Arab reactions to agreement mixed as Sunni tensions remain

For the Saudis, it’s an issue of Iran’s broader role in the region, says expert.

Saudi King Salman  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Saudi King Salman
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Shi’ite Iran’s allies Syria and Iraq voiced support for the nuclear deal reached on Tuesday and some rival Sunni Arab regimes issued tepid statements of support despite their distress visible under the surface.
While publicly voicing luke - warm support for the talks, Saudi officials in private have often argued that Iran could not be trusted to keep an agreement, and that any release of international pres - sure would simply allow it to ramp up its backing for terrorist proxies.
The Iranian nuclear deal will make the Middle East a “more dangerous part of the world” if it comes with too many concessions, a Saudi official told Reuters, signaling Gulf Arabs’ deep unease with the agreement.
While acknowledging that the Vienna deal would mean “a happy day” for the Middle East if it stopped Iran gaining a nuclear arsenal, the Saudi official said through a social network that he feared it would instead allow Tehran “to wreak havoc in the region.”
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“We have learned as Iran’s neighbors in the last 40 years that goodwill only led us to harvest sour grapes,” he said.
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The lack of official responses from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies reflected huge nervousness about a deal set to end the pariah status of Iran, already Riyadh’s main rival for influence across the Middle East, and unchain its economy from crippling sanctions.
However, it was largely left to journalists, clerics and analysts to articulate those fears, which go hand in hand with a sense that Saudi Arabia’s main ally, Washington, now has divided loyalties after helping Iran to come in from the cold.
“Iran made chaos in the Arab world and will extend further after the agreement, and the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries should reduce their confidence in America and turn their focus to Russia and China,” said Muhammad al-Mohya, the news anchor on the state-run Saudi Channel 1.
Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, told The Jerusalem Post that the most under-appreciated issue here is “linkage,” in the context of the Obama administration selling the agreement as only about the nuclear issue and nothing else.
“But everything else matters quite a lot, and in some ways it matters more,” said Hamid, adding that US support for the Saudi military intervention in Yemen could have been aimed at maintaining Saudi acquiescence in the Iran negotiations.
“Would the US have done more to intervene in the Syrian conflict if it weren’t worried about picking a fight with Iran over their destabilizing role there?” he asked.
Asked about the official silence from some Gulf states, Hamid replied, “Nothing much can be gained by speaking out, at least until the dust settles. For the Saudis, the primary issue has never been just the nuclear issue, but rather Iran’s broader role in the region and all that entails.
“That’s what they’ll be pushing the Americans on, now that the deal has been struck,” he said.
The ruler of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, sent a note of congratulations to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday for the nuclear deal with world powers, the UAE’s official news agency WAM reported.
The statement contained the first official comment by a Gulf Arab state.
Eran Segal, a researcher at the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at the University of Haifa, told the Post , “It seems obvious that Gulf states will not welcome the deal, but I do not see much public response against it, maybe even cautious backing.”
It should be noted, said Segal, that a couple of months ago US President Barack Obama hosted GCC leaders at Camp David near Washington in order to sell the deal and we do not know exactly what Gulf leaders were promised.
“Internally I think it will strengthen those calling for strong ties amongst the GCC states, even efforts to create a federation.”
Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar Assad signaled on Tuesday he expected more support from Iran in the wake of a nuclear agreement that includes Western states that have backed the insurgency against him.
Assad, in a telegram congratulating Iran’s supreme leader on the deal, called it “a major turning point” in the history of Iran and the world.
“We are confident that the Islamic Republic of Iran will support, with greater drive, just causes of nations and work for peace and stability in the region and the world,” Assad told Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to the text published by state news agency SANA.
Rebels fighting Assad expressed concern that the deal would expand Iranian influence in the region at their expense.
The foreign ministers of Turkey and Shi’ite-ruled Iraq welcomed the nuclear agreement, but Ankara urged Tehran to rethink its regional policies.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said transparent implementation of the agreement would now be key and that the easing of sanctions would be of economic benefit to Turkey, which is one of Iran’s major trading partners.
“It is important that this deal is implemented transparently in cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and other international agencies in the coming months,” Cavusoglu told a news conference in Ankara.
But he also called on Tehran to play a constructive role in conflicts around the region.
“I hope the deal will be finalized and its implementation will continue and stability will be achieved in the region, but I have to stress that Iran should reconsider its policies in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. It should take on a positive role. We have to abandon sectarian-based policies.”
Turkey and Iran have in the past accused each other of trying to dominate the Middle East. They have backed opposing sides in the war in Syria and the crisis in Yemen, but their economic interdependence has kept relations broadly on track.
Speaking alongside Cavusoglu, visiting Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari also backed the agreement.
“Important steps were taken and progress was made. The progress that has been made is very important and we should support it. The important thing is a deal has been reached. Iraq has been calling on the international community for a solution to this problem. This deal was necessary and it should be implemented to attain stability in the region,” he said.
Egypt’s Foreign Minis - try released a statement in support saying: “The Foreign Ministry spokesman expressed hope that the deal between both sides is complete and prevents an arms race in the Middle East as well as ensuring the region is free of all weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons.”