Wary silence from Arab states over Iran nuclear deal

Gulf leaders worry that the deal will give Iran more regional clout; blame Tehran for regional unrest.

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
RIYADH, Nov 24 (Reuters) - Iran's Arab neighbors, deeply uneasy about Tehran's diplomatic rehabilitation, kept their reservations quiet on Sunday after Iran reached a nuclear deal with global powers.
Iran's only two Arab friends - Iraq and Syria - were quick to praise the deal, as was the Palestinian Authority which welcomed it for putting pressure on Israel.
Other Arab states have done little to hide their deep skepticism in recent weeks, but mostly managed to keep their wariness to themselves on Sunday, and some eventually spoke out in support.
The king of Iran's main regional rival, Saudi Arabia, and the rulers of Kuwait and Qatar, who warily view Tehran, held talks overnight but none had issued an official response by midday. Their fellow Gulf Arab states, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, did however welcome the deal.
"The cabinet hopes this would represent a step towards a permanent agreement that preserves the stability of the region and shield it from tension and the danger of nuclear proliferation," the UAE said in a statement.
Bahrain's Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa also welcomed the accord: "The agreement removes fears from us, whether from Iran or any other state."
All Arab countries apart from Syria and Iraq are ruled by Sunni Muslims who mainly regard Shi'ite Iran as a foe and have been alarmed by the prospect of any rapprochement with the West that would benefit Tehran.
Arab rulers 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.
"I am afraid Iran will give up something on [its nuclear program] to get something else from the big powers in terms of regional politics. And I'm worrying about giving Iran more space or a freer hand in the region," said Abdullah al-Askar, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of Saudi Arabia's appointed advisory Shoura Council.
"The government of Iran, month after month, has proven that it has an ugly agenda in the region, and in this regard no one in the region will sleep and assume things are going smoothly."
When he spoke Saudi Arabia had yet to give an official response and Askar stressed he was giving his personal views.
The Gulf states oppose Iran on countless fronts across the region, including Syria, where some states fund and arm rebels fighting against Iran's friend, President Bashar Assad. They also accuse Tehran of fomenting unrest in countries including Yemen, Bahrain, Lebanon and Iraq. Iran denies such meddling.
Israel has pointed out that the Iran accord is one of the rare issues that put many Arab leaders on the same side as the Jewish state, which lobbied hard against what Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called a "bad deal".
The Palestinian Authority praised the accord, which it sees as a welcome evidence of Washington taking diplomatic action in spite of Israeli resistance.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's spokesman Nabil Abu Rdaineh said it sent an "important message to Israel, to realize that peace is the only choice in the Middle East" and should galvanize world powers to push for a Palestinian-Israeli deal.
He also said Palestinians want "a Middle East that is free of nuclear weapons". Israel is presumed to have the region's only nuclear arsenal, which it neither confirms nor denies.
Iraq, which has a Shi'ite-led government and is the only Arab state openly friendly with both the United States and Iran, was quick to praise the agreement. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki hailed "a major step for the region's security and stability."
The Syrian government of Assad, a longtime ally of Iran and a member of the Alawite sect that is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, also praised a deal it said proved the importance of diplomacy to resolve regional disputes.
Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-ruled countries have expressed unease in recent months over what they see as a recalibration of U.S. policy, especially since Washington abandoned plans to strike Syria to punish it for a chemical weapons attack.