In a diplomatic breakthrough, Saudi Arabia and its three Arab allies agreed to restore full ties with Doha at a summit in the kingdom on Tuesday. Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani was met in the historic city of Al-Ula by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The two men, wearing face masks, embraced on the tarmac. The meeting came a day after Kuwait, another GCC member, announced a Saudi decision to open its airspace and borders to Qatar. With Egypt also signing a reconciliation agreement with Qatar, a blockade on the peninsular Arab state lasting three and a half years has ended. The harmonising of relations between U.S allies offers a united front in the face of a recent spike in Iranian hostility just days before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.
A UNITED FRONT
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut ties with Qatar in 2017, accusing it of supporting terrorism. The tiny, gas- and oil-rich state denied the accusation and rejected the conditions for ending the partial blockade. At the core of the crisis are Qatar’s ties with Iran. Cutting off ties with Iran and with the Islamists as well as shutting down Al Jazeera were among Saudi Arabia’s 13 demands over the blockade.
The lifting of the embargo on Qatar has taken months of patient, painstaking diplomacy, mostly by Kuwait. There efforts appeared to make little progress until late last year, when the Trump administration intensified pressure on all sides for an end to the stand-off that he believes prevented an alliance of Sunni-led states to counter Iran and its proxies, empowering the Islamic Republic.
At Tuesday's summit, leaders of the six GCC member states signed an agreement that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said affirmed "our Gulf, Arab and Islamic solidarity and stability". "There is a desperate need today to unite our efforts to promote our region and to confront challenges that surround us, especially the threats posed by the Iranian regime's nuclear and ballistic missile programme and its plans for sabotage and destruction," he added.
While the communique contained no detailed confirmation of a deal, analysts say that GCC unity, especially in coordination with Washington, is a major setback for Iran. After all, the GCC itself, established in 1981 shortly after Iran’s 1979 revolution, was partly founded to counter Iranian influence and that of since-deposed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
“Given that Iran supported Qatar after the blockade and tried to take advantage of the feud among the Arab countries of the region, I think this rapprochement will come as bad news for Iran, which increasingly sees itself isolated and under pressure. Just recently, both the UAE and Bahrain normalized relations with its adversary, Israel. A united GCC will not be to Iran’s benefit,” said Sina Azodi, nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East programs.
Iran resumed enriching uranium up to 20 percent in the country's biggest breach yet of its landmark nuclear deal with world powers in an escalation of tensions in the last days of President Donald Trump's administration, just two days before the GCC summit.
Raising enrichment puts Iran a technical step away from enriching at 90 percent, the level needed to produce a nuclear warhead. Before the announcement, Iran was enriching uranium at around 4.5 percent, in violation of the nuclear pact but at a significantly lower level.
Also Monday, Iran's Revolutionary Guard seized a South Korean-flagged ship carrying thousands of tons of ethanol in the Persian Gulf, according to the state-linked news agencies IRIB and FARS News. Iran subsequently demanded that Seoul supply $7 billion in funds limited by the Trump administration's sanctions but which Iran considers to be held "hostage."
Hostility escalated once again on Tuesday with the announcement that Iran had begun large-scale combat drills, including "the widespread use of suicide drones to destroy vital targets" – a clear message to the U.S. ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden this month.
Trump unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, setting off a series of escalating incidents that culminated in the killing of a top Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, in Iraq on January. 3, 2020. Days after Soleimani's assassination, Iran launched a volley of missiles at Iraqi bases housing US and allied troops, with Trump refraining from any further military response.
Thousands of people took to the streets in Iraq to protest his death Sunday. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards chief Hossein Salami had vowed the day before to respond to any “action the enemy takes,” on the eve of the first anniversary of his killing.
Tensions had been building in the run-up to the anniversary of Soleimani's killing, with two US B-52 bombers recently flying over the region. The aircraft carrier USS Nimitz has also been patrolling Gulf waters since late November, but US media reported this week that acting US defence secretary Christopher C. Miller had ordered the vessel to return home. The New York Times, quoting US officials, said the move was a "de-escalatory" signal to Tehran to avoid conflict in Trump's last days in office.
Trump oversaw a sharp toughening of US policy, abandoning a landmark nuclear deal between Iran and world powers in 2018 and re-imposing crippling unilateral sanctions. The two countries have twice come to the brink of war since June 2019. Trump leaned into Gulf allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates during his tenure, while his predecessor, Barack Obama, sought to normalize relations with Iran and create the nuclear deal. Trump’s exit from the JCPOA was applauded by America’s allies in the Gulf, and was widely seen as a shift in U.S. policy in the region.
There is talk that a renegotiated pact could be on the cards, with more pressure on Iran over missile programs and other regional issues. A new agreement has been touted as a “JCPOA+” — that is, like the original deal but with more conditions attached. Saudi Arabia says it should be a part of any potential negotiations between the incoming U.S. administration and Iran on a new nuclear deal, Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud told CNBC in November.
Such an agreement could go even further, Al-Saud believes, saying that a “JCPOA++” deal could also seek to address Iran’s reported “arming of militias, whether it’s the Houthis in Yemen, or certain groups in Iraq or in Syria, or Lebanon, and even beyond.” “And, of course, its ballistic missile programs and other arms programs, which (it) continues to use to spread havoc around the region,” Al-Saud added.
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