (Director of MEDirections)

Escalatory dynamics in the Gulf have reached levels not seen since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Since the commencement of President Donald Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign, they seem to be going beyond the harsh rhetoric of the last few years. Recent events include the US designation of IRGC as a terrorist organisation, the partial withdrawal of Iran from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the sabotage of oil-tankers in UAE territorial waters and a drone attack by Ansarullah forces on the Saudi east-west oil pipeline. All the parties involved have been hardening their tones and signalling a resolve to back their positions with military action if need be. As a result, the climate in the region is deteriorating rapidly and the risks of war are increasing. 

The US anti-Iran policies are partly influenced by the Arab Gulf countries’ views on Iran, and particularly by how Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates perceive the threat from Tehran. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran have been entangled in harsh regional rivalry for several years now, through both proxy and direct confrontations in Yemen, Iraq and Syria and also in a growing struggle for influence in other Arab countries. 

There are structural, historical, political and psychological reasons behind the perceptions of threats on the two sides of the Gulf. Iran’s regional policies, probably guided by opportunism, cost-benefit calculations and attempts to break its isolation in an environment it considers hostile, have created security dilemmas in the Gulf Arab countries. Iran’s regional projection has triggered growing Saudi and UAE assertiveness in countering its perceived threat. As a result, regional polarisation, zero-sum thinking and sectarianism have grown. Most channels of communication between the two sides of the Gulf have been either minimised or closed. 

Formal and informal diplomatic initiatives at the government level are needed to diffuse the crisis between Iran and the United States, on the one hand, and Iran and its Arab neighbours, primarily Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, on the other. The EU and other European countries should increase their involvement and activism in this direction, as avoiding a further deterioration of the region’s security situation is definitely a matter of high priority for Europe. 

At the same time, more dialogue across the board and dialogue involving various parties from the region would also be helpful. A variety of non-governmental actors from the region and the West should consider intensifying their activities with this aim.

Promoting dialogue in the Gulf

Even in recent years, while Tehran, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have been increasing their sabre-rattling, engagement in non-political areas has taken place. Issues related to Iranians’ participation in the Hajj after a halt in 2016 because of the deadly crushin Mecca and the ensuing political tensions, for instance, were discussed between the authorities in Riyadh and Tehran and solved in 2017and 2018. More recently, the floods that hit Iran in the spring of this year prompted the Saudi, Emiratiand QatariRed Crescent organisations to provide relief. Even meetings between authorities from the two sides continue to take place, although sporadically. A recent meeting between Iranian and Arab parliamentary officials was held in Baghdad on 21 April 21 during an event gathering the heads of parliaments of Iraq’s neighbours. It included the chairmen of the Saudi, Kuwaiti and Jordanian general assemblies. While from the Iranian side, the former chairman of the chamber’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee attended on behalf of Iran’s Parliament speaker.  

What is often referred to as track II diplomacy between Iranian, Iraqi and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) country scholars and policy analysts could play a role in building a better atmosphere in the region. A recentopinion pieceby Iranian and Saudi foreign policy veterans Hussein Mousavian and Abdulaziz Sagir called for initiatives in this direction. 

There are precedents for non-governmental dialogue events between Iranian and Arab/GCC experts. Thematically, they have covered both hard security threats, such as weapon proliferation and combating terrorism, and soft security issues, such as environmental security and even cooperation between think tanks. Following the Arab uprisings and the conclusion of the JCPOA, one-off and long-term dialogue initiatives were organised by think tanks, mostly in Europe. These included, for instance, the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (known by its acronym CARPO), the East-West Institute, the Gulf Research Center, the Egmont Institute, and the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. In the Middle East, Iraqi mega-conferences, such as the Sulimanyah Forum, the RCD Forum and the MERI Forum, have served as platforms for occasional encounters between Iranian and Arab scholars and officials. 

Indeed, in spite of the current negative climate and the fact that everything can easily become over-politicised in the region, non-governmental exchanges on areas of ‘low politics/soft security threats’ should still be possible. If tolerated by national leaderships, they could play a role as path openers and incremental confidence-building initiatives. For instance, dialogues between Iranian and Arab scholars, analysts and journalists holding some influence over policy-makers and public opinion could help reduce the mutual mistrust arising from lack of communication and limited understanding of each other’s threat perceptions. The objective for participants should be to build consensus on basic political concepts such as, for instance, the principle of non-interference. 

An alternative way forward?

In times of growing tensions and escalatory dynamics, calling for a multiplication of dialogue initiatives might seem politically naïve and unlikely to bear much fruit. The way in which some high-level initiatives – such as the idea floated many times of a Helsinki process for the Middle East – have quietly died out in the face of growing tensions and a lack of political openings for dialogue is quite revealing of the difficulties in promoting dialogue when politics and fear push in the opposite direction. 

However, stepping up non-governmental dialogue/track II efforts should be seen by the participants and promoted by the conveners as a matter of long-term self-interest for all the parties. Looking ahead, a plethora of crucial topics of mutual interest could be discussed by Iranian and Arab/GCC experts. Unconventional security issues such as migration, Gulf Sea pollution or the climate change impact in the Gulf are transnational in nature and could lend themselves to dialogue initiatives. For example, to be effective, climate-adaptive schemes and disaster preparedness need to be developed collectively by the countries of the region, as the floods that hit Iran in spring 2019 have proven. Climate change-induced drought, coastal development, pollution-induced desalination and population growth on both sides of the Gulf, to mention just a few, have a strong impact on the region’s maritime environmental security and on the prospects for economic diversification in both Iran and the GCC countries. Iran and its Arab/GCC neighbours could find inspiration in the Black Sea NGO Forum, which includes civil society actors from EU countries and Russia, despite ongoing geopolitical tensions between the three sides.

Universities concerned with long-term scholarship could be suitable venues for Iranian-Arab dialogue efforts. European academic institutions, in particular, enjoy reputational neutrality and could therefore offer acceptable platforms for such engagement. They have the advantage of not being tied by short-term political or research agendas and could quite easily form partnerships with dialogue-oriented institutes in Europe and the Middle East. Western donor institutions could assist in the process by setting up endowments dedicated to Iranian-Arab dialogue. These would sustain initiatives and lengthen the lives of projects, thus increasing the possibility of achieving positive results.

By connecting efforts and finding ways to share ideas while maintaining the necessary confidentiality on initiatives, organisers of track II and peace-building projects can increase the impact of their actions and gradually expand the networks of participants from Iran and the Arab countries. Multiplying low key non-governmental dialogue initiatives would send positive signals of de-escalatory intentions from all sides and could in time be used as ‘back-channels,’ thus filling the void resulting from the lack of more formal diplomatic efforts. While platforms for such exchanges do exist, their multiplication may contribute to building constituencies that believe in the genuine value of dialogue on both sides. This, in turn, could prove useful in supporting de-escalation efforts.