Nuance in regional reactions to the Iran deal

On Wednesday, the Wilson Center hosted a panel on  “The Iran Nuclear Deal: The View from the Region.” Speakers included Muath Al Wari, Senior Policy Analyst at Center for American Progress, Deborah Amos, International Correspondent for NPR, Shlomo Brom, Visiting Fellow at Center for American Progress and Fahad Nazer, Political Analyst at JTG Inc. The event was moderated by Henri J. Barkey, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center.

Al Wari analyzed the UAE response to the nuclear deal. He claimed the UAE concern is less about the nuclear aspect and more about the fact that Iran ran a clandestine program under the authority of a state that is willing to undermine other governments in the region. However, Emiratis have decided to look towards the future, believing President Obama secured the best deal possible. The UAE is now looking at what the deal means for future Iranian encroachment in the region and what the US and other P5 countries will do to constrain Iran. The UAE hopes that Iran will normalize its regional behavior. In the coming days, the Emiratis will study the outcomes of King Salman’s visit to the US.

Al Wari criticized the sectarian portrayal of the nuclear deal. Regional concerns about the deal are linked to the geopolitical security competition. Sectarianism is exacerbated by the competition and contributes to it. His belief is that the deal is an American tool to prevent escalation in the Middle East—the agreement is a formal check on Iranian hegemony and encroachment.

Amos explained that the deal so far is unsurprisingly irrelevant to daily life, but the consequences of the agreement will be tested on the ground. She reiterated Al Wari’s words—the Gulf States want to know if attention will be paid to non-nuclear developments that are heating up. That said, the deal unlocks significant trade potential regionally (especially for the UAE and Oman) and globally. The calculus of power has already shifted, with Europeans sending trade delegations and major American companies, such as Apple, preparing to tap into the Iranian consumer market.

Brom delved into the nuances of the Israeli stance on the nuclear deal. For Israel, Iran’s nuclear program and the possibility of it acquiring nuclear weapons has always been a central issue. Indeed, Iran’s nuclear program is the centerpiece of Netanyahu’s foreign policy. He believes he won the elections because of his strong security agenda and perceives Iran as an existential threat. Many Israelis think the combination of a religious and ideological regime with nuclear weapons could lead to Iran striking Israel. However, Netanyahu’s opinion isn’t representative of all Israelis. Many dissenters coming from the Israeli security and foreign policy community, including Brom, believe the agreement is not perfect, but still better than no agreement. A better agreement would have been unlikely.

Like Brom, Nazer also cautioned against making generalizations about regional players. He thinks it is too simplistic to assume that all Saudis think the nuclear deal will usher in an Iranian hegemony with American blessings. Instead, he thinks the Saudi position has shifted slightly. The Saudis are no longer committed to preventing the deal from being implemented. The Saudis support any agreement that prevents Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and guarantees the reinstatement of sanctions if Iran doesn’t comply. After Saudi Foreign Minister Al Jubeir’s visit to Washingon, he openly commended the robust inspection of the verification regime and provision of “snapback” sanctions.

At the same time, the Saudis are maintaining a wary position on the deal. Saudi Arabia is not depending on the US and hoping for the best. High-level Saudi officials have had meetings with Russians, Europeans and other key leaders. Prince Faisal has also said Saudis will expect the same nuclear standards for themselves and should be permitted at least the same levels of uranium enrichment capability as Iran. Prince Bandar has compared the Iran agreement to the nuclear agreement President Clinton signed with North Korea. He feels President Obama is not keeping the lessons of Korea in mind.

The US and Saudi Arabia also have differing threat perceptions. President Obama thinks Saudis need to worry less about an external threat from Iran and focus on the internal implosion stemming from a generation of youths with few hopes for the future. Conversely, the prevailing sentiment in Saudi Arabia is that Iran constitutes a serious threat. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been on polar opposite ends in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon. Nazer believes there is a serious credibility gap between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which could lead the Saudis to take matters into their own hands, as they have done in Yemen.

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