RIYADH (Reuters) - United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed on a rare visit to Iran on Thursday called for a partnership with Iran, but suspicion remains despite Tehran’s tentative overtures towards its Gulf neighbors.
Mostly Sunni Muslim Gulf Arab states are wary of Iranian influence in the Middle East, fearing the Shi’ite-led country is seeking regional dominance and stirring sectarian tensions.
Improving relations with regional countries is a central plank of Iran’s diplomatic policy under its new president, Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, who will visit Kuwait and Oman next week.
“We are neighbors but do not confine ourselves to this and are calling to be partners,” Sheikh Abdullah was quoted as saying by Iran’s official IRNA news agency.
Zarif, speaking after the meeting with Sheikh Abdullah, who also met President Rouhani, said peace would benefit everybody in the region.
“We see the progress of countries in the region as a success and any type of danger as a threat to them. Security and development cannot be separated and we see relations with regional countries as taking this form,” IRNA quoted him as saying.
They made no mention of a long-standing dispute between the two countries over the ownership of a small group of Gulf islands, or of accusations by the Gulf Cooperation Council, to which the UAE belongs, that Tehran has plotted attacks in Bahrain.
The GCC consists of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE and Oman.
Zarif was quoted on Wednesday by Kuwait’s state news agency as saying he would visit Kuwait and Oman next week.
He added he also planned to visit Saudi Arabia but had not yet set a date. On Tuesday, Iran’s former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, said he wanted better relations with Saudi Arabia in an interview with the Financial Times.
Rouhani and Zarif have stressed greater regional stability as a priority, arguably an attempt to blunt the opposition of Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, to Tehran’s newly minted nuclear deal with world powers.
After they met in Kuwait on Wednesday, GCC foreign ministers said they hoped the deal would lead to a comprehensive solution to Iran’s nuclear crisis, but that this would require goodwill.
On Thursday Bahrain’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rashed bin Abdullah al-Khalifa said Iran’s Arab neighbors needed assurances that the nuclear deal would enhance regional security.
Alluding to previous accusations Iran was behind a popular uprising in Bahrain, he said Gulf Arab states wanted to be certain the accord “would not be at the expense of the security of any of the (Gulf Cooperation) Council”.
Sunday’s six-month interim deal involves some reversible sanctions relief in return for more international oversight of Iran’s nuclear program.
Saudi Arabia, the largest and most powerful of the GCC states, gave a guarded welcome to the deal, but it still views Tehran with suspicion.
On Wednesday, U.S. President Barack Obama made a phone call to Saudi King Abdullah to reassure him about the deal.
Diplomatic sources in the Gulf say Riyadh fears the agreement will take pressure off Iran and allow it scope to operate in other Arab countries.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are locked in a tussle for influence across the Arab world, backing opposing forces in political struggles in Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen.
They also support opposing sides in Syria’s civil war, pitting Iranian ally President Bashar al-Assad against mostly Sunni rebels armed and financed by countries including Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
On Wednesday the opposition Syrian National Coalition said it would attend peace talks planned for January in Geneva.
GCC foreign ministers said the meeting must put in place a timeframe for a transitional government and should not involve any opposition group other than the coalition.
Reporting By Angus McDowall; Additional reporting by Marcus George; Editing by Peter Cooney and Ralph Boulton