Arab nations alarmed by prospect of US nuclear deal with Iran
Arab governments are watching the endgame of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme with barely-concealed alarm, fearing that the US is bent on a rapprochement with Tehran, not so much at any price, but certainly at the expense of its long-standing Gulf allies.
Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional rival, has made clear its unhappiness with the emerging deal. Still, unlike Israel, which flatly opposes any agreement, Saudi Arabia has adopted a more subtle approach. Adel Jubeir, its ambassador to the US, pledged to wait to see the outcome before criticising it. Jubair also conspicuously refused to rule out the kingdom seeking its own nuclear weapons — a pointed reminder to Barack Obama of the nuclear proliferation risks if his Iran strategy does not succeed.
The Saudis have hinted for years that they would turn to Pakistan if they felt threatened by a nuclear Iran. Last year they displayed their Chinese-made intermediate-range ballistic missiles — capable of reaching Tehran — at a parade attended by the general who controls Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. It was, said the Brookings Institution analyst Bruce Riedel, “ a very calculated signal”.
But the Saudis have wider concerns: an American-Iranian rapprochement, they fear, will undermine their own influence and security. Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief, warned in London earlier this month that the romance was now “nearing consummation”.
The United Arab Emirates, which has a long-running dispute with Iran over three Gulf islands, is also concerned, suggesting a nuclear agreement will strengthen Tehran’s hand in other areas of Middle Eastern strategic competition that have a Sunni-Shia sectarian tinge - Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and more recently Yemen. “We see the nuclear issue as a tool of Iran’s foreign policy,” one senior official said.
Rather than directly confronting the US, the Saudis’ strategy is to improve unity in the Gulf. The obstacles to that are Oman, a long-standing mediator between the US and Iran, and Qatar, which also keeps carefully on the right side of Tehran.
The drama over the final stage of the nuclear talks has been heightened by Saudi military operations in Yemen against Houthi rebels it says are backed by Iran. Saudi sources say that obtaining US backing for that was the work of Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, the powerful Saudi interior minister, who is now second in line to the throne
The degree of Iranian support for the Houthis is, however, hotly disputed. Emile Hokayem, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, says there is a tendency in the Gulf to overstate Iran’s role and a tendency in the west to understate it. Tehran’s involvement has been “gradually opportunistic rather than causal,” he said
Sir William Patey, a former British ambassador to Riyadh, says some senior Saudis fear a return to the days of the shah before the 1979 Islamic revolution when Iran was America’s preferred regional ally. “Others realise that that is not what’s on offer,” he told the Guardian. “But a nuclear deal could lead to American accommodation to Iranian wishes and they find that worrying.
“On the nuclear issue they are on the horns of a dilemma. They don’t want Iran to become a nuclear power and they will be as sceptical as the Israelis are as to whether this is going to be a real deal. On the other hand they won’t want to be forced into making a difficult decision.
“They will be sceptical but they won’t be critical and they will learn to manage. Their worst fears won’t be realised. There will be all sorts of obstacles to the sort of Iranian-American relations that the Saudis fear. If Iran could be brought into a regional security arrangement that’s something they would learn to adjust to".