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Panel Summary Report: Prospects for Iran-GCC Rapprochement in the Biden Era

On February 8, 2021, the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy (IPD) hosted a panel discussion on ‘Prospects for Iran-GCC Rapprochement in the Biden Era.’ The focus of the panel was to discuss the current challenges, as well as new opportunities for dialogue, cooperation and diplomacy in the Persian Gulf region, especially given the recent change of leadership in the White House and the willingness of US President Joe Biden to rejoin the Iran Nuclear Deal, also known as the JCPOA. Our four distinguished panelists included:

  • Dr. Hossein Mousavian, Princeton Scholar and Iran’s former Ambassador to Germany
  • Ilan Goldenberg, Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Program at the Center for New American Security
  • Dr. Ebtesam Al-Ketbi, Founder and President of the Emirates Policy Center
  • Abdullah Baabood, Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies at Qatar University

The panel was moderated by Barbara Slavin, Director of the Future of Iran Initiative and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Moderator Barbara Slavin began the panel by stressing the importance of diplomatic work in salvaging the Iran Nuclear Deal. She noted that the JCPOA did not address the regional tensions that worsened throughout the Trump administration, making it critical to also analyze what can be done to de-escalate the situation in the Persian Gulf region.

Dr. Mousavian delivered his opening remarks on how regional tensions should be resolved, explaining that states can either choose confrontation or cooperation. He noted that while confrontation has been ongoing for decades, cooperation would require both parties to stop the blame game and instead recognize each other’s threat perception. In the case of the latter, both bilateral and multilateral dialogue between all Persian Gulf states will be necessary, together with restoring diplomatic relations and taking confidence-building measures in areas such as Yemen and COVID-19. Dr. Mousavian stressed that the most important goal would be to agree on an end state–a new security and cooperation system based on values such as mutual respect, equal footing, sovereignty, non-interference, the rejection of the use of force, respect for the Vienna Convention, cooperation on counter-terrorism and the rejection of hegemony. Also, it would be important to ensure freedom of navigation, the free flow of oil and the establishment of the Persian Gulf as a zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. 

Regarding the role of the United Arab Emirates in decreasing tensions with Iran, Dr. Al-Ketbi stated that there are increasing calls for dialogue by both Iran and the GCC as a result of the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, decline of oil prices, depletion of financial surplus and the inability for any side to reach a decisive military victory. Recent developments demonstrate that the Emirati side does not see Iran as an existential threat and that they have a desire to engage in dialogue. Dr. Al-Ketbi emphasized that GCC countries should seek to hold regional dialogue under international supervision and seek a guarantor to ensure Iran follows its obligations. Regional dialogue would present Washington and Tehran with honourable alternatives to constant escalations which have become tiresome for both sides. It would also provide Iran with an opportunity for economic recovery after years of economic pressure. Arab states would see this regional dialogue as a way out of escalation, as well as an alternative to bilateral talks in which Tehran would have the upper hand. Dr. Al-Ketbi urged all parties to realize that “if we want to live together–and we should, we are neighbours–everybody has to abandon the dream [of] an emperor controlling the region,” calling for a region with prosperity and economic cooperation.

In response to Slavin’s request to comment on the situation in Yemen, Abdullah Baabood explained that the conflict represents the larger geopolitical situation in the Middle East. While external influence plays a role in the crisis in Yemen, the country has long been a conflict area due to internal divisions, civil wars, and most recently, the Arab Spring. Now, under the Biden administration, the US has withdrawn its support for the war in Yemen, ended military support to Saudi Arabia and stopped the process of labelling the Houthis a terrorist organization–an important measure given that it is impossible to negotiate with a group labelled as terrorists. Baabood explained that the Houthis are now prepared for dialogue, as they are neither able to receive endless support from Iran and other allies, nor capable of independently controlling Yemen. With all parties involved in the dialogue, including the Houthis, it would be possible to move forward. Stressing the catastrophic nature of the conflict for all involved, and especially for the Yemeni people, Baabood expressed hope that there would be some movement on the issue, which would also present a step for Iran and Saudi Arabia to reconcile in other areas.

On Biden’s approach to the region and efforts to salvage the JCPOA, Goldenberg called for patience as the presidential transition, the COVID-19 pandemic and rebuilding the US economy will take priority. In regard to Biden’s nuclear strategy for the region, Goldenberg explained that his policy is a mutual return to the JCPOA and an end to the negative slide in the nuclear program, in exchange for some sanctions relief. He agreed that both bilateral and multilateral issues must be considered, suggesting to start discussions with issues such as COVID-19, the de-escalation in the naval domain and a return to pre-2019 in terms of targeting Americans in Iraq. From an American perspective, it is important to promote strong US-GCC ties and support the Abraham Accords, while also trying to progress on challenging issues such as the conflict in Yemen. It will be critical for the Biden administration to maintain a strong relationship with US partners while simultaneously engaging countries with which the US has tensions–in order to ultimately de-escalate the broader situation in the region.

Posing a question from the audience, Slavin asked Dr. Mousavian whether it is possible to have GCC-Iran reconciliation without resolving the conflict between Iran and Israel. Dr. Mousavian responded by first stating that Iran is unhappy with the invitation of Israel to the Persian Gulf by neighbouring states. He explained that “the reality is that Iran is not going to recognize Israel” and that Iran will support Palestinians and resist Israel’s actions in Syria, Iraq or Lebanon. However, if there were to be an agreement on the principles of mutual respect, sovereignty and non-interference, he noted that it would be for each individual state to decide on their bilateral relations with any other country. Dr. Mousavian also suggested that the Persian Gulf adopt a joint military task force modelled on European security and military organizations, in which states would consider an attack on one member to be an attack on all. 

Dr. Al-Ketbi added that Biden and the US lack an understanding of the region, stressing that lifting the designation of Houthis as a terrorist organization does not mean that they will come and sit at the table. She urged Western allies to start a discussion to gain a better understanding of the region before making policy decisions. Dr. Al-Ketbi also added that the GCC is putting up an arsenal of arms due to the threat posed by Iran’s ballistic missiles and nuclear capabilities.

Returning to the topic of Yemen, Slavin asked Baabood for his perspective on how to convince the Houthis to end their attacks on the Saudis. Baabood answered by first noting that the Houthis are a rebel group, meaning that they do not have a sophisticated approach to international politics–exemplified by their most recent actions which served as a complete miscalculation at a time when Biden is pushing for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. He also emphasized that all sides involved have made mistakes, citing the war itself as a mistake that has caused a massive crisis for the Yemeni people. In addition to economic challenges due to the fall of oil prices and over-spending on arms, there is now a general “war fatigue” in Yemen and “conflict fatigue” in the Persian Gulf. Due to these factors, Baabood explained that it is currently an opportune moment for constructive dialogue, thinking outside box, and an overall paradigm shift. Baabood pointed out that another option would be engaging in informal, rather than formal, dialogue, as well as undertaking confidence-building measures that would allow all sides to see where all parties stand before moving forward. While Iran’s calls for dialogue have been met with mistrust, Baabood recommended that the GCC and Iran make efforts to understand each other’s perception of security threats.

Goldenberg addressed Iran’s concerns about requests for it to give up its ballistic missiles while Arab states continue to purchase weapons from the US, explaining that the Biden administration will be reviewing all major arms sales. In regard to the conflict in Yemen, he clarified that the US did not expect the removal of the terrorist designation would mean that the Houthis would immediately put down their weapons. Rather, Biden reversed this last-minute decision made by Trump in order to have dialogue–which will inevitably include the Houthis–and to provide humanitarian assistance. Goldenberg noted that before conversations can begin on interference in other states, dialogue should focus on ceasing support for armed groups within each other’s countries. He also suggested that discussions be conducted in a regional security context, stating that progress could be made if Iran pulled back on its missiles while the GCC pulled back on its arms systems. Goldenberg concluded by expressing his hopes for an agreement amongst all countries, but recognized that this will take a very long time. For now, it will be important to start with practical and actionable steps that can move all parties in the direction of such an agreement.

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor