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