July 28, 2015 | Forbes

Iran Embarks On Middle East Charm Offensive – Will It Work?

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif have each said that their number one priority in the wake of this month’s Iran deal is to engage with their Gulf neighbors. Zarif took his first big step toward this end on Sunday and Monday, traveling to Kuwait and Qatar, followed by the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Baghdad.

Yet don’t believe the hype. Iran and its neighbors are not about to become fast friends, and the trip seems to have been largely short on deliverables. Even commercial relations are not poised yet for much tangible expansion until sanctions on Iran are formally lifted.

Tehran continues to forcibly interfere in the internal affairs of Iraq, and all five of the Sunni-ruled monarchies across the pond view the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that Iran signed in Vienna as a serious threat to their national security. When Zarif visited three Arab capitals this week, his counterparts all had reason to fear that Iran will redouble its destabilizing regional activities after starting to receive over $100 billion in frozen assets.

Zarif’s first stop on Sunday was Kuwait City. Yet Iranian-backed terror has been in the news lately in the Sunni-majority country: a Shi’ite MP elicited a widespread backlashthis month for visiting the father of the infamous Iranian-backed terrorist Imad Mughniyeh in Lebanon, who was implicated in a series of bombings and hijackings in the 1980s targeting Kuwait. Several years ago, Kuwaiti authorities also announced the disruption of an Iranian spy ring planning local terror attacks. A Kuwaiti security expert who advises the GCC warned in May that the Lausanne Framework on which the JCPOA is based would result in “more intervention” by Iran rather than less.

The main force holding relations together is Kuwait’s admitted hunger for Iranian natural gas. Yet exports are still unlikely to flow for the foreseeable future, given that Iran already has considerable domestic demand for the gas and other countries already in line for exports. There was no measurable progress made on this front for the Kuwaitis this weekend.

Zarif’s next stop was the Qatari capital of Doha, where he delivered to the Emir a letter from President Rouhani. Qatar’s main source of income is natural gas, and it shares its biggest field – in fact, the world’s biggest field – with Tehran. Iranian navy ships reportedly make frequent appearances off the coast of Qatar as a warning to the Qataris, so Doha understandably tends to pass the buck when it comes to expressing concern about Iranian policies in public.

Qatar’s foreign minister recently rejected Christiane Amanpour’s (accurate) assertion that America’s Gulf allies are “angry” over the JCPOA and reaped a speedy promise of rewards from Tehran in return. Iran’s President Rouhani called Qatar’s Emir several days later on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr and announced on Twitter that he was looking forward to closer relations with Iran’s neighbors, “esp[ecially] Qatar”.

Yet due to leaked U.S. cables, we now know that while Qatar was voting against sanctions at the U.N. and insisting that it wouldn’t let America use a Qatari air base for strikes on Iran, in private Qatar was calling for more sanctions and offering its base up for exactly that purpose.

To get a sense of a more genuine Qatari reaction, one can simply look at the editorials of the top three newspapers in Qatar, all of which noted the importance of Tehran changing its regional behavior. Al Jazeera Arabic, long considered a reflection of Qatar’s foreign policy, has run a series of political cartoons since the JCPOA that are uniformly against a deal. They suggest that the deal is built on the corpses of Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, and that the United States has unfairly rejected Arab nuclear aspirations while handing regional hegemony to an Iranian aggressor.

Zarif’s last stop was Iraq, but his decision to head to the holy city of Najaf starting on Sunday night before Baghdad confirms a longstanding reality of Iranian policy: that it views Iraq’s center of gravity outside of the state. Indeed, the State Department’s most recent Country Reports on Terrorism observed that “this year, Iran increased its assistance to Iraqi Shia militias, one of which is a [U.S.-]designated Foreign Terrorist Organization.” (Also, his decision not to spend a single overnight in a Sunni-ruled country could not have been seen positively by the Sunni monarchs of the Gulf).

The Abadi government in Baghdad has been struggling and largely failing to exert a monopoly of force over these militias, which have committed egregious human rights abuses against Sunni Iraqi civilians and have taken a leading role in the fight over western Iraq. Iran-Iraq trade has grown significantly in recent years, reaching as high as $12 billion, but Iraq no doubt views Iran’s preparations to further flood world markets with crude oil as a threat to its own bottom line.

The closest thing to a tangible delivery on Zarif’s charm offensive seems to have been the announcement on Monday that an Iranian power company has started exporting technical and engineering services to Iraq for a $2.5 billion electricity plant project. Yet this contract is old news, having been signed well over a year ago.

Finally, Zarif’s charm offensive is noteworthy for the countries it did not include. Oman is Iran’s only real partner in the GCC, as the one monarchy in the region not ruled by a Sunni leader. Yet power in Oman is highly centralized in the hands of an ailing Sultan who has been avoiding public appearances, so Zarif may not be welcome until Oman’s own internal uncertainties sort themselves out.

Iran’s foreign minister visited the two leading U.A.E. capitals of Abu Dhabi and Dubai after the signing of the interim Joint Plan of Action in 2013. It is telling that neither city is on Zarif’s current agenda, as is the fact that in the same week the comprehensive deal was signed U.A.E. special forces recently joined the battle inside Yemen against Shi’ite militias backed by Iran. The Emirati ambassador in D.C. has declared that his country’s armed forces “wake up, dream, breathe, eat, sleep the Iranian threat.”

In Bahrain, authentic domestic grievances have fueled upheaval on which Iran has sought to capitalize. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei proclaimed after the nuclear deal that it would not affect his country’s continued attempts to intervene in Bahrain. In reaction, the GCC secretary general condemned the gap between Zarif and Rouhani’s neighborly rhetoric on the one hand and Khamenei’s threats on the other. Also, one day after the JCPOA was signed, Bahraini authorities announced that a local teen was killed while planting a bomb and had returned in May after spending time in Iran.

Since then, Manama recalled its ambassador from Tehran for consultations. It announced the arrest of two men, one of whom allegedly received training from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, on charges of smuggling weapons, ammunition, and nearly 100 pounds of explosives form Iran. Zarif denied these claims over the weekend, causing the Bahraini foreign minister to invite Zarif to visit “so that we show him the facts that the Revolutionary Guards have concealed from him.”

Finally, the elephant in the room in Saudi Arabia, the most powerful Sunni-majority country in the Gulf. True, leaders in Riyadh may have nominally welcomed the JCPOA (albeit using vague and cautious language). Yet Saudi officials and those close to the government have hinted that they view this agreement as the starting gun in the race to build a latent nuclear weapons capability before the agreement’s provisions begin to sunset. Opinion articles across the Saudi-owned press explicitly advocated thisparticularly worrisome prospect in the immediate aftermath of the JCPOA.

Zarif called yesterday from Kuwait for the countries of the region to join hands against “the threat of extremism, terrorism, and sectarianism.” Yet concern about the JCPOA, practical economic constraints, and the IRGC’s destabilizing regional behavior clearly overshadowed the Iranian foreign minister’s neighborly rhetoric. Indeed, Iranian policy did not seem to be up for debate, with Zarif obliquely blaming the Saudis instead: “what is needed is not a change in Iranian policy but a change in the policy of some countries that want conflict and war in this region.”

David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAWeinberg

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