Thaw in Iran-Gulf Relations

On October 20, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced that it released $700 million in frozen funds to Iran—a sign of thawing relations between the two Gulf countries. On October 14, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said there have been “some contacts between Iran and the United Arab Emirates in recent months…and the Tehran-Emirates relations has been better in recent months than ever before.” The statement followed a secret meeting between Iranian officials and Tahnoun bin Zayed, the Emirati national security adviser, who traveled to Tehran for high-level discussions on October 11.  

Iran has also attempted to improve its relationship with Saudi Arabia. In mid-October, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan traveled to Iran and Saudi Arabia to discuss ways to reduce regional tensions. After the meetings, the rival countries indicated a willingness to meet for talks, which would be hosted and mediated by Pakistan. "Our two countries emphasized that regional issues could only be resolved through political means and dialogue," said Rouhani. “We openly welcome any goodwill gesture by Pakistan for providing more peace and stability for the whole region, and we are ready to assist Pakistan for providing full peace and stability for the whole region." 

Persian Gulf Map

Iran opened the door to diplomacy with Saudi Arabia and the UAE after several incidents that raised the possibility of armed conflict. Tensions between Iran its Gulf neighbors escalated after an attack on four tankerstwo Saudi-flagged, an Emirati-flagged and an Norwegian-flagged – on May 12 in the Strait of Hormuz. The United States and Saudi Arabia blamed Iran for the attacks.  

Tensions again increased following a drone attack on two major oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. On September 14, the Abqaiq and Khurais facilities—both run by the state-owned company Saudi Aramco—were  struck  by projectiles in a pre-dawn attack. Riyadh blamed Tehran for the attack and vowed to respond to the “terrorist aggression.” Iran denied any responsibility for the attacks on Saudi oil facilities. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif  warned  that Tehran would respond to a U.S. or Saudi retaliatory military strike with “all-out war.” 

On October 11, Iranian state media reported that the Sabiti, a tanker owned by the National Iranian Tanker Company, was struck by two missiles in the Red Sea. President Hassan Rouhani claimed a foreign government was responsible for the strike, which occurred 60 miles away from the Saudi port of Jeddah. “If a country thinks that it can create instability in the region without getting a response, that would be a sheer mistake,” Rouhani said. 

 

Historically, Iran has had closer ties with Dubai than Abu Dhabi. More than 400,000 Iranian expatriates reportedly live in Dubai, which has been an important trade partner for Tehran. For years, it was Iran’s most important trade partner in the region. In 2012, bilateral trade between Iran and the UAE totaled $15 billion, of that $6.8 billion was Iran-Dubai trade. In 2018total trade between Iran and the UAE equaled $19 billion.  

Shortly after taking office in 2013, Foreign Minister Zarif told The New Yorker that Iran’s top foreign policy priority, after resolving the conflict over its nuclear deal, was to improve relations with its Gulf neighbors. In December 2013, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif went on a tour of Gulf Arab states, including Kuwait, Oman and Qatar – but not Saudi Arabia. But he emphasized that Tehran was keen on improving relations with Riyadh. Since 2013, several issues have proven to be obstacles to rapprochement, including a deadly stampede during the 2015 hajj pilgrimage, sectarian issues, and the war in Yemen.  

The following is a timeline of tensions and outreach between Iran and its Gulf neighbors since May 2019.  

 

 

Timeline 

May 12 - Four ships off the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were reportedly sabotaged, including two Saudi Arabian oil tankers. One was due to take a delivery of Saudi oil to the United States. U.S. officials said that an intelligence assessment, including photographs and forensics, found it was “highly likely” that Iran or one of its proxies were responsible for the tanker attack. 

June 12 - A missile fired by an Iranian-backed militia in Yemen hit the arrivals hall of Abha airport in southwest Saudi Arabia. The kingdom reported 26 people were injured. Saudi Arabia blamed Iran for the attack. "The Iranian regime is the only party in the region that has been pursuing reckless escalation, through the use of ballistic missiles and UAVs to directly target civilian installations and innocent civilians,” Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman said. “The continuation of the Iranian regime’s aggression and reckless escalation, whether directly or through its militias, will result in grave consequences." 

July 30 – Iranian and UAE officials met in Tehran to discuss maritime security for the first time in six years. The meeting signaled a de-escalation in Gulf tensions that ignited when four oil tankers were sabotaged off the coast of the UAE on May 12. 

Sept. 14 - The Abqaiq and Khurais facilities in Saudi Arabia—both run by the state-owned company Saudi Aramco—were struck by “projectiles” in a pre-dawn attack. Riyadh blamed Tehran for the attack and vowed to respond to the “terrorist aggression.” Iran denied any responsibility for the attacks on Saudi oil facilities. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned that Tehran would respond to a U.S. or Saudi retaliatory military strike with “all-out war.” 

Sept. 18 – Saudi Arabia announced that it would join the U.S.-led maritime security coalition, Operation Sentinel, in the Persian Gulf. “The kingdom’s accession to this international alliance comes in support of regional and international efforts to deter and counter threats to maritime navigation and global trade,” said state-run Saudi Press Agency. The announcement came as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the region to build a coalition for “peaceful resolution.” 

Sept. 19 – The United Arab Emirates announced it would follow Saudi Arabia and join the international maritime mission to protect commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf. 

Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif warned that Tehran could respond to a U.S. or Saudi military strike with “all-out war.” He questioned Saudi resolve and told CNN that the kingdom was prepared to fight "to the last American soldier." Zarif said Tehran hoped to avoid conflict but added, “We won't blink to defend our territory.” 

Sept. 25 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called for unity in the Gulf during his speech to the U.N. General Assembly. He introduced a “Coalition for Hope” or “Hormuz Peace Endeavor” to “promote peace, stability, progress and welfare for all the residents of the Strait of Hormuz region and enhance mutual understanding and peaceful and friendly relations amongst them.” He listed potential areas for cooperation “such as the collective supply of energy security, freedom of navigation and free transfer of oil and other resources to and from the Strait of Hormuz and beyond.” 

Oct. 1 Abbas al Hasnawi, an official in the Iraqi prime minister's office, said Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi was mediating between Riyadh and Tehran. Hasnawi told the Middle East Monitor that Iraq had channels with both sides and hoped to arrange a meeting in Baghdad. "The Saudis have conditions before the negotiations process starts and the same with Iranians. We have liaised these conditions to each side. It is not an easy task to get together two opposite sides in terms of their ideology, sect and their alliances in the region," he said. 

Oct. 11 – Iranian state media reported that the Sabiti, a tanker owned by the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC), was struck by missiles in the Red Sea. Saheb Sadeghi, the NITC head of public relations, said the missiles were “possibly” fired from Saudi territory. But the National Iranian Oil Company later dismissed that possibility. The Sabiti was reportedly 60 miles from the Saudi port of Jeddah when it was hit.   

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi described the attack as “dangerous adventurism” and warned that the culprits “are responsible for the consequences.”  No country or organization immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, and Iran provided no evidence of a missile strike. The price of Brent crude rose by two percent in response to the news.   

Oct. 11-13 - Tahnoun bin Zayed, the national security adviser of the United Arab Emirates and the crown prince’s younger brother, traveled to Tehran to meet with Iranian officials. Zayed was reportedly dispatched to Iran for secret high-level discussions to ease tensions in the Gulf. 

Oct. 13 - Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan met with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Rouhani on October 13. After the meeting, Tehran indicated a desire to engage with Riyadh. "Our two countries emphasized that regional issues could only be resolved through political means and dialogue," said Rouhani. "We openly welcome any goodwill gesture by Pakistan for providing more peace and stability for the whole region, and we are ready to assist Pakistan for providing full peace and stability for the whole region." 

Oct. 15 Prime Minister Khan met with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. "During the meeting, [Khan and Prince Salman] reviewed strong ties between the two brotherly countries and fields of joint cooperation as well as ways of enhancing them. They also discussed the latest developments in the region and a number of issues of common interest,” said an official government statement.  

Oct. 14 - Iran’s oil ministry released images of the tanker Sabiti, which clearly showed two holes in its hull just above the waterline. President Hassan Rouhani claimed a foreign government was responsible for the October 11 attack, which occurred in the Red Sea some 60 miles away from the Saudi Arabian port of Jeddah. “If a country thinks that it can create instability in the region without getting a response, that would be a sheer mistake,” Rouhani said. 

Oct. 20The United Arab Emirates released $700 million in frozen funds to Iran—a sign of improving relations between the two countries. “The Emiratis have… understood that Western countries and Saudi Arabia cannot provide the [UAE] with security in the current circumstances,” said Akbar Torki, a member of Iranian parliament. “Financial relations with Iran have improved and some Iranian exchange offices in Dubai have resumed activity.” 

Oct. 21 - Foreign Minister Zarif said he would welcome a meeting with Saudi officials in Riyadh. “If suitable conditions are provided, I would be ready to travel to Riyadh to settle differences,” Zarif told ISNA.Tehran welcomes any initiative that aims to ease tensions in the region and will cooperate [with other parties] to end Yemen’s war." 

Oct. 24 - Saudi Minister of State Adel al Jubeir said a maximum pressure campaign was the only way to make Iran negotiate. “We think that appeasement doesn’t work. Actions count, not words. Members of the Iranian government talk, but have no power. Those who have, like the Revolutionary Guards, don’t want to negotiate,” he said. Jubeir was in Paris for talks with French officials on Yemen and regional tensions. French President Emmanuel Macron was leading an initiative to get the United States to directly engage with Iran.

Oct. 30 - The United States and six Gulf countries—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, and Kuwait—imposed sanctions on a financing network controlled by Iran’s military and linked to Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia and political movement. The Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC), a multinational body focused on combating illicit finance schemes, designated 25 corporations, banks and individuals with ties to Tehran’s proxy groups in the region.

Oct. 31 - Saudi Arabia freed 19 Iranian fishermen held since December and January. The crews of two fishing boats were captured when “bad weather forced the boats into Saudi Arabia’s territorial waters,” according to Tasnim News Agency. The men were released following talks between the two countries.

Nov. 10 - The United Arab Emirates called for Iran to come to the negotiating table with Gulf countries and world powers. “I believe there could be a path to a deal with Iran that all parties might soon be ready to embark on. It will be long, and patience and courage will be required,” said UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash. He added that the talks should deal with Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs and support of regional proxies.

Nov. 13 - Iran stressed its commitment to negotiations as the “only solution” to regional issues. “Iran has always stressed on the significance of political dialogue as the only way out of regional problems and will do all within its power to make that possible,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi.

Nov. 14 – Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that he had written letters to the heads of all Gulf states to invite them to “set aside” animosity and division. “Israel is no friend of anybody, neither is the United States. But we are friends of the people of Saudi Arabia. We are friends of Kuwaiti people. We are friends of the people of the United Arab Emirates. We are friends of Bahraini people. We are friends of people in the regional countries,” Rouhani said in a speech.

 Nov. 20 - Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud blamed Iran for “chaos and destruction” in the region and said that Riyadh will continue to defend itself against Tehran’s aggression. “Though the kingdom has been subjected to attacks by 286 ballistic missiles and 289 drones, in a way that has not been seen in any other country, that has not affected the kingdom’s development process or the lives of its citizens and residents,” he told the kingdom’s Shura Council in an annual address. Saudi Arabia held Iran responsible for attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who Tehran has supported.

Nov. 25 – Reuters reported that Iranian officials had held a secret meeting to decide which action to take against the United States and its allies months before launching  a drone strike on Saudi oil facilities in September. Other targets initially discussed included an airport and seaport in Saudi Arabia as well as U.S. military bases in the region. The strike was reportedly approved by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who attended the meeting in Tehran.

Dec. 2 - Omani Foreign Minster Yusuf bin Alawi met with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammed Javad Zarif, in Tehran to discuss bilateral relations and regional issues.  “The Islamic Republic of Iran would welcome and support any move and initiative that comes with goodwill for the reduction of tensions in the region,” Zarif said after the meeting. He reportedly called on Oman to join Iran’s Hormuz Peace Endeavour, a regional peace plan that President Rouhani introduced at the U.N. General Assembly in September 2019. “In this regard, holding an inclusive and comprehensive conference with the presence of all countries with a stake (in the region) could be helpful,” Bin Alawi said.

2020

Jan. 4 - Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani met with Mohammad Javad Zarif, his Iranian counterpart, in Tehran to discuss regional developments a day after the killing of Iranian Qods Force General Qassem Soleimani. They discussed “the events in Iraq as well as ways of calm to maintain collective security of the region," according to state-run Qatar News Agency. 

Jan. 11 - Oman’s new ruler, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, affirmed that Muscat’s regional foreign policy would not change. “We will follow the same line as the late sultan, and the principles that he asserted for the foreign policy of our country, of peaceful coexistence among nations and people, and good neighborly behavior of non-interference in the affairs of others,” he said.

Jan. 12 - Qatar’s ruler, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, visited Iran and met with President Hassan Rouhani to discuss regional de-escalation. “This visit comes at a critical time in the region, and we agreed with the brothers and with His Excellency the president that the only solution to these crises is de-escalation from everyone and dialogue,” Sheikh Tamim said after the meeting.

President Rouhani stressed the importance of regional stability during the visit. “Considering the importance of regional security - especially in the waterways in the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz and the Sea of Oman - we decided to have more talks and cooperation for the security of the whole region,” he said.

Jan. 13 – President Rouhani offered support to Oman’s new ruler and said that relations with Muscat were based on mutual trust. “I hope that the bilateral relations during the era of your leadership would further grow in all fields with wisdom and discernment,” Rouhani said.

Jan. 17 - Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif met with his Omani counterpart, Yusuf bin Alawi, in Muscat to discuss regional issues.

Jan. 21 – Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi made an unannounced visit to Tehran to meet with Foreign Minister Zarif. The two discussed “bilateral cooperation and the most important issues of common interests,” according to Fars News Agency.

Jan. 22 – Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said that Riyadh was open to talks with Tehran but noted that “it is really up to Iran.” He added that Tehran would have to accept that it “cannot further its regional agenda through violence.”

Jan. 23 – Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif said that Tehran was ready for discussions with Saudi Arabia on regional issues. “Iran is still interested in negotiation with its neighbors. We declare our readiness to participate in any concerted effort to serve the interests of the region,” he tweeted.

Jan. 28 – Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said he backed the U.S. decision to kill Iranian Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani. Faisal said that the United States acted in “their own legitimate self-defense” and agreed with U.S. officials that the world was a safer place without Soleimani.

Iran condemned Faisal’s comments. “Since Saudi Arabia sees itself as the godfather of Daesh (ISIS) and the terrorist groups, it imagines that the martyrdom of commanders of the axis of resistance at the hands of the terrorist president of the U.S. has provided security for the terrorist groups and the terrorist-nurturing governments,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi.

Feb. 3 – Iran reiterated its commitment to talks with Saudi Arabia. “Apart from poor wisdom and sometimes lack of understanding on the part of some [Saudi] officials … we continue to insist on the stance we have adopted and believe is a principled one,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi. “We believe the only way for the region to get out of the crisis, of the tension, is cooperation among the states of the region, and the only disruptive factor is the foreigners’ interference.”

Feb. 4 - Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, Iraj Masjedi,  said that Tehran hoped to quickly resolve issues with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Qassem Soleimani, the Qods Force commander who was killed in a U.S. drone strike on January 3, was in Baghdad to deliver a message on “fighting terrorism and achieving peace and security in the region,” according to Masjedi.

 

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