Why Arab leaders are telling Obama to listen to Netanyahu

Largely overlooked in all the hubbub of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress about Iran this week is that Arab leaders pretty much agree with him. 

Evan Vucci/Reuters
United States Secretary of State John Kerry (l.) attends a news conference with Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Saud bin Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Riyadh Thursday. Mr. Kerry met Gulf Arab foreign ministers in Riyadh on Thursday to brief them on progress in the nuclear talks with Iran and offer reassurance that any deal would not damage their interests.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have looked like he stood alone at the podium as he addressed Congress this week.

But as he hammered away at his view that a nuclear deal with Iran would dangerously empower an Iranian regime already in full expansion mode, his words no doubt drew vigorous nods from what might seem a surprising group: Arab leaders from Saudi Arabia to Egypt. 

Already alarmed at the gains the Shiite government in Tehran is making in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and now apparently in Yemen, Sunni Arab leaders worry that an American accord with Iran on its nuclear program will seal the deal on a decade of expanding Iranian influence.

In the potential terms of the deal, they see the seeds for a nuclear arms race in the region and the signs that America is growing tired of its role in the Middle East and is wanting to shift its focus to Asia.

“The focus has been on Netanyahu and his concerns about a nuclear deal, as if he were the only one, but the Arabs are increasingly alarmed at the prospect of a flawed nuclear deal and what that would mean for the region,” says James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

That “alarm” has sharpened in recent months with the growing perception among Arabs that the Obama administration sees Iran as a “useful ally” in the fight against the Islamic State, Mr. Phillips says.

 “They’re worried the US will increasingly turn a blind eye to Iran’s subversive activities in the region,” he adds, “and that a deal could lead to a US-Iran rapprochement that would downgrade the Gulf Arabs in general, but especially the Saudis, in Washington’s estimation.”     

Secretary of State John Kerry was dispatched to address those worries as he met Thursday with Saudi and other Gulf leaders gathered in Riyadh. Secretary Kerry flew to the Saudi capital from Geneva, where he once again had extensive talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on each side’s requirements for reaching a nuclear deal.

The Sunni Arabs may not like the idea of Tehran being left in possession of any nuclear program. But even more worrisome for them, some regional experts say, are the implications of an accord that gradually lifts the harsh economic sanctions that have placed some limits on Iranian ambitions.

President Obama’s quest for a deal is viewed in many Arab capitals as not just a green light to Tehran, but also a symbol of his much-discussed "pivot" to Asia. In their eyes, it would be part of a historic shift away from a United States-Arab front to confront Iranian expansionist ambitions that took hold after the Iranian revolution in 1979.

Sunni Arab leaders have never forgotten that in the early days of the Islamic republic the Ayatollah Khomeini railed against them and said they should all be replaced, notes Richard Murphy, a career Mideast diplomat and former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Syria.

“It may have been a case of tremendous hyperbole when Netanyahu said in his speech that Iran has taken over Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa, but there’s no question it resonates,” Mr. Murphy says. “It rings a familiar bell in Jordan, it speaks to the concerns across the region that [the Iranians] are ‘out to surround us.’ ”

Mr. Obama is clearly aware of the regional concerns, and he hastened to address them in comments following Netanyahu’s speech.

Speaking at the White House Tuesday during a meeting with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Obama said no one is downplaying Iran’s “ambitions when it comes to territory or terrorism.” But he argued that failure to lock Iran in a deal that prevents it from getting a nuclear weapon “would make it far more dangerous and give it scope for even greater action in the region.”

Administration officials also like to point out that it was the previous president who did more to empower Iran by toppling Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and opening the way to Iran’s growing influence in Baghdad. 

One further concern for the region – addressed by Netanyahu – is that the deal might allow the Iran nuclear program to continue uranium enrichment (a process that delivers fuel for nuclear energy and medical procedures, but also potentially for nuclear weapons). If this is the case, it might spawn a nuclear race in the region.  

It is a “worry of long standing,” says Murphy, the former diplomat.

But a deal that amounted to a de facto recognition of Iran as a “nuclear threshold state” would “encourage other states in the region – from Turkey to Saudi Arabia and Egypt – to launch their own programs.”

Yet as troubling as the prospect of an expansionist Iran with the legitimacy of a nuclear deal would be, there is an even bigger worry for Arab states, some experts say: that America that is gradually disengaging from the region.

“I don’t doubt the Sunni Arabs have deep concerns about seeing Iran with a nuclear capability,” Murphy says, “but I think it’s pretty clear that the overarching worry is about the constancy of the United States and its relationship with the region.”

The Gulf Arabs grew accustomed to a relationship with the US based on oil and security, he says, but now they see the US turning away from the Middle East, setting its sights elsewhere, and developing its own sources of energy so that it is no longer dependent on the region.

“All of this has [the Sunni Arabs] asking the US, ‘How long are you going to stay with us?’ ” Murphy says. With the same anxieties that have riddled the relationship for years now exacerbated by the Iran negotiations, he adds, “I know they are going to be looking for more from the Obama administration that assurances of loving attention and ‘Let’s stay in touch.’ ”

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