Tag Archives: Iran

A turning point for Iran

A turning point for Iran

The lifting of the international sanctions against it is a huge breakthrough for Iran, even though it remains a challenge for its edgy Arab neighbours, writes Salah Nasrawi

For Iran, the beginning of the implementation of its landmark nuclear deal with the West this week was a moment to celebrate. It was another diplomatic triumph that will end the Islamic Republic’s isolation and reopen the doors to the international economy.
“Today is a historic and exceptional day in the political and economic history of the Iranian nation,” declared President Hassan Rouhani in a press conference following the announcement of the lifting of the Western economic sanctions on Iran.
The lifting of the crippling sanctions came after certification by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Saturday that Iran has successfully completed all the nuclear-related steps to which it had agreed with the 5+1 powers in July.
The 12 years of sanctions have had devastating effects on Iran where millions of Iranians have been left living with a shortage of medical services, basic goods and services. The punitive measures also imposed a state of diplomatic isolation on Iran that weakened its international standing.
The embargo compromised the Iranian economy, and the country suffered from the devaluation of its local currency, the rial, double-digit inflation and an unemployment rate of nearly 11 per cent.
The lifting of the sanctions, however, means the government and people of Iran will now start to feel the enormous benefits of the agreement, which will make this regional power rebound from its misfortune.
The removal of the oil- and gas-related US and EU sanctions means that Iran can now resume its sale of oil and gas worldwide, having been restricted to selling it to a handful of countries, including China and India.
Even with plummeting oil prices, Iran plans to ramp up daily exports by some 500,000 barrels per day from one million barrels currently. It plans further increases in the months ahead.
The cancellation of the embargo also means foreign oil and gas companies are now free to enter Iran’s energy market, with American and European companies poised to become Iranian partners and bringing with them world-class technology.
It will allow Iranian banks to restore ties with the Western banking system and to open new business opportunities in the country to multinational corporations.
More than $30 billion (Iran says $100 billion) in assets overseas will become immediately available to Iran. While the money is expected to be injected into the Iranian economy, much of the funds are expected to be used as foreign currency reserves to protect the value of the rial.
The lifting of the sanctions will also allow Iranians to resume foreign trade and travel, and the transfer of assets to a wide range of individuals and companies. Politically, the lifting of the sanctions on Iran is expected to have a far-reaching implication on the country’s global politics, mostly on its regional standing.
Iran is expected to emerge politically stronger and with its regional influence increased. For precisely this reason, celebrations in the region have been muted. While most Arab nations, such as Saudi Arabia, have abstained from congratulating Iran or welcoming the deal, only Iraq and Oman have voiced positive reactions.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, whose Shia-led government is one of Iran’s key regional allies, described the agreement as “historic”. Oman’s Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi said: “The spectre of war has disappeared.”
Right from the outset, Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have opposed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the deal is known, and made every possible effort to thwart the agreement.
Saudi Arabia, an Arab Sunni powerhouse, has been concerned about Shia Iran’s growing regional influence and, from Riyadh’s perspective, a nuclear deal will leave Tehran stronger politically.
Saudi Arabia also suspects that the deal will not stop Iran creating a nuclear weapon, since the deal will only take effect for a relatively short period of time, 15 years, and will not destroy Iran’s technical capabilities to maintain a nuclear programme. The results will embolden Iran and its Shia allies in the region, according to this perspective.
Surprisingly, Iran has wasted no time in throwing down the gauntlet and defying Saudi Arabia for its opposition to the nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions. Shortly after the announcement of the deal, Rouhani was quick to point to Iranian-Saudi political tensions and the security rivalry that has dominated the two countries’ relationship for nearly four decades.
“Saudi Arabia did not apologise for the pilgrims killed in the human tragedy in Mina,” said Rouhani, referring to the deaths of hundreds of Iranian pilgrims in a stampede near Mecca in September. He also said Saudi Arabia should pay reparations to the Iranian victims.
Rouhani blasted the oil-rich kingdom for “its behaviour towards the people in the region,” which he described as “not proper”. Rouhani specifically mentioned the Saudi-led campaign against the Shia rebel Houthis in Yemen, which he labelled as “the carnage of a Muslim nation”.
Rouhani bitterly criticised the Saudi government for the recent execution of the Shia religious leader Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr, a vocal critic of the Saudi government. Riyadh cut diplomatic relations with Tehran following Iran’s protests against the execution of Al-Nimr.
On the other hand, Iran has also been raising the blood pressure of observers for some time in many Arab countries over its actions in several regional hot spots.
Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have serious questions about Iranian intentions in flashpoints such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen. There is little doubt that the rise in Iranian regional standing as a result of the new deal will raise tensions between Iran and the Saudi-led alliance further.
Saudi Arabia seems intent on trimming Iran’s regional influence by seeking to build a broader Sunni Muslim alliance to confront Shia Iran and its regional allies. Riyadh hopes that heavyweights, such as Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey, will join the 34-country Islamic coalition it said it is creating to battle terrorism but is widely seen as an anti-Iran alliance.
From Riyadh’s perspective, the three powerful Sunni-ruled nations, whose armies are among the largest in the world, could provide the much-needed critical mass to confront Iran.
Such support has been hard to win, however, as Cairo, Islamabad and Ankara have shown no great interest in actively joining such an alliance. Indeed, both Pakistan and Turkey, which have long borders with Iran, have offered mediation between Riyadh and Tehran, sidestepping the burden of having to pick sides.
Inevitably, the prospect of rivalry between the two regional powers is expected to be on an upward trajectory in the post-nuclear deal era.
With several sources of short- and longer-term tension in different arenas already evident, the two countries seem to be heading towards further split. Unfortunately, the key element of this confrontation is the widening Shia-Sunni split engaging the two regional powerhouses and their proxies.
This standoff is perhaps most glaringly apparent in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, which are expected to bear most of the adverse consequences of the competition for regional influence by Iran and its adversaries.

Can Iraq survive the Iran-Saudi row?

Can Iraq survive the Iran-Saudi row?

Analysis: The Iranian-Saudi rupture threatens to derail Iraq’s war efforts against ISIL.

Salah Nasrawi

When Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior announced the execution of the Shia religious leader Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday, many feared that Iraq would inevitably be caught in the dark storm expected to gather over relations between Saudi Arabia and its regional rival Iran.

The question wasn’t whether al-Nimr’s execution would put Iraq in the midst of the crisis between the two regional heavyweights, but rather to what extent the new conflict will inflame the Iraq’s existing sectarian tensions.

Only a day after Riyadh cut its diplomatic ties with Tehran after Iranian protesters stormed its embassy in response to al-Nimr’s execution, blasts rocked two Sunni mosques in central Iraq.

A least one man, a muezzin, the person who calls for prayer, was killed in the attacks in two districts of south Baghdad.

Thousands of Iraqi Shia Muslims demonstrated on Monday outside the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad which hosts the Saudi embassy, condemning al-Nimr’s execution with some demanding severing relations with Saudi Arabia. There were similar demonstrations in other Iraqi cities.

The protests followed outrage voiced by Iraq’s Shia political and religious leaders over the execution of al-Nimr and other Shia activists. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shia authority, blasted the execution as “unjust and an aggression”.

Behind the backlash against the executions, however, lie more serious problems. Iraq is particularly vulnerable to the Iranian-Saudi feud, which threatens to deepen its own lingering sectarian conflict.

Both nations back opposing parties and groups in Iraq and pursue geopolitical interests in the country.

The question now is whether the crisis over al-Nimr’s execution will inflame existing ethnic and sectarian tensions in Iraq as its Shia-led government tries to bring the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL) to a successful conclusion.

The negative effect is due to two mechanisms which are not mutually exclusive: Peripheral, indirectly, through the spillover from Iranian-Saudi rift; and central, due to Shia-Sunni sectarian polarisation inside Iraq.
By and large, the Iranian-Saudi rupture is stoking tension that threatens to derail Iraq’s efforts to build a regional and global front in the war against ISIL.

A string of defeats inflicted in recent weeks in Iraq, most recently in Ramadi, have raised hopes that ISIL’s demise may be closer than had been thought.

The Iranian-Saudi escalation, which is bound to change the rules of the game in the proxy wars in Iraq, will most probably undermine Baghdad’s campaign to defeat ISIL. Saudi-Iran tensions will not only represent yet another hurdle for regional and international action to combat ISIL, but will pit both Iran and Saudi Arabia in a direct confrontation in Iraq.

Today, Riyadh’s new assertiveness –  as Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi security adviser, has summed it up in an article in the London-based newspaper Al-Hayat on Tuesday – is all about filling the vacuum in “the leadership of the Arab world” in absence of its “traditional pillars, Egypt, Iraq and Syria”.

Inside Story – The fight for Ramadi, a turning point against ISIL?

For Iraq, the rhetoric of this strategy is being translated into Saudi attempts to create a new multipolar regional order which could throw the delicate international coalition against ISIL off balance.

Saudi Arabia’s endeavours to create a new Sunni-dominated “Islamic military alliance” devoted to fighting global terrorism, and plans to set up a “strategic cooperation council” with Turkey, are seen by Baghdad as primarily motivated by a regional rivalry with Iran.

On the other hand, the acrimony between Iran and Saudi Arabia could bring more chaos to Iraq. As Monday’s bombings of the Sunni mosques have demonstrated the conflict increases fears of renewed Shia-Sunni violence.

The Iran-backed Shia militias, which have been increasingly operating as the country’s main military and political force, seem to be bracing themselves for a showdown if the Iranian-Saudi conflict worsens and spreads into Iraq.

Worse still, increased friction between the two regional rivals could shake up Iraq’s fragile political landscape.

The rupture between Iran and Saudi Arabia comes at a delicate moment in the fledgling effort to launch a badly needed and US-backed political process that will empower Iraqi Sunnis in the aftermath of ISIL’s pushback.

The tensions would only bolster hard-liners on both sides, feeding the deepening Shia-Sunni divide and hindering, or even blocking, a badly needed reconciliation in the fight against ISIL and efforts to bring stability back to Iraq.

Even if the political outrage over the execution of the Saudi Shia leader begins to fade somehow, tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia are expected to continue simmering and Baghdad will remain caught in what could turn to be an apocalyptic Middle East sectarian storm.

Of Iran, Syria and regional chaos

Of Iran, Syria and regional chaos

Iran’s teaming up with world powers to hammer out a solution to the war in Syria does not mean an end to regional conflicts, writes Salah Nasrawi

For more than four years, Saudi Arabia and its allies have rebuffed persistent appeals to let Iran join peace-makers in Syria by arguing that Tehran is a key ally of President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria’s bloody conflict and that it would be unthinkable to grant it a seat at the table.

The price of a ticket to the talks to find a durable political settlement in Syria, Riyadh has long insisted, would be an unequivocal commitment from Tehran to endorse a plan backed by Saudi Arabia and its allies that calls for a political transition and the departure of Al-Assad from power.

With Moscow’s military intervention in the Syrian conflict turning the tide against Al-Assad’s opponents, Riyadh finally relented and gave Tehran a free pass to an international peace gathering in Vienna on 30 October.

However, inviting Iran to attend the Vienna summit raises questions far beyond the problems and promises of Iran’s acting as a mediator in reaching a political settlement in Syria.

Will Iran’s participation guarantee greater connectivity between regional powers stalled by decades of rivalries and can they now work together to prompt peace and security?

For many Middle East watchers, the political and security impact of the conflicts that have played havoc with many of the countries in the region shows that they have been damaged beyond repair. If regional stakeholders are keen to end the entangled hotspots, they should adopt a new and common approach to their shared stability.

As expected, Iran has proclaimed the Saudi U-turn in letting it join the international peace efforts in Syria as a triumph for its regional diplomacy. “Those who tried to resolve the Syrian crisis have come to the conclusion that without Iran being present there is no way to reach a reasonable solution to the crisis,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif boasted after receiving the invitation.

But while Tehran celebrated the Saudi and the world’s recognition of its regional diplomatic capacity, it also showed pragmatism, and probably realpolitik, by expressing its preparedness to shore up the country’s “soft power” to resolve the Syrian crisis.

Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein Amir Abdullahian said that “Iran does not insist on keeping Al-Assad in power forever,” a declaration Saudi Arabia quickly met with scepticism. “If they’re serious, we will know, and if they’re not serious, we will also know and stop wasting time with them,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir said.

Of course, it is too early to judge if the talks in Vienna have made any headway in efforts to bring peace to Syria. The group of nations with opposing stakes in the Syrian war have agreed to ask the United Nations to start a process that could lead to a ceasefire and new elections.

In an announcement following the meeting, the participants also asked the United Nations to launch a political process that would involve overseeing the rewriting of the country’s constitution and then new elections.

For many analysts, the statement, designed to show that the participants have narrowed their differences over the Syrian conflict, seemed more like wishful thinking than a realistic outcome. The controversial issue of the future of Al-Assad has remained unresolved.

What drove Saudi Arabia to drop its opposition to allowing Iran, which it has always accused of being part of the problem and not part of the solution, to participate in the direct talks is a matter of speculation.

While pressure from the United States on the kingdom may have played a part in its showing flexibility over Iran, Riyadh’s realisation that it has been misreading the game Tehran is playing in the region cannot be excluded.

Still, the unprecedented decision to permit Iran to join the talks on Syria has sparked old fears that giving Iran a seat at the regional negotiation table will reinforce Tehran’s emerging status as a recognised regional powerhouse.

Tehran’s diplomatic breakthrough comes three months after it struck its landmark nuclear deal with world powers in exchange for removing the international and US economic and financial curbs that had throttled its economy.

The deal was made to show that Iran has complied with specific obligations to reduce its capabilities of stockpiling enriched uranium and address concerns about the potential military dimensions of its nuclear programme.

Yet, the agreement was also seen as a signal of willingness on the part of Washington, the main power behind the deal, to engage Tehran in Middle East issues and to work in concert with it to confront regional challenges such as those in Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon and the threats posed by the Islamic State (IS) and other terror groups.

Though Saudi Arabia and its allies reluctantly supported the nuclear deal, they raised concerns about Iran’s rehabilitation and expressed fears that the US would turn away from their worries about Iranian activities in some of the region’s flashpoints.

Given Saudi Arabia and its allies’ deep-rooted mistrust of Iran, it is clear that these countries want to make Iran’s participation in international efforts to find a solution to the Syrian conflict a testing ground of Tehran’s intentions.

The sticking point remains the future of Al-Assad and whether Iran is prepared to reverse its support for its Syrian ally and back a political process that includes replacing him. Iranian officials still say that “it should be up to the Syrian people to decide on the country’s fate.”

Yet, the predominately state-controlled media in Iran, routinely employed as a proxy to spread the message of Iranian diplomacy, may have expressed Tehran’s real view on the subject.

“With the participation of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rivals, reaching an agreement [in the Syria talks] could be difficult,” wrote Tehran newspaper Ebtekar in an editorial.

While there has been no sign that Iran will come around to the Saudi view on Al-Assad’s future, the Islamic Republic has never hidden its desire to be a partner with international and regional powers in any diplomatic push to deal with other regional flashpoints.

Here again the Iranian media may provide an insight into Iranian official thinking. “If they succeed, [the talks] can serve as an example for the international community in managing other regional conflicts in Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon,” wrote the Farsi-language Iranian newspaper.

“Some of the countries in the region will gradually start recognising Iran’s regional status. Iran’s responsible behaviour on regional crises could help reduce the tension between key players,” it wrote on the eve of the Vienna talks.

Of course, the idea of a platform to discuss, or to resolve or manage, these and other conflicts on the regional level is very tempting. But that is not how the Middle East system since it came into being following the First World War has worked.

Today’s Middle East problems are not simply the result of the ongoing bloody conflicts that threaten to tear it apart, but rather are the consequences of both foreign interventions and the failures and follies of its regimes over some 90 years.

A closer look at the new diplomatic process to solve the Syrian crisis would reveal it as just another gambit that Western strategists hope will push Russia, and in Saudi Arabia’s case Iran, deeper into the Syrian quagmire.

In a speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Manama Dialogue this weekend, Antony Blinken, the US deputy secretary of state, revealed his government’s thinking. It was only a matter of time before Moscow realised that its military intervention and its ardent support for Al-Assad’s continued rule were mistakes, he said.

Saudi Arabia’s assessment of the Iranian role was not much different in hoping to see Iran failing to sustain its military intervention in Syria for long and being obliged to change course.

Al-Jubeir, who spoke at the Manama Dialogue after Blinken, said that in order for any real political process in Syria to begin Iran must withdraw its forces from Syria and agree to a date and means for Al-Assad’s departure.

Such a gamble not only ignores the deep-rooted problems in the Middle East, but also the new regional dynamics. While the turbulence created by the Arab Spring since 2011 is still affecting the regional order, the rise of non-state actors is also shaking the foundations of the state system in many of its countries.

The sad truth is that the failure of the Vienna process will give Syria the final push to tear itself apart and plunge the region further into bloody chaos.

This article appeared first in Al Ahram Weekly on Nov. 5, 2015

The face of Iranian diplomacy

The face of Iranian diplomacy

Much of the success in achieving a breakthrough in the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 Group may go to Iranian chief diplomat Mohamed Javad Zarif, argues Salah Nasrawi

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei might be the ultimate power in Iran, but if there is one Iranian the world will remember as being behind the breakthrough in the nuclear talks with the world’s major powers it will be Foreign Minister and chief negotiator Mohamed Javad Zarif.

As chief diplomat of a nation long considered as an international pariah, Zarif has led a diplomatic charm offensive to break his country’s international isolation since he was appointed foreign minister by President Hassan Rouhani in 2013.

In contrast to former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration, which isolated Iran over its nuclear programme and hardline foreign policy, Zarif’s diplomacy has seemed to signal Iran’s preparedness under Rouhani to move away from tough stances on its controversial nuclear programme.

Under the tentative framework agreement he and his team of negotiators reached with representatives of the world powers (the US, Britain, Russia, France and China plus Germany), Iran will keep its uranium enrichment capabilities, though there will be restrictions so that Tehran is unable to use the material in nuclear weapons.

In return, 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.

Who is this Iranian diplomat who received a hero’s welcome from jubilant Iranians upon his return from the talks amid hopes that the pact he has reached will end years of Tehran’s international isolation?

Zarif was born in 1959 to “a traditional religious family” in Tehran, according to his biography which is posted on the Website of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He received his primary and high school education at a private institution in Tehran. According to some accounts, during this turbulent period in Iran’s history he became exposed to religious ideology, including the ideas of Ali Shariati, a famous Iranian intellectual who is sometimes dubbed the ideologue of the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

At age 16, Zarif left Iran for the United States for “security reasons,” apparently to avoid harassment by the secret police of the pro-US Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi who was deposed by the revolution.

In the United States, Zarif attended Drew College Preparatory School, a private school in San Francisco, before joining San Francisco State University from which he received a Bachelors degree and then a Masters degree in International Relations.

Zarif continued his postgraduate studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, from which he obtained a second Masters in International Relations in 1984 and a PhD in International Law and Policy in 1988.

His doctoral dissertation was entitled “Self-Defence in International Law and Policy.”

While still studying in the US, Zarif was appointed a member of the Iranian delegation to the United Nations in May 1982, apparently because of the close ties he had built with the new Islamic regime in Tehran.

After long service as junior diplomat, Zarif was promoted to Iran’s representative at the United Nations in 2002. During his tenure in UN headquarters he participated in international gatherings, and in 2000 Zarif served as chairman of the Asian preparatory meeting of the World Conference on Racism and chairman of the United Nations Disarmament Commission.

At the UN, Zarif also held private meetings with a number of top Washington politicians, including Vice-President Joe Biden and former secretary of defence Chuck Hagel, then prominent US senators.

Zarif left office in 2007 and upon his return to Iran he joined Tehran University as a professor of international law. Later he served as vice-president of the Islamic Azad University in charge of foreign affairs from 2010 to 2012.

Zarif served on the boards of a number of academic publications, including the Iranian Journal of International Affairs and Iranian Foreign Policy, and he has written extensively on disarmament, human rights, international law and regional conflicts.

On 4 August 2013, Zarif was named minister of foreign affairs by the newly elected moderate Rouhani. He was confirmed by parliament with 232 votes.

Zarif has a son and a daughter, both of whom are married and live in Iran.

Despite criticisms by hawks, the nuclear deal which Zarif has signed has been overwhelmingly backed by Iran’s establishment, including Rouhani who pledged in a speech to the nation that Iran would abide by its commitments under the agreement.

If finalised, the agreement will cut significantly into Tehran’s bomb-capable nuclear technology while giving Iran quick access to bank accounts, oil markets and other financial assets blocked by international sanctions.

Proponents have noted that the deal, reached after 18 months of drawn-out negotiations, has proved that diplomacy is not futile and force is not inevitable.

For the negotiator of a country that has been constantly accused of embracing hidden agendas, the personal traits, international experience and professional skills of Zarif seem to have played a key part in making reaching the deal easier.

Many analysts have attributed the breakthrough in the talks to Zarif’s skills in building confidence with his counterparts, many of them maintaining scepticism about Iran’s readiness to reveal secrets about its nuclear programme.

In this regard, Zarif may have succeeded in breaking one of the persistent orientalist clichés of Iranians having a “bazaar mentality,” being expert carpet merchants of duplicity and deception.

Indeed, Zarif proved to be a shrewd politician and seasoned intellectual by brushing up on his history and religious lessons to push his arguments.

One of Zarif’s efforts during the negotiations was to counter Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign to torpedo the deal by claiming that Iran would eventually produce a nuclear weapon and try to destroy Israel.

In an interview with the US news channel NBC, Zarif said that “Iran saved the Jews three times in its history,” referring to the Persian king Cyrus who ordered the Jews of Babylon to return home from captivity after he conquered the Babylonian Empire in the 6th Century BCE.

Zarif said Netanyahu distorted both the current reality and writings in Jewish sources and the Bible.

“It is unfortunate that Netanyahu now totally distorts the realities of today,” Zarif said. “He even distorts his own scripture. If you read the Book of Esther, you will see that it was the Iranian king who saved the Jews,” Zarif said.

But Zarif’s diplomacy has also made him plenty of enemies at home, especially among hawks who have always refused to make concessions on the country’s nuclear programme.

But again Zarif has been proved to possess the skills needed to address both foreign and local detractors.

The ideals set by the late Imam Khomeini and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei were embodied in the nuclear talks held in the Swiss city of Lausanne, he said.

He also came under attack from hardliners for a stroll he took with US Secretary of State John Kerry in downtown Geneva and along the Rhone River for almost 15 minutes on 14 January as part of the bilateral talks.

At least 25 Iranian MPs signed a petition to question Zarif on the issue, calling the stroll “a diplomatic mistake.”

Zarif’s deal has been overwhelmingly backed by Iran’s establishment, however. He even returned to Tehran to a hero’s welcome as thousands of people desperate for an end to international sanctions greeted him at the airport.

But it remains to be seen if the deal will be wrecked by hardliners in Iran who have always preferred their “death to America and Israel” sloganeering to skillful diplomacy and making deals with the “Great Satan.”

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