Middle East

Iran takes charm offensive to the Gulf

Mohammad Javad Zarif with UAE Prime Minister and Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid on 4 December 2013
Image caption Mohammad Javad Zarif (left) says he wants to resolve through dialogue a dispute with the UAE over the ownership of three islands

The scale of Iran's diplomatic ambition may be measured by the increasing number of stamps in its foreign minister's passport.

Since taking the job in August, Mohammad Javad Zarif has held talks in New York; gone to Geneva three times in order to reach an interim nuclear deal with a group of world powers; and this week, on a tour of the Gulf, he gets stamps for Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.

The message he is hoping to convey is obvious; Iran is under new diplomatic management.

The Islamic Republic's new government, led by President Hassan Rouhani, has set out to improve the country's position in the region and in the world.

In particular, Mr Rouhani and Mr Zarif want to drain some of the tensions built up during the eight year administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In recent years, those tensions were aggravated in the Gulf. In 2011, Iran even threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran's relationship with the Gulf has largely been overshadowed by its historic rivalry with Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom sees itself as the Arab and Sunni Muslim leader of the Middle East. As such, it has long been suspicious of the reach and ambition of Iran, which is largely Persian and Shia Muslim.

In 2010, WikiLeaks released leaked diplomatic cables which suggested Saudi encouragement for a US-led strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.

In 2011, Saudi Arabia sent forces to Sunni-ruled Bahrain to counter what the Kingdom viewed as an Iranian attempt to influence the island's Shia majority.

What is more, Saudi Arabia and Iran support different sides in the Syrian war.

Wisely, perhaps, Javad Zarif sidestepped Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on his tour of the Gulf.

Commercial links

But the Saudi-Iranian rivalry does not prevent other states in the region from pursuing their own links with Iran.

Mr Zarif has stopped in both Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which have each built up significant diplomatic and commercial ties with the Islamic Republic.

The Sultanate of Oman has played a crucial role as a quiet intermediary between Iran and the United States. In March 2013, the country began to host a secret back channel between Iranian and US diplomats which led to the signing of the interim nuclear agreement in Geneva in November.

More than 400,000 Iranians live in the UAE. On the waterfront in Dubai, it is common to see Iranian businessmen loading up small boats to make the 90-mile journey across the Strait of Hormuz into Iran.

Some of these businesses bypass the international sanctions which have excluded Iran from the international financial system. Iran's state media reports that UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed has welcomed an invitation to visit Iran.

Iran and the UAE dispute the ownership of three small islands in the Gulf. Earlier this year, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited one of these islands, Abu Musa. By contrast, Mr Zarif suggests that the argument can be resolved through dialogue.

Iran's foreign minister has also raised the possibility of a visit, at some point, to Saudi Arabia. But the Kingdom appears to be in no rush to host its rival's chief diplomat. Another passport stamp may have to wait.