Sunni Arab unease about Iran deal runs deep

Gulf states closer to developing nuclear programs, Qatar-based expert tells ‘Post.’

Saudi King Abdullah 390 (photo credit: Reuters/Saudi Press Agency)
Saudi King Abdullah 390
(photo credit: Reuters/Saudi Press Agency)
Iran’s nuclear deal with global powers was met with wary silence from Arab countries on Sunday, but as the day progressed, some of them began expressing their support for the deal.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, despite their mistrust of Iran, gave a qualified welcome on Monday to Tehran’s interim deal with world powers over its disputed nuclear program.
“If there was goodwill, this agreement could represent a preliminary step towards a comprehensive solution to the Iranian nuclear program,” Saudi Arabia’s cabinet said in a statement carried by state news agency SPA.
The kingdom said it hoped further steps would follow that would guarantee the rights of all states in the region to peaceful nuclear energy.
Earlier, Qatar and Kuwait came out in favor of the deal struck on Sunday after marathon talks in Geneva, saying they hoped it would help to preserve regional stability and security.
Yet Iran’s Arab neighbors are deeply uneasy about Tehran’s diplomatic rehabilitation and have done little to hide their skepticism as talks progressed on the nuclear deal in recent weeks, but at least in public many have now given their support.
“There is a lot of happy talk in the West about this being a real opening, a transformative moment,” similar to the end of the cold war. But for most Gulf actors, this is “way over the top and plays into their fears of [US President Barack] Obama” and his rush for a deal, Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.
The Gulf states perceive this deal to have the potential to weaken them in the long term, he said, adding that the deal itself is reversible and does not stop Iran from enriching uranium and breaking out in the future.
The Gulf states are thinking more now than they were two weeks ago about developing nuclear programs, and this is the direction things are going if Iran’s program is not stopped, he said.
Iran’s only two Arab friends – Iraq and Syria – were quick to praise the deal on Sunday, as was the Palestinian Authority, which welcomed it for putting pressure on Israel. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain also spoke out in support.
Qatar said the agreement was “an important step towards safeguarding peace and stability in the region,” according to a statement by the Foreign Ministry posted on its website late on Sunday.
“The State of Qatar calls for making the Middle East a nuclear weapon-free zone,” the ministry said.
Kuwait’s Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Khaled al-Jarallah said he hoped the agreement “would pave the way for a permanent accord that would defuse tension, and preserves the stability and security of the region,” according to state news agency KUNA.
All Arab countries apart from Syria and Iraq are ruled by Sunnis who mainly regard Shi’ite Iran as a foe and have been deeply uneasy over the prospect of any rapprochement with the West that would benefit Tehran.
Arab leaders worry that the deal, under which Iran is being given relief from sanctions in return for curbs to its nuclear program, signals a thaw in the 30 years of hostility between Tehran and Washington which will give Iran more regional clout.
In the hours before Sunday’s deal was sealed, Gulf Arab leaders, including Saudi King Abdullah and the rulers of Qatar and Kuwait, met late on Saturday night to discuss “issues of interest to the three nations.”
The Gulf Arab rulers oppose Iran on countless fronts across the region, including Syria, where they fund and arm rebels fighting against Iran’s friend, President Bashar Assad.
They accuse Tehran of fomenting unrest in a range of countries including Yemen, Bahrain, Lebanon and Iraq.
Shaikh believes the positive responses from some Gulf states come “from hope rather than conviction, but they have no choice other than seeing how things play out.”
Omar has traditionally been closer to Iran, while Qatar and Kuwait tend to be more nuanced in their positions, he said.
By contrast, Iraq, which has a Shi’ite-led Arab government and is close to Iran, was quick to praise the agreement.
“The reaching of a deal between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the six international powers is seen as a major step for the region’s security and stability levels,” Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said in a statement.
“Iraq ... expresses its full support for this step and its readiness to back it, so as to ensure the completion of the remaining phases and to promote a climate of dialogue and peaceful solutions,” the statement said.
The Syrian government of Assad, a long-term ally of Iran and a member of the Alawite sect which is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, was also pleased.
“Syria feels that reaching such an agreement is a sign that political solutions to crisis in the region are the best path for securing peace and stability, far from any threats of foreign intervention or use of force,” a ministry official was cited as saying by state news agency SANA.
Pinhas Inbari, a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told the Post that everyone in the region knew an agreement was in the works.
Inbari thinks that Egypt and the Saudis have decided to demonstrate their displeasure with US policy by creating some distance but not going as far as breaking off relations.
The Saudis are probably saying to Qatar behind closed doors, “We hope you will cooperate with us and not be egoistic,” said Inbari.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia have a competitive relationship and their aims do not completely align.
In the meantime, the Arabs are happy that Israel is making all the noise. They do not want to appear to be in a campaign with Israel, he said.