Arab wariness, ambivalence about Iran nuclear deal
London - The tentative nuclear accord between Iran and US-led world powers has divided public opinion in the Middle East, with Iranians celebrating the agreement as the beginning of the end of crippling US, UN and EU sanctions and the region’s Sunni-majority Arab states, which for years have sought to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, receiving the news with weary caution. US President Barack Obama moved quickly to reassure Sunni Arab leaders of the merits of the agreement, inviting Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders to Camp David to discuss the framework of the deal.
Jordanian political analyst Labib Kamhawi, a longtime observer of Iranian affairs, believes “the Arabs stand to pay dearly as a result of this deal. It opens the door for a greater Iranian role in the region. Iran will ultimately be a regional superpower and must be accepted as such by everyone.”
“The US position is not reassuring to the Arabs. That’s why President Obama said he wants to convene a meeting in Camp David retreat this spring to discuss security matters. He wants to assure the GCC and his other Arab allies of continued US support and explain what role Tehran will play in the area in the future.” Kamhawi added.
The prospect of Iran becoming both a nuclear and regional superpower has not gone unnoticed by archrival Saudi Arabia. In an interview with the BBC, former intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal said: “Whatever comes out of these talks, we will want the same.”
The kingdom signed a memorandum of understanding with South Korea last month to cooperate on the development of nuclear energy, while similar agreements have already been reached with France, China, and Argentina.
Mousa Ishteiwi, head of the Strategic Study Centre at the University of Jordan, told The Arab Weekly, “Arabs have genuine concerns from any deal with Iran because they don’t trust that any agreement will prevent Iran from developing its nuclear weapons programme.”
Ishteiwi also highlighted that there are concerns over follow up meetings between the United States and Iran, whereby Washington may start to rely more on Tehran at the expense of the GCC countries, primarily Saudi Arabia.
“Iran is a new reality we have to live with.” Ishteiwi emphasised.
The reaction of the Gulf media has been guarded. There were however pessimistic overtones in the assessment of the nuclear agreement. Writing in the London-based Pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat, columnist Abdulrahman al-Rashed wrote, “The deal may ignite a wider arms race, most probably nuclear. We must therefore scrutinise the consequences of the agreement on Arab relations with the West and whether the deal will further fuel current sectarian conflicts.”
Echoing similar sentiments, veteran Lebanese journalist and GCC political affairs expert for An Nahar newspaper, Amin Kammourieh, stressed to The Arab Weekly that GCC countries and anti-Iran Arabs in general, in addition to Israel, have deep concerns about the prospect of Iran gaining a bigger role in the region as a result of the nuclear deal with the United States.
“There is genuine fear that Iran will be playing a larger regional role on the expense of the Arabs, notably Saudi Arabia, and Israel,” Kammourieh said. “Israel has always been treated as Washington’s spoiled child in the Middle East and now fears Iran might jeopardise that position.”
“For the Arabs, especially Saudi Arabia, there is great concern that Tehran will have a bigger say and influence on regional politics and that whatever influence Iran would gain from the deal will be at Saudi expense and that of the Arabs in general,” he added.
Kammourieh said another concern for Arabs and Israel is the issue of alleviating and eventually lifting economic sanctions on Iran.
“That means Iran will have immediate access to some $120 billion of frozen assets and will be selling its oil without hindrance on the oil market, easing the economic noose it has been reeling under and suffering from for the past decade,” he said. “This will give Iran an unprecedented economic boost and will reinforce its power and regional influence. That is why the Arabs are not happy and not reassured about the deal, as well as Israel.”
Mohammed Alkhereiji is the Arab Weekly’s Gulf section editor. The Arab Weekly’s Samar Kadi in Beirut and Jamal Halaby in Jordan contributed to this report.