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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry walks with Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, before the two attend a meeting of the regional Gulf Cooperation Council, 2 March 2015. Photo CorbisArab countries, specifically those in the Gulf, do not have a unified position on the agreement that Iran and 5+1 countries reached in July 2015 on the future of Tehran’s nuclear programme. Although all the Gulf countries officially welcomed the deal, the positions of their governments varied significantly. Official statements showed that Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are the most worried about the consequences of the nuclear deal. Qatar also has concerns but to a lesser degree. The United Arab Emirates and Oman were the two Gulf countries most welcoming of the deal, followed by Kuwait.
The Saudi position on the nuclear deal is significant, because Saudi Arabia is the largest and most important Gulf state. Despite the Saudi Foreign Ministry’s welcoming of the deal, statements by Saudi officials and figures connected to the ruling Saudi elite in Riyadh demonstrated that the Saudi regime views the deal as a strategic threat and seeks to confront it by overhauling Riyadh’s foreign policy and regional alliances. Saudi reactions show that Riyadh has concerns that the deal would grant Iran a strategic partnership with the United States and the West, at the expense of Saudi interests. Riyadh is worried that a trade-off agreement between Washington and Tehran would allow the latter to assume a key role in fighting Sunni extremist groups, especially the so-called Islamic State—a confrontation that tops the priorities of the Obama administration—in exchange for US recognizing Iran as a key regional power and giving it a free hand to pursue its interests.
Saudi Arabia also fears that it will be confronted by Iranian proxies on three sides. The Saudi narrative, largely disputed by international analysts, is that the Shiite Houthi group in neighbouring Yemen, to the south, is loyal to Iran; that in Bahrain, northeast of Saudi Arabia, Iran backs the Shiite opposition that calls for constitutional reforms to end the rule of the Sunni Al Khalifah family, a strong ally of Saudi Arabia; and that Iraq, to the northeast, has already fallen into the grip of Iran-backed Shiite groups.
Saudi Arabia has concerns that Tehran will make further gains in the region by signing the nuclear deal. The Saudis are obsessed with the idea that the deal could lead to a Western-Iranian understanding to keep President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in power in Syria, to the advantage of Iran’s allies in countries such as Lebanon, where Hizballah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, does not hesitate to attack Saudi Arabia. Hence, it was not unexpected to hear Saudi Foreign Minister Adil al-Jubair warn that Saudi Arabia would “confront Iran with full force in the event that the latter used the deal to incite further unrest in the region”. Saudi writer Abdul Rahman al-Rashid, former director of the pan-Arab Al-Arabiyah TV news channel, argued that the deal would sustain Iran’s ability to support “extremist groups” and that it has empowered hardliners in the Iranian regime who will push Iran to launch more regional wars. Hasan Shobokshi, another prominent Saudi writer, said the deal would trigger a sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites in the region. In an article published by al-Sharq al-Awsat on 16 June 2015, Shobokshi warned that the release of Iranian deposits held in Western banks would allow Iran to buy weapons, reinforce its arsenal, and use it for “inciting unrest and sponsoring terrorism with international backing.”
Judging from the Saudis’ behaviour after Iran signed the nuclear deal, Riyadh’s strategy of dealing with the repercussions of the deal seems to have a dual focus.
First, Riyadh aims to defeat Iran in regional territories perceived to be under Iran’s influence. This is why Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes on the Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen, which led to the group’s expulsion from Aden, the second most important city in the country after the capital Sanaa, and caused a humanitarian crisis in the country. Riyadh has buttressed support for the government of Bahrain to address the deterioration of its security after Iran signed the deal. The Bahraini interior ministry accused Iran of smuggling weapons and explosives to Shiite opposition groups in the country, although both Iran and the Bahraini Shiite groups deny this. At the same time, Saudi Arabia is keen to change the balance of power in Syria in favour of the armed opposition forces. Riyadh is preparing to host a large conference for the Syrian opposition forces to discuss ways to unify the various opposition groups and help them end al-Assad’s rule, and to develop a strategy to confront the Islamic State, which is fighting opposition forces and did not hesitate to carry out attacks inside Saudi territory.
Second, Saudi Arabia seeks to build a broad Sunni alliance to confront Iran and minimize its ability to achieve breakthroughs in Saudi Arabia’s geostrategic neighbourhood. In this context, Saudi Arabia embarked on a historic reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, which was designated as a terrorist group in the era of former Saudi King Abdallah. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia relies heavily on “popular resistance” forces led by al-Islah Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen. And, in a significant gesture, King Salman hosted Khalid Mashal, head of Hamas’s Political Bureau, a step that clearly aims to keep Hamas out of the arms of Iran and to strengthen the Sunni axis. At the same time, Riyadh hosted Rached Ghannouchi, head of Ennahda Movement, which represents the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia, even though Ghannouchi was banned from performing the Hajj because of his affiliation with the group. News leaks reported that Saudi Arabia is also interested in brokering a reconciliation between Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s regime and the Muslim Brotherhood, under which the death sentences issued against the group’s leaders would be revoked.
Ironically, however, the shifting Saudi position towards the Muslim Brotherhood prompted some Arab countries to reach out to Iran. The United Arab Emirates, which is hostile towards the Muslim Brotherhood, disassociated itself from the Saudi strategy, and UAE President Khalifa al-Nuhayyan sent a letter of congratulation to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the nuclear deal. Al-Arabi al-Jadid newspaper revealed on 29 July 2015 that the UAE will use the deal to secure natural-gas imports from Iran. Similarly, and as a sign of the differences between Egypt and Saudi Arabia over the Muslim Brotherhood, Cairo has purportedly sought to improve relations with Tehran as noted by the media outlets loyal to President al-Sisi; all indications are that there is deep tension between Riyadh and Cairo after the rise to power of King Salman.
In this context, Lebanese writer Khalid Ghazal argued that Arab states will be unable to confront Iran because of structural collapses within the Arab regimes. In an article published in al-Hayat newspaper on 25 July 2015, Ghazal wrote that the Arab world is in “a state of confusion and disorientation” and that civil conflicts in the region have undermined the Arab regimes’ ability to unite and surmount key challenges, including external ones.