Following Iran deal, a deafening Arab silence
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Following Iran deal, a deafening Arab silence

Shocked by perceived US capitulation, Gulf states will likely step up their proxy war with Tehran, examine nuclear options

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Saudi Arabia's King Salman attends a ceremony at the Diwan royal palace in Riyadh, January 24, 2015. (AP/Yoan Valat, File)
Saudi Arabia's King Salman attends a ceremony at the Diwan royal palace in Riyadh, January 24, 2015. (AP/Yoan Valat, File)

As the agreement between Iran and the superpowers was announced Tuesday morning, Saudi newspapers went to print with headlines about surveillance cameras in mosques and a minor cabinet reshuffle.

For a kingdom currently engaged in a proxy war with Iran in Yemen, the utter Saudi silence on the looming nuclear deal was deafening. The word “Iran” was also nowhere to be found on the front pages of dailies in Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

“There’s an [Arab] sense of disappointment mixed with shock,” said Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East research at Tel Aviv University. “These countries, and especially Saudi Arabia, are trying to come to terms with the materialization of their worst fears.”

The most immediate result of the Arab sense of desperation will be the start of a regional arms race, Rabi estimated. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and even Turkey will begin to develop scientific nuclear programs.

Uzi Rabi (Tzachi Lerner/ Wikipedia)
Uzi Rabi of the Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University (Tzachi Lerner/ Wikipedia)

“Saudi Arabia already has stakes in the Pakistani bomb,” Rabi noted.

Speaking to CNN in March, Saudi Ambassador to the US Adel al-Jubeir refused to address the prospect of his country going nuclear, but said that Iran’s support for local insurgencies and terror groups was just as disconcerting as its race to the bomb.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will take whatever measures necessary to protect its security,” Jubeir said in a statement reminiscent of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “There are two things over which we do not negotiate: our faith and our security.”

Indeed, for some Gulf states, the fight against Iran is no less about faith than it is about security. Gulf Arab editorials often refer to the Iranian threat in religious terms, as a battle between Shiite and Sunni Islam. There is also often a pronounced ethnic element — a perceived struggle between Persians and Arabs.

For a kingdom currently engaged in a proxy war with Iran in Yemen, the utter Saudi silence on the looming nuclear deal was deafening

“The agreement will eventually be judged by its ability to stabilize the Middle East and cause Iran to stop supporting terror,” Rabi said. “I find it very difficult to see that happening. It will instead increase the panic level of Middle Eastern players and evoke primordial fears. It will add fuel to the fire.”

Assaf David, an expert on Jordan and director of the newly founded Forum for Regional Thinking at the Jerusalem research center Molad, said the agreement represents a strategic blow to Arab states, even if one not acknowledged publicly.

“The Arab states have simply lost this struggle,” David told The Times of Israel Tuesday. “They will have to learn to live with the consequences.”

Small countries such as Jordan will follow the diplomatic lead of Saudi Arabia before publicly lambasting the agreement, he noted. Jordan is more likely to outwardly endorse the agreement than condemn it, so long as there is no official Saudi comment, given its weak regional standing.

Jordan, David said, will also likely try “to mend fences” with Iran.

The United Arab Emirates published a cautious letter of congratulation sent to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday afternoon, expressing hope that the agreement would “strengthen security and stability in the Middle East.”

King Abdullah II of Jordan addresses the audience during the opening session of the World Economic Forum at the King Hussein convention center, Southern Shuneh, Jordan, Friday, May 22, 2015 (AP/Nasser Nasser)
King Abdullah II of Jordan addresses the audience during the opening session of the World Economic Forum at the King Hussein convention center, Southern Shuneh, Jordan, Friday, May 22, 2015 (AP/Nasser Nasser)

Most significantly, perhaps, the agreement is a watershed moment in Arab-American security relations. According to Mark Heller, a principle research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies, the nuclear deal is a symptom of Iranian-American rapprochement viewed with suspicious by most Arab states.

“Arab states are concerned that they can’t really count on the United States anymore to view Iran — as they do — as an adversary,” he said.

Saudi army artillery fire shells towards Yemen from a post close to the Saudi-Yemeni border, in southwestern Saudi Arabia, on April 13, 2015. (photo credit: AFP / FAYEZ NURELDINE)
Saudi army artillery fire shells towards Yemen from a post close to the Saudi-Yemeni border, in southwestern Saudi Arabia, April 13, 2015. (AFP / FAYEZ NURELDINE)

Saudi Arabia will now strive to develop the same kind of nuclear infrastructure allowed Iran in the agreement, he said, noting that a high-level Saudi delegation had recently visited Russia to discuss the construction of “peaceful nuclear reactors.”

The kingdom will likely step up its financial and logistical support to enemies of Iran’s regional proxies in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, Heller said.

“The proxy war will intensify,” he predicted.

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