Arab Reaction to Iran Nuclear Agreement Reflects Region’s Sharp Divide – WSJ
An agreement on the outlines of a nuclear deal with Iran, a country deeply involved in the Middle East’s web of bloody conflicts, is unlikely to help defuse the region’s sectarian wars and could even widen fault lines, Arab officials and people across the region say.
For years, limiting Shiite Iran’s nuclear ambitions was at the top of the agenda for the region’s Sunni Arab countries. They now worry an agreement would empower Tehran economically if sanctions relief sets in, and embolden it politically as it emerges as a player on the world stage.
The perception, alone, that Iran would benefit or emerge empowered from a deal could fuel a Sunni backlash and worsen sectarian strife across the region, officials and analysts said.
“There’s a nuclear Iran being dealt with by this deal, but what’s much more worrying is the sectarian Iran and expansionist Iran,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a retired political-science professor in the United Arab Emirates who is familiar with the Emirati government’s thinking. “That’s 10 times more dangerous.”
In the West, supporters of a nuclear deal with Iran hope it can generate momentum to help calm the Middle East. A U.S. diplomat in the region said the step would avert a nuclear arms race between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It “addressed a major regional concern,” the diplomat said, though other issues remain.
To many U.S. allies in the region, the movement toward an accommodation between the world powers and Iran was more significant than the precise terms of any deal itself.
Saudi Arabia—Iran’s chief Arab rival—had struck out on its own path well before the nuclear talks concluded. Last week, a Saudi-led coalition of 10 Arab nations began air strikes in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels who had driven the Saudi-backed president into exile.
The fighting in Yemen accelerated plans by the Gulf nations and Egypt to create a joint Arab military force to police the region-and, Gulf leaders say, to counter Iran’s influence.
U.S. President Barack Obama said Thursday he had called Saudi King Salman to “reaffirm our commitment to our partners in the Gulf.” The president said he would invite the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries—Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman—to a security summit at Camp David in the coming weeks.
King Salman told Mr. Obama that he “hopes reaching a final and binding agreement would lead to improving security and stability in the region and the world,” the Saudi state news agency said.
Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist and political commentator, said the Saudis would be undeterred by any potential Western softening toward Tehran. The Kingdom “is still now going to handle Iran’s expansionism. It’s not going to leave that in the hands of the Americans.”
A senior Egyptian government official said Cairo doesn’t oppose the deal but shares the view of Saudi Arabia and other regional allies that restrictions on Iran’s pursuit of nuclear energy must be firmly enforced.
In Iraq and Lebanon, two countries where Iran wields major influence, Sunni officials said the framework agreement reflected the weakness of American policy in the Middle East, especially in confronting an ascendant Iran.
“This nuclear deal is a face-saving thing for Obama,” said Hamid al-Mutlag, an Iraqi Sunni lawmaker. “America should put a condition on Iran in this deal: Hands off Iraq.”
Lebanese Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk, who is allied with the country’s pro-Western political camp, said Arab states were no longer waiting on the U.S. to take action.
Mr. Machnouk, who has close ties to Saudi officials, said an “Arab awakening” had begun. “In the end, it turns out there are Arabs who decided they will not be weak,” he said on local television, referring to the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen.
The campaign was a rare example, he said, of Arab countries saying: “We can decide without the Americans, with or without their approval.”
Iran’s regional influence has spread and peaked, officials across the region say, in the years since an uprising in Syria against a Shiite-linked regime turned sectarian, spurring the rise of Sunni extremists and drawing Iran to the defense of its proxies and allies in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
Some of Iran’s regional allies saw the move toward a deal as a foreign-policy victory for Tehran.
Unable to fathom facing Iran militarily, America “accepted the current deal,” said Hassan Slim, a member of the Iraqi parliament whose political bloc represents Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, one of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite militias.
Supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime has survived the four-year rebellion in part due to Iranian support, also cheered the news on social media.
Syrians sympathetic with the opposition, meanwhile, said they worried any easing of sanctions would make Iran even more entrenched in its support of the regime, prolonging the war there.
A financially comfortable Tehran would “increase its arming of the regime, while raising the fears and obstinacy of the Gulf states which will increase their support to rebel brigades,” said a resident of Damascus.
Syrians, Lebanese, and Iraqis viewed the nuclear talks mostly as a phase in a struggle for dominance between the West and its Arab allies on one side, and Iran on the other that has long played out in their countries.
Some U.S. and European officials and observers said they hoped a nuclear deal with Iran could ease some of the conflicts roiling the Middle East.
If a deal serves to boost Iran’s trust in the West, it may “open the door for a potential compromise on Syria,” said Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center. There is no guarantee that dynamic will pan out, Ms. Khatib and other analysts said, but without a nuclear deal on Iran, “that door remains closed,” she said.
Across the region, a more cynical view prevailed. People spoke of a great game in which local political leaders and average citizens are pawns. They say the outcome of the nuclear talks is irrelevant in this part of the Middle East, both to the bloodshed plaguing their daily lives, and the long-term power politics that have shaped the region since independent states were carved through colonial agreements.
“The elites plan, and the stupid kill,” said Jihad Ghamloush, a Shiite from southern Lebanon. “The thing that will never change, even with an agreement, is the power play over interests in the region. That will always stay.”