Neither Shocked nor Awed: The Arab Reaction to the Iran Deal
Diplomacy and International Institutions
My research associate, Amr Leheta, wrote this terrific post on the Arab reaction to the framework agreement between the P5+1 and Iran. Enjoy!
“The Nuclear Agreement…A Strategic Earthquake in the Middle East” read one headline in a London-based, pan-Arab newspaper on April 4. In the article underneath, published a couple of days after the announcement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) regarding Iran’s nuclear program, the editorial board of Al-Quds Al-Arabi wrote the following:
There are few who are able to debate [against the notion that] the framework agreement [over the Iranian nuclear program] reached by Iran and the P5+1 countries in Lausanne the day before yesterday represents a historic event and a strategic earthquake that has hit regions already suffering from windy political, security, and military “storms.” There are few who can also claim that they are capable of anticipating the sweeping results of this earthquake, which is redefining the balance of power in a region that is embellished by vitality and sensitivity and is the most significant arena for conflict and the interests of the great powers.
This editorial, one of the first to be published in Arab media after the announcement of the deal, encapsulated the essentials of the Arab reaction to the agreement: solemn acceptance that it represents a significant watershed moment for the Middle East—it has been likened to the 1979 Camp David peace treaty between Egypt and Israel—and a nervous disquiet over the future of Gulf security, the alliance between the United States and Arab Gulf countries, and Saudi hegemony in the region.
The profound mistrust toward Iran, a country seen by many as expansionist, antagonistic, and sectarian, informs much of the commentary on the deal. Support for the ongoing Saudi-led bombing campaign of Yemen to reverse recent power grabs by the Houthis and roll back Iranian influence in the peninsula has also shaped the general reaction. In the Saudi-owned, pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat (also based out of London), Khalid al-Dakhil, a Saudi academic, and Dawood al-Shirian, a television host and journalist, recently argued over which is more of an enemy to Arab states, Iran or Israel. Both agree that Iran is the bigger threat given its involvement in sectarian conflict in the region—manifested in Arab-Iranian terms as well as Sunni-Shia—and al-Shirian insinuated that some believe Israel is not even a threat to begin with.
Thus, the biggest question on Arab minds since the April 2 announcement is, as the editorial board of the Egyptian state-owned daily Al-Ahram wrote, “What are the assurances and guarantees [of security] that Iran has put forward for its Arab Gulf neighbors?” One Saudi newspaper, Al-Riyadh, expanded on this and outlined four more questions in need of answers:
Is it possible for Iran to resort to deception? At that point, would the United States or any other power have the capacity to respond in time? Would these powers use military force? And is it possible for the final agreement to dispel global concerns of Iranian intentions?
Moreover, much of the Arab concern about the agreement is rooted in the conviction that Iran has emerged as the biggest winner of the negotiations and the Arab world has been left in the lurch by the United States. Habib Fayad wrote in the Lebanese daily As-Safir that Iran has achieved what it most wanted since 2003, “the world’s recognition of Iran’s right to manufacture and possess nuclear energy.” This compromise has already spurred much speculation about what will happen next. Ahmad al-Ahmad wondered in Al-Riyadh if the time was right for the Gulf countries to start their own nuclear enrichment program, writing:
It has become imperative for Gulf and Arab countries, which have received assurances from U.S. President Barack Obama that there will not be an agreement with Iran at their expense, to declare that any concessions awarded to Tehran in its agreement with the West and the [P5+1 countries] must also necessarily be applied to Gulf and Arab countries. Thus, if Iran is permitted to have a peaceful [nuclear] program, then it is the right of Gulf and Arab countries to have a peaceful program, and if [Iran] is permitted to enrich uranium to a certain level, then it is the right of Gulf and Arab countries to enrich [uranium] to a certain level.
Like Ahmad, numerous other writers have concluded that if the United States is to make a deal with Iran, then it ought to make a similar deal with the Arab world, particularly the Gulf. For them, it is a way to be reassured of their security interests and of the strength of their relationship with the United States. Given that the Arab world was left out of the these negotiations, it is no wonder that many Gulf Arabs are insecure about where the deal leaves them, how they can secure their interests, and what it means for their relationship with the United States.
Several have gone further and suggested that the United States and Arab countries are drifting apart. Salman al-Dossary, the editor-in-chief of the Saudi-owned, London-based, pan-Arab Asharq Al-Awsat, is concerned that the United States no longer understands the needs and interests of the Arab world. In an April 7 column entitled “Does Obama Understand ‘Sunni Arabs’?” Dossary betrayed bewilderment at how the United States is seemingly trusting of Iran and expects the Gulf to be just as welcoming (the piece is translated into English here). He wrote:
Does Obama expect the Gulf—which has long suffered from Iran’s interventions and sponsorship of terrorism—to simply believe his efforts to improve the image of Tehran? Isn’t it the same Tehran that has posed a clear and present danger to Gulf states for the past 36 years?...The US administration has made a major diplomatic mistake when, during talks with Iran, it sent an indirect message that it is incapable of waging war against Tehran over its nuclear program…Instead, Washington has thrown the ball into the Gulf’s court, calling on them not to worry about Iran. One thing Mr. Obama has not done yet is present himself as a go-between for his Gulf “allies” and his friends in Tehran.
With all the disappointment in the United States, the same commentators are hoping that the upcoming meeting of the heads of the GCC states—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—and the U.S. president at Camp David will quell the growing anxieties. It will, after all, be a significant opportunity for Obama to convince his Arab allies that the deal with Iran is in their interests as well. In the meantime, the Arab media is looking to Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen as an example of Arab independence and capability. And even though the military campaign in Yemen is intended in part to show that the Arab world can protect its interests without the United States, Arab writers and thinkers still prefer to think that the JCPOA will fail in the haggling to come over the technical details of a final agreement so that the status quo will remain. Potential opposition from “America’s hardliners”—the Republican Party—as well as Iran’s gives them hope.
The commentary is not all pessimistic though, and some see room to secure Arab interests in the final iteration of the deal. Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a Saudi media personality who is a former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat and a previous general manager of the Al Arabiya News Channel, cautions that the details of the final agreement could push Iran in one of two directions. He wrote in an op-ed (translated into English here):
The agreement may be a victory for the Iranian regime over its rivals inside and outside Iran, but it might turn out to be a submissive deal. If halting Iran’s nuclear project, for the moment, results in just the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions and setting Iran free to become a major regional power, we will be then [sic] embarking on a more serious crisis and an era stained with more blood. Nevertheless, if halting Iran’s nuclear project results in the freezing of Iran’s militarized nuclear activities, controlled by the lifting of Western sanctions, and an end to political antagonism against Iran, then we would be witnessing positive progress. It would mean that Iran has finally surrendered and will become, like any other country in the region such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, a peaceful state that defends its borders.
In others words, limited but crucial exchanges can make this a better deal in the end, one that would bring Iran into the community of nations. For Rashed, this also means the hopeful possibility of unraveling the Iranian regime. He continued, “Ayatollah [Ali Khamenei]’s regime has weakened with time…[and] the deal requires the openness of the regime, however Iran is not ready for it yet and could face what happened to the Soviet Union after the deals to reduce its nuclear arsenal and be [sic] cooperative with the West: it rapidly collapsed.” Others are less speculative about the benefits of a deal with Iran in the short-term. Also writing for Asharq Al-Awsat, Mamoun Fandy contended that “Despite [the many obstacles and questions], reaching an agreement will be better for the region and its stability,” although, he went on to say, the Arab world must keep its eyes open to see if Iran will behave transparently going forward.
What does all this tell us? Well, contrary to the popular belief in Washington that the Arab world was going to flat-out reject the framework agreement, the response has been far more measured and nuanced than expected. What has been surprising to many is the cautious Saudi acceptance of the deal. Indeed, in his phone call to Obama, King Salman bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud expressed a desire to reach a “final and mandatory accord conducive to consolidating regional as well as international security and stability.” Given this hopeful tone, perhaps even the Arab world will accept a deal in the end.
Diplomacy and International Institutions