A new Middle East deal
The tentative agreement signed with Iran is a double-edged sword for the Arabs, with everything depending on how they choose to use it, writes Salah Nasrawi
When US president Barack Obama telephoned king Salman of Saudi Arabia last week to break the news of the nuclear deal with Iran, the monarch responded cautiously, saying he “hopes reaching a final and binding agreement will lead to improving security and stability in the region and the world at large.”
Obama seems to have tried to assuage Saudi concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme by stressing that the framework deal would “cut off every pathway Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon” and reaffirm US commitments to the security of one of its key Middle East allies.
Yet, Salman’s diplomatic remarks can hardly reflect the actual Saudi stance on the Iran deal which the kingdom and its Sunni Arab allies have never been shy about opposing even before it materialised, fearing it would fuel Iranian expansionism across the region.
Under the deal Iran made undertakings to cease all uranium enrichment, which could be spun further into weapons-grade material. Some of its facilities will either be destroyed or redesigned in order to render it incapable of producing or housing any fissile material for at least 15 years.
In exchange, the United States and European Union will terminate all nuclear-related economic sanctions on Iran once the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirms that Iran has complied. All UN Security Council sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear programme will be lifted immediately if a final deal is agreed.
Even so, the Arab camp led by Saudi Arabia seems to find it difficult to accept the challenge of the deal, though Arab scepticism and dissatisfaction have not amounted to Israel’s ferocious opposition and its threat to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The Arabs have two types of concerns: one is that the deal may not stop Tehran from seeking to obtain nuclear weapons, thus putting them at a disadvantage. The second is Iran’s continuing rise in both military and political terms. They believe the nuclear deal will embolden Iran and eventually tilt the strategic balance in its favour in the region.
As for the proliferation issue, the agreement is considered to make Iran a nuclear threshold state. This will make Iran stronger with dramatic implications for the future of the region since Iran will become a nuclear power-in-waiting.
Allowing Iran to keep its nuclear capabilities will push key Sunni states to act to protect themselves by trying to obtain nuclear arms for themselves. Efforts to acquire similar technology by key Arab countries will open a potential atomic arms race.
The Iran deal constitutes a geostrategic nightmare for Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies who believe it opens the door to the Persian and Shia nation to become a regional superpower.
Tensions with Iran over a host of regional issues are already at an all-time high. The Arab camp has raised a red flag about Iranian expansionism across the Middle East.
From Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen, Saudi Arabia is fighting mounting Iranian influence and engaging in proxy wars against Iranian-backed organisations.
Efforts by Saudi Arabia to contain the regional repercussions of the deal have already begun. It is no coincidence that an Arab Sunni coalition launched a campaign of airstrikes against Iranian-backed Shia rebels in Yemen only a few days before the world powers reached the deal with Iran.
Simultaneously, Saudi-backed rebels have recently made significant gains against the regime led by president Bashar al-Assad in Syria, including by capturing the strategic city of Idleb.
One of the worst scenarios for the Saudi-led Arab camp is for Washington to build up relations with Iran far beyond the nuclear deal. A US-Iranian regional alliance would have a decisive influence in the region
Given the critical milestone the Iran deal has created and the changes in the Middle East that it is widely expected to unleash, there is surprisingly little serious debate in the Arab world about how to deal effectively with Iran’s growing prominence.
Instead of shrewd strategic choices or even sophisticated diplomacy, key Arab countries show few signs of being able to reorient their policies for this new era.
Indeed, the Iran deal provides an opportunity for the Arabs to redefine their overall regional strategy on a more realistic basis that could change their fortunes. The Arabs should use the improving environment which is expected to prevail after the signing of the final deal to address regional rivalry with Iran.
The agreement itself reflects a realpolitik approach as the best way to change the behaviour of hostile governments, not through isolation or the threat of military force but by persistent engagement. The Arabs could learn a lot from this important lesson in easing strained relations.
The Arabs need to relax tensions with Iran, which have recently reached fever pitch involving sectarian and nationalist geopolitics making an Arab-Iranian détente long overdue.
Over the last decade several proposals have been made to try to deal with the region’s uncertainties as Iran has risen in power and influence due to a series of geopolitical changes brought on by the US-led invasion of Iraq and the new regional geopolitical dynamics it has unleashed.
In 2008, Bahrain’s foreign minister sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed al-Khalifa proposed a gathering of Arab states with Israel, as well as Iran and Turkey, to try to solve the region’s problems.
A year later, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, then an adviser to supreme leader ayatollah Ali Khamenei, unveiled a 10-point plan for collective security arrangements in the crisis-ridden region.
In 2010, former Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa suggested that the 22-nation bloc engage Iran in a forum for regional cooperation and conflict resolution that would also include Turkey.
All these efforts to initiate a broad dialogue on balancing various security interests foundered due to competition and jealousies between the regional powers.
The present writer has also proposed a broader framework for a new order in the Middle East overturning the status quo which has been in place since the end of World War I and founded on European decisions.
In the Arabic-language book “The Dog of Esfahan: the Repressed Self in the Dialectic of Struggle between the Arabs and Iran” (2009), it is argued that this regional order would be based on the European model.
Starting with the Treaty of Westphalia which ended the wars waged by competing European dynasties in the 17th century and through the 1975 Helsinki Accords which eased tensions between the east and west, Europe has provided a historic example of nations solving their conflicts despite decades of war.
Even Asian nations which have fought bloody wars with their neighbours and suffered from prolonged conflicts have been able to overcome their historic animosities and join cooperation forums such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in order to promote regional peace and stability.
Now there is an opportunity that the nuclear deal with Iran will help create a momentum for such regional arrangements in the Middle East, binding Iran and its Arab neighbours in efforts to deal with specific issues such as maintaining existing relations and promoting cooperation in conflict-resolution and the peaceful settlement of regional disputes.
Obama has invited the leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries to a summit in Camp David later this spring in order to discuss security cooperation following the signing of the deal.
The accord with Iran and Obama’s push to open up trade and diplomatic relations with Cuba will likely serve as an example of how countries must be open to negotiations with their enemies.
In fact, this perception of engagement, which is now being called the “Obama Doctrine,” is already embedded in Obama’s outreach to Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, encouraging them to take the Iran deal as a regional fact.
“The biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries,” he told the New York Times in an interview on 5 April.
This article appeared in Al Ahram Weekly on April 9, 2015