Dispatch

Iran Deal Threatens to Upend a Delicate Balance of Power in the Middle East

From Riyadh to Jerusalem, leaders are watching warily for signs of Tehran’s ascendance.

EGYPT-ARAB-CONFLICT-DIPLOMACY
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud attends the Arab League summit in Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh on March 28, 2015. AFP PHOTO/ STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

BEIRUT — As negotiators in Lausanne, Switzerland, agreed on a tentative deal to constrain Iran’s nuclear program and waive sanctions pending verification of the eventual terms of the agreement, countries across the Middle East have already begun to adapt to the new regional political landscape.

While both the United States and Iran insist that negotiations pertain solely to Tehran’s nuclear program, leaders across the Arab world see the agreement through the prism of the Middle East’s delicate balance of power and the many conflicts racking the region. It’s not a crazy idea: In a sign of how the agreement could affect broader ties between Tehran and Washington, Iranian television, for the first time ever, aired live U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech in the Rose Garden on Thursday, April 2. Depending on which side of the conflict the regional leaders stand on, they either hope or fear that Iran will be enriched by the lifting of economic sanctions and empowered by its integration as a respected member of the international order.

In a bid to assuage the fears of his anti-Iran allies in the Persian Gulf, Obama announced on Thursday that he would invite the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council to Camp David this spring to “further strengthen our security cooperation.” He also said that he had already called King Salman of Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional antagonist, to explain the agreement — moving even quicker to speak to the king than to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to whom Obama said he would speak later in the day.

But Obama will face a challenge in winning over the Gulf states, whose interests are arrayed against Iran across the Middle East, notably in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. In a letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in October, Obama seemed to confirm Gulf states’ fears that a nuclear deal would lead to a broader regional rapprochement between the United States and Iran, perhaps including a hint of support for Tehran’s proxies in Syria: According to the Wall Street Journal, Obama linked cooperation against the Islamic State with an agreement and “sought to assuage Iran’s concerns about the future of its close ally, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.”

Some analysts believe efforts by Saudi Arabia to contain the regional repercussions of the deal have already begun. In Yemen, a Saudi-led coalition has launched airstrikes against Iranian-backed Shiite rebels, while in Syria, Saudi-backed rebels have recently made gains against the Assad regime.

“The timing of the Yemeni operation was basically to send a clear message to the Iranians, and to the United States, that the region is going to stand against Iran’s expansionist policy,” said Mustafa Alani, director of the national security and terrorism studies department at the Gulf Research Center.

The intervention in Yemen is only one example of how Saudi Arabia has played a more aggressive role in the Middle East. Islamist rebels backed by Saudi Arabia recently captured the northern Syrian provincial capital of Idlib from the Assad regime — even as Washington moves slowly on its plan to train and arm a Syrian rebel force.

“We see the beginning of a new policy, where [Saudi] interest is basically more important than U.S. objections or with Security Council resolutions,” said Alani. “Basically, we are adopting the Iranian style and the Israeli style: When it comes to your national interest, you go ahead and do it.”

Israel, like Saudi Arabia and its allies, has also raised a red flag about Iranian expansionism across the Middle East. Having recently fought wars against Iranian-backed organizations Hezbollah and Hamas — while bombing Assad-allied forces in Syria — its leaders have been hostile to an agreement that they say will only embolden Tehran. Netanyahu famously spoke in front of the U.S. Congress in March to lay out his objections to the deal, and as the agreement neared on Thursday, he tweeted an image showing Iran’s interventions across the Arab world and called for an agreement that “stop[s] its terrorism and aggression.”

Tehran’s allies in the Middle East — from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah to its many allies in Baghdad — hope that Iran would be strengthened by the lifting of sanctions and its integration into the international system. As far back as 2013, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said, “Our side will be stronger locally, regionally, and internationally” in the event of a nuclear deal.

“Obviously, [Hezbollah leaders] are rooting for a lifting of the sanctions against Iran,” said Kamal Wazne, a Lebanese political analyst close to the party. “They felt in the first place that these sanctions were unjust, and the lifting of the sanctions will allow Iran to engage the international community and give it a better position at the international arena.”

Among Saudi Arabia’s allies elsewhere in the Arab world, there are fears that a bad deal would also spur a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Egypt, for instance, has long made the case that the region should be a nuclear-free zone — a policy meant to pressure Israel into giving up its nuclear weapons, but which has also constrained the development of nuclear weapons programs elsewhere in the Arab world. If Arab leaders believe that the current outlines of the deal leave Iran a path to construct a nuclear weapon, “the thinking will be, ‘why don’t we have the same status?’” said Abdel Moneim Said Aly, the director of Cairo’s al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “That will mean developing all the capabilities for uranium enrichment that Iran got.”

Saudi Arabia has long been interested in nuclear power and plans to build 16 nuclear reactors over the next two decades. More concerning to anti-proliferation experts are reports that Riyadh itself is interested in producing fuel for nuclear reactors. If the kingdom mastered the fuel cycle, that would give it an indigenous source of enriched uranium that could also be repurposed for a bomb. Asked in late March whether Riyadh would rule out building or acquiring a nuclear weapon, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, said the issue was “not something we would discuss publicly.”

All this has led to the perception, in certain corners, that power in the Middle East is up for grabs in a way that it has never been before. “I am 67 years old — I lived through the 1956 and 1967 wars, the Arab-Israeli peace, the revolutions and coup d’états,” said Said Aly. “Despite all that, I never had the same uncertainty that I have now about the region. Everything is possible.”

Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, April 2, 2015: Abdel Moneim Said Aly is the full name of the director of the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. An earlier version of this article mistakenly omitted the last word of this name.

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