Category Archives: Arabs-Iran-Deal

Bad deal or opportunity?

Bad deal or opportunity?

Saudi Arabia believes Iran’s nuclear deal increases Tehran’s regional reach, but this is not necessarily the case, writes Salah Nasrawi

Hours after the P5+1 Group of world powers and Iran announced their historic agreement on Tehran’s nuclear programme last week, Saudi-led coalition troops stormed the south Yemeni city of Aden to help Yemeni fighters drive Iran-backed Shia rebels out of the strategic port city.

The spectacular ground offensive, bolstered by coalition warplanes and naval units, succeeded in pushing the Houthi militias and their allies back to the ragged surrounding mountains, putting the city under the control of Saudi-backed fighters.

Saudi planes then flew several members of the Riyadh-backed Yemeni government-in-exile to Aden, these immediately starting efforts to assert their authority over the former South Yemen capital which they hope to use as a base for battling the Houthis in the rest of Yemen.

Saudi-led coalition spokesman Ahmed Al-Asiri said the aim of the operation was to take back the rest of Yemen from the Houthis who have exploited a power vacuum in order to take over much of the country.

However, retaking Aden is far from being a major military success in the war in Yemen, which in the eyes of Saudi Arabia and many other Sunni-dominated Arab countries is only one of several conflicts that involve Shia Iran and its regional proxies.

For the Sunni heavyweight and its Gulf allies, last week’s nuclear deal is a game-changer that will increase Tehran’s regional influence, making it time to recognise the gravity of the Iranian threat and counter it. The Aden incursion was a message of how far the Gulf alliance is likely to take the offensive to encounter Iran’s increasing ambitions.

“Aden is the answer to Vienna,” wrote Saudi commentator Mishari Al-Thaidi in the Saudi Royal Family owned Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, referring to the Austrian capital where the nuclear deal was signed on 13 July.

While many Arab governments have cautiously welcomed the landmark deal and expressed hopes that it will pave the way for a nuclear-free Middle East, the agreement has jangled nerves in Riyadh and inspired a partial strategic rethink.

The official Saudi response to the deal was a brief statement that said the kingdom backed any agreement that would stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons but stressed the need for strict inspections and the ability to re-impose sanctions.

Saudi media with close ties to the ruling family, however, have railed against the agreement as likely to help Iran expand its geopolitical influence in the Middle East and embolden it to give more backing to its regional allies.

It is no secret that the oil-rich kingdom, which sees itself as being the leader of the Muslim Sunni world, has always opposed the Iranian talks with the United States and five other world powers that were intended to end the 13-year standoff over Iran’s nuclear programme and that it has done its best to thwart a deal.

Having failed to convince the United States and other world powers to scrap a deal with Iran, Saudi Arabia now faces the daunting challenge of dealing with the consequences of the agreement in a new Middle East that Iran is expected to play a pivotal role in shaping.

What worries Saudi Arabia most is not that the deal will fail to halt nuclear proliferation or that Iran might be able to cheat on the deal and continue to enrich uranium in order to make an illicit atomic bomb.

Instead, it is worried that the new geopolitical climate that the agreement will create will allow Iran to expand further in the region.

What also worries the kingdom is that the lifting of the financial and oil sanctions imposed on Iran will provide the country with some $100 billion in sanctions relief. This might be enough to enrich Iran and embolden its Islamic government’s expansionist tendencies and support for militant movements across the Middle East.

The primary concern for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies is that Iran will begin to mend its 36-year feud with America and re-open broad political and diplomatic relations with the United States and Europe, possibly even establishing closer trading partnerships.

To underscore its fears about the agreement, Riyadh dispatched its foreign minister, Adel Al-Jubeir, to Washington to convey to US President Barack Obama and other senior administration officials the kingdom’s staunch opposition to the deal.

On arrival, Al-Jubeir warned that Saudi Arabia was committed to “resolutely confronting” Iran should it try to cause mischief in the region after signing the nuclear deal with the six world powers.

Obama and his aides tried to ease Saudi fears and promised to follow through on commitments made earlier this year to provide them with new military and security guarantees.

Washington has also sent US Defense Secretary Ash Carter to Saudi Arabia, to be followed by Secretary of State John Kerry early in August, to meet with his Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) counterparts in order to reassert the US commitment to defending the energy-rich countries, including by providing them with new military and security guarantees.

The fears of Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies may not be groundless, but the question is what alternative do they have to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The deal offers the chance of holding back Iran and makes it less likely that the country will acquire nuclear weapons.

Continuous inspections will help make sure Iran does not violate the terms of the deal.

In addition, a verifiably non-nuclear Iran means that the Gulf countries will have long-sought safety reassurances from Iran about its nuclear plants across the Gulf.

Most importantly, a nuclear weapons-free Iran means that the ongoing regional political conflicts and proxy wars between the Persian-Shia nation and its Sunni Arab neighbours will not escalate into a nuclear crisis situation.

Among the key advantages of the pact for the Arabs is the fact that Iran’s behaviour will now be under global scrutiny and it will become a responsible member of the international community with attendant obligations.

Now that the deal has been done and endorsed by the UN Security Council, Saudi Arabia should not lapse into unrealistic thinking and give way to its obsession with Iran. It should not allow its resentment at the nuclear agreement to determine the course of action it needs to take to define a post-deal regional strategy.

While the deal will fundamentally change the nature and dynamics of the region and involve Iran more fully in Middle East issues, the country’s influence will remain limited by political, geostrategic, historical, religious and economic factors.

Saudi Arabia would be well-advised to abandon its rigidity and exaggeration of the Iranian threat and focus its efforts instead on a regional perspective that promotes engagement, peaceful coexistence, and cooperation between Iran and the Arab world.

Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the Iranian deal that strips Iran of its capability to produce nuclear weapons is not shared by the rest of the Arabs, including many of its GCC allies who have publicly welcomed the agreement.

There is a lot going on behind the scenes between Iran and the GCC countries. Oman, a member of the organisation, was even a key mediator in the deal. With some $11.5 billion in non-oil exports, the UAE, another GCC member, is one of Iran’s top trading partners.

The Arab League praised the deal as historic and described it as “a first step towards ridding the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction.” Egypt also expressed its hope that the deal “will eventually be a step forward to the ultimate goal of a Middle East free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.”

Both the Arab League and Egypt were referring to Israel’s nuclear arsenal, which the Arabs have always considered to be their biggest security threat.

In the light of all this, the nuclear agreement between Iran and the world powers could be an opportunity for the Arabs to address other regional challenges, including settling the long-running rivalry with Iran.

One lesson Saudi Arabia could learn from the deal is that the deal itself and subtle diplomacy and compromise can bridge huge gaps and resolve lingering and complex issues.

There are numerous proposals and ideas in the deal which could be used as the basis to end outstanding disputes between the Arabs and Iran. The experience provides countless successful examples of how to resolve regional conflicts peacefully.

On the broader regional front, cooperation forums could be a good way of starting to build mutual trust for more solid political and security arrangements.

Regarding individual conflicts, in order to confront Iran in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, solutions must be found based on non-interference, national reconciliation and consensus instead of proxy wars or direct military intervention.

This article appeared first on Al Ahram Weekly on July 23, 2015

A new Middle East deal

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