Tensions Between Iran and Neighbors Increase as the US Increasingly Plays a Role

The AP report stated that the Qatar News Agency and Qatari state television published stories on Tuesday purporting to quote Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani praising Iran and criticizing the recent Arab efforts to confront Iran and diminish its influence over the broader Middle East. By the following day, Qatari news outlets were blocked in both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and the Qatari government responded by alleging that the stories had been false and the result of malicious hacking.

However, Qatar has had traditionally more collaborative relations with Iran than have many of its neighbors, making it comparatively plausible that the emir would have attempted to push back against Arab efforts to move further in an oppositional direction. The disputed remarks included the following, which appeared on the ticker of a state media news broadcast: “Iran represents a regional and Islamic power that cannot be ignored and it is unwise to face up against it. It is a big power in the stabilization of the region.”

The incident comes just days after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was announced as the winner of the elections in which he sought a second term after campaigning on promises of domestic reform and further outreach to the international community, in line with the 2015 nuclear agreement he had helped to secure during his first term. Rouhani reiterated his praise for peaceful interaction in the context of his victory speech, and on its surface this seemed to contrast sharply with the calls for isolation and containment of Iran which had been expressed by Mr. Trump in the Riyadh summit.

However, looking beyond Rouhani’s initial speech, the effort to pursue peaceful interaction has already proven to be limited. On Monday, he seemed to defy Trump’s criticism rather than dispelling it, and his commentary was directed in large part against the United States as a whole and not just against the Trump foreign policy team. “Americans resorted to many different methods against Iran but failed in all,” the Iranian president said, adding, “The problem is that the Americans do not know our region and those who advise US officials are misleading them.”

In the same speech, Rouhani explicitly rejected US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s call for Iran to scale back its ballistic missile program, in line with United Nations Security Council resolutions calling on the Islamic Republic to avoid work on weapons that are capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. “The Iranian nation has decided to be powerful… America’s dream of ending Iran’s missile program will never come true,” he said.

An Al Jazeera report on Rouhani’s speech also pointed out that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is the final authority on all matters of state in Iran, has absolutely ruled out the notion of normalizing relations with the US. While this does not necessarily exclude the possibility of normalizing relations with Iran’s other, more geographically close allies, it may well encourage the Trump White House and other influential policymakers to vigorously pursue a strategy of cooperation with the Arab states against Iran.

Toward that end, Trump continued to express the same talking points about Iran after proceeding from Saudi Arabia to Israel as part of his first overseas tour as president. Speaking from within the Jewish state, Trump insisted that the Iranians must “cease funding, training, and equipping” terrorist groups, and he called upon the international community to diplomatically and economically isolate the Islamic Republic in order to encourage this goal. According to The Guardian, he also highlighted the unlikely “common cause” that Israel and Muslim-dominated Gulf States are finding in their mutual confrontation of the threat posed by Iran.

Trump’s assertive stance toward the Islamic Republic has been well known since long before he took office. On the campaign trail, he made his criticism of the previous administration’s nuclear negotiations a major talking point, saying that those efforts resulted in “the worst deal ever negotiated.” The US president returned to those criticisms during his Israel visit, alleging that Tehran’s belligerent regional activities – including threats to Arab neighbors – appeared to have been “emboldened” by the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which provided Iran with tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for a partial reduction of its nuclear enrichment.

During his presidential campaign, Trump promised to either “tear up” or renegotiate the agreement, though he has stepped back from that promise since taking office. Nevertheless, his emerging Iran policy seems to be aimed in part at limiting the economic benefits that the Islamic Republic can acquire, as evidenced by his administration’s recent imposition of new, non-nuclear sanctions. These sorts of measures have had some success in discouraging Western firms from taking the risk of investing in Iran, but that success has been far from complete.

The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that a Spanish-Iranian consortium had made arrangements for Iran’s purchase of 615 million dollars’ worth of oil pipes over the course of the next three years. This is just the latest in a gradually growing list of deals between Iran and Western entities, the prime examples of which remain multi-billion dollar commercial aircraft deals involving the US-based Boeing and the France-based Airbus.

The oil pipe deal is relevant to recent comments by the Iranian Trade Ministry suggesting that the Iranian oil and gas industry would need 30 billion dollars of foreign investment into its offshore development. UPI indicated that Rouhani’s electoral victory was expected to improve the prospects for this investment, though it also acknowledged that Iranian officials tend to over-hype those prospects and that Western businesses may still not see incentive to invest their money in Iran.

All of this is relevant to the continuing tension between Iran and the Middle Eastern states affiliated with Saudi Arabia, because while those tensions are largely attributable to geopolitics and the sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shiites, they also have a clear economic dimension, which has arguably grown more pronounced in the wake of Iran’s nuclear deal.

Following the conclusion of that agreement, discussions began to emerge elsewhere regarding prospects for production cuts by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, of which Iran is a part. Facing depressed prices, Saudi Arabia and other countries including non-OPEC member and Iran ally Russia began pushing for the cuts as a way of stabilizing the industry. But Iran refused to participate at least until such time as its sanctions-hobbled oil economy returned to pre-sanctions output levels.

Iran’s eventual exemption from the reduction deal allowed it to expand its share of the oil market while its regional rivals’ were contracting. Although the tensions underlying this particular situation might have been diffused by Iran’s eventual participation, a Reuters report that was published on Wednesday quoted Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh as saying that this participation will not begin, regardless of whether the cuts continue for the next three, six, or nine months.

This decision may reflect nervousness about Iran’s economic future – something that was underscore by the Trade Ministry’s acknowledgement that Iran needed foreign investment in part because the effects of the nuclear agreement may not last. This can be taken to refer either to expectations regarding the Trump presidency or to Iranian plans for deliberate escalation in antagonism toward the nation’s adversaries. But in either event, it does not appear as though the Iranian leadership is seriously committed to extending Rouhani’s “path of interaction” to meet the Gulf Arab states or the USA.