Post-Nuclear: The future for Iran in its neighbourhood

The prospect of a less isolated Iran may not be welcomed by some of its hardline neighbours

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The outcome of talks on Iran’s nuclear programme and the continuing conflict in Syria remain major stumbling blocks to improving Tehran’s relationship with its regional neighbours, according to a new series of Gulf Analysis essays published by the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The centrepiece of the Rouhani presidency has been attempts to reach a deal with the E3+3 countries (Germany, France, UK, Russia, US and China) on Iran’s nuclear programme. A resolution of the nuclear standoff and the dismantling of sanctions would be a victory for President Rouhani. However the prospect of a less isolated Iran may not be welcomed by hardliners in Riyadh or Jerusalem and reshaping Iran’s relationship with these and other neighbours will be a key challenge for Tehran. 

The E3+3 and Iran have managed to insulate nuclear negotiations from the conflict in Syria and Iraq. But the emergence of a common threat from ISIS, the West’s desire for regional cooperation and bridge building with Iran has elicited mixed reactions in the Gulf. Authors contributing to the latest issue of Gulf Analysis assess Iran’s relationships with Saudi Arabia, Israel, the smaller Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, Turkey and Hezbollah:

  • Kirk Sowell writes that Riyadh’s initial cautious optimism about the new President Rouhani disappeared amid Saudi fears of a US rapprochement with Iran. The extension of the E3+3 nuclear negotiations has kept Riyadh-Tehran rivalries alive while the GCC has failed to present a united front against a purported Iran threat.
  • Shlomo Brom says Israel believes the extension of the deadline to mid-2015 is Tehran playing for time to build a nuclear weapon and that Rouhani is not in charge of Iranian security policy. The dominant Israeli government view opposes a nuclear deal and is actively working with a Republican US Congress to prevent further progress.
  • Andrew Hammond notes that the smaller GCC states have a less antagonistic relationship with Iran but look to the US for approval before pursuing closer ties. He points to the UAE’s conciliatory approach to Tehran and improving economic links, Qatar’s strategic ties through shared ownership of gas assets, Oman’s shared sovereignty over the Straits of Hormuz and Kuwait’s recent trade agreement with Iran.
  • Ziya Meral writes that Turkey’s growing economic and security cooperation with Iran has not resulted in aligned political priorities in the wider Middle East. Syria’s Assad regime is opposed by Ankara but supported by Tehran. However Turkey’s border security concerns over ISIS could be central to its future relationship with Iran.
  • Aurelie Daher believes a shared commitment to the survival of the Assad regime and the fight against ISIS means Hezbollah’s political and paramilitary relationship with Iran is unlikely to change significantly in the coming years. The group’s critical link is to Iran’s Supreme Leadership. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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