As the White House claims a well-deserved victory over the nuclear deal with Iran, Washington must also realize that Arab states and societies view the agreement as a reflection of a fundamental shift in the power dynamics of the Middle East.
The reaction to the deal among Arab leaders has been relatively muted so far. Saudi Arabia, one of the most determined opponents of the nuclear negotiations, was tame in its response so as not to embarrass its American ally. But hardened opposition remains.
For decades, Sunni Arab states have made limiting Shia Iran’s nuclear ambitions a priority. The agreement reached last week curbs Iran’s nuclear program for at least a decade. It is a huge milestone toward a comprehensive agreement, and extends what is called “the breakout time” for making a bomb from two to three months to one year. So why are they against the deal? There are good reasons for Arab skepticism.
While negotiations between Iran and the P5 +1 were underway, Iran’s influence—either directly or indirectly—in the Arab world increased. Sunni Arab states and societies believe the balance of power in the region, numerically dominated by and once politically controlled by the Sunnis, has shifted toward the Shia with the help of the United States. This is one reason Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt are making strides toward an independent and assertive foreign policy without the inclusion of Washington.
The glaring evidence of this new tilt was the Saudi decision two weeks ago to launch air strikes against Iranian-backed factions in Yemen. Although it is unclear to what degree Iran is providing material support to the Houthis who took power in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a in late September, there is at least a Houthi affinity with Iran and Hezbollah.
The Saudis also recently supported jihadists in Idlib, Syria, who are fighting President Bashar Al Assad’s government, which Iran supports politically and militarily.
Officials in the Gulf said a unified reaction to the nuclear deal will be issued in the coming days, not from individual states, but from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
As the Saudi government remains relatively quiet, commentators close to the state are making the government’s position clear. As leading Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi put it: “If it were not for the ‘Determination Storm’ (the Saudi-led air strike campaign against the Iranian-backed militias in Yemen), today’s 5+1 nuclear deal with Iran would have a gloomy effect in the region.”
“The pressing question is: can a regional country, however strong relative to its neighbors, adopt such a principle without consulting major powers, in particular, the United States? The regional country, in this case, Saudi Arabia did this …. by carrying out 'Determination Storm' without the approval of the United States. Such an initiative paved the way for new international relations in the region.”
“’Determination Storm created a new reality in international relations, but the next question is: will this action lead to more military interventions in the region that are carried out independently from the United States?” Khashoggi wrote.
In an article entitled “Politicians: Obama’s Deal with Iran Threatens the Arab World,” the Egyptian daily al-Wafd wrote, “Some Arab countries are opposed to the nuclear deal because it poses a threat to their interests.”
As the nuclear negotiations were underway, Sunni Arabs watched as Assad seemed to hold on to power in Syria, Hezbollah continued to be politically strong in Lebanon, a new Shia-led government took power in Iraq, and the Houthis made inroads in Yemen. This shifted Arab public opinion to a more anti-American position.
Arab states have decided to take matters into their own hands, bolstered by Arab public opinion that is extremely fearful and worried of a more powerful, sectarian, and expansionist Iran. One only needs to consider a headline in al-Akhbar, the pro-Iranian, Hezbollah-influenced newspaper in Beirut, which declared “A New World: The West Succumbs,” the morning after the nuclear deal.
It is clear that some Arab governments have shifted their regional policy because they believe Washington has pivoted to the side of Iran. Sunni Arab states and societies view Iran and the nuclear agreement largely through a sectarian prism. In their view, the benefits for Iran that could eventually come from the agreement, such as an end to sanctions, will only empower Iran militarily in the Middle East.
Thus, while basking in victory, President Barack Obama must send an immediate and clear message to the Arab world that as they go it alone and the United States reconciles with its historic foe, this does not mean the United States is supporting Iran’s expansionist agenda in the Middle East, which is arguably more of a threat to regional stability than Iran’s nuclear potential.
Geneive Abdo is a fellow in the Middle East Program at the Stimson Center and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Image: White House Photo