In the Gulf Arab States, the Iranian nuclear deal has been met with celebration and apprehension. The business community in the Gulf is no doubt glad that the Iranian market, long shuttered under heavy sanctions, will finally be open for business. Yet political tensions caused by the Iranian government in the region continue to be a concern.
Iran, as one of the three countries in the Middle East with a population of more than 80 million, holds huge economic potential. Since the election of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran in 2013, some Gulf merchants have opened lines of credit and commerce. One Dubai-based retailer has been active in Iran for a couple of years—although it has done so without displaying its brand name on the store-front. It’s likely the Iran nuclear deal will open the door for more Gulf businesses to go to Iran.
Any political benefits are less clear. In the hours following the deal, Rouhani tweeted a number of conciliatory messages to Iran’s neighbors in the Gulf. “Iran and its power will translate into your power,” he said, adding that the “Region’s security is our security. Region’s stability is our stability.” One may be forgiven for wondering which power Rouhani had in mind. After all, Iran’s soft and hard power have been at conflict both in clandestine and in the open in the region. There are numerous proxy wars raging from Syria to Yemen and Lebanon to Iraq that are supported by Iran on one side and the Gulf States on the other.
Members of the Iranian-supported-and-trained Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq, who no doubt take risks fighting ISIS, have been accused of sectarian abuses and possible war crimes by Human Rights Watch. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah, requested last year that the Iranian government crack down on anti-Sunni media broadcasting from Iran that is stoking sectarianism. (The Gulf States have also turned a blind eye against anti-Shia sectarianism.)
There is also a degree of schizophrenia in the Iranian corridors of power. The real power in the country seems to rest in the hands of the 76-year-old Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is associated with the radical right of the Iranian establishment. Khamenei’s sentiments towards the Gulf States can be measured by the rhetoric of Ahmad Jannati, the Imam of the Friday Mosque of Tehran, who was appointed by Khameni. For example, following the death of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in January, Jannati said, “We should express condolences to the Israelis and Americans and congratulation to Muslims.” Iranian intellectuals, including Sadegh Zibakalam, criticized these comments, noting that Rouhani had sent official condolences to Saudi Arabia.
Most people in the Gulf would likely be happy to see sanctions against the Iranian people lifted. The Iranians are our neighbors, and we have a long, common history. Our food, architecture, culture, religion and traditions are strong bonds that can’t be denied and should be celebrated. Gulf Arab cities such as Dubai and Doha continuously host exhibitions of Iranian artists, and Iranian movies and concerts by Iranian musicians play in our theaters—cultural exchanges that have not been reciprocated by the Iranian government.
Iran’s relations with its Gulf neighbors have been characterized by a degree of superiority from Iran. The Iranian elite, from the days of the shah, who fancied himself the “policeman of the Gulf,” to the present day, have never completely accepted that the Gulf States are independent nations.
The UAE’s relationship with Iran is a case in point. On the night of Nov. 30 1971, under the cover of darkness, Iranian troops stormed and occupied three Gulf islands belonging to two emirates of the UAE. For decades, the UAE has called on Iran to resolve the matter through direct negotiations or through the International Court of Justice. Not only have these been calls ignored, but the Iranian government also continues its provocations though visits by its leaders and infrastructure projects on the islands.
Despite this conflict and other reservations, the UAE became the first country in the region to congratulate Iran on reaching the nuclear deal with the six world powers. And yet there seemed to be no acknowledgment from the Iranian side of the UAE’s numerous outreach efforts.
So, yes: The Gulf States should be happy for the Iranian people—just not necessarily for their government.
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a writer based in the UAE.