Iran nuclear deal: Saudi Arabia fears rival's regional footprint

Riyadh worries that lifting sanctions on Iran means greater firepower for its proxy forces, including in Yemen where a Saudi-led bombing campaign continues. Saudi Arabia also wants its own nuclear program, for what is says are peaceful purposes. 

Saudi Defense Minister Prince Mohammad bin Salman is briefed by officers on the military operations in Yemen at the command center in Riyadh, in this March 26, 2015, handout picture. Saudi Arabia and Gulf region allies have launched military operations including airstrikes in Yemen, seeking to counter Iran-allied forces besieging the southern city of Aden.

In public, Saudi Arabia has offered cautious praise for last week's international nuclear agreement with Iran, its regional rival. King Salman told US President Barack Obama last Thursday that he hoped that a final deal “would aid in developing regional and international security,” the state-run Saudi Press Agency reported.

But even if the framework deal prevents Iran for now from building a nuclear bomb, Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-majority state, frets that it won’t stop Iran’s support for Shiite militant groups across the Middle East. And that regional threat, in turn, may nudge Riyadh towards reviving its mothballed nuclear program in order to counter Iran’s, according to Saudi officials and analysts.

“Saudi Arabia is all for nuclear security in the region, but is more concerned about Iran’s growing support and funding for terrorist groups and the interference in internal Arab affairs,” says Jasser Abdelaziz al Jasser, political analyst and managing editor at the state-run Saudi Al Jazeera newspaper.

“If they do not see real action on this front, they will take matters into their own hands.”

Like much of the Arab world, Saudi officials are anxious both to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons and to counter its funding and arming of allied Shiite forces, such as Hezbollah and the Syrian regime. That puts them broadly in the same camp as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has warned repeatedly of growing Iranian influence in the region.

Observers and officials here say in the wake of the deal they expect to see Saudi-led forces step up their bombing campaign in Yemen, where Riyadh accuses Iran of backing Houthi insurgents that forced out a Saudi-backed president.

Saudi official sources say Riyadh will “bring all its military might” in Yemen to push back Houthi militias, which are allied to Yemen’s former dictator, and send Iran a direct message: deal or no deal, the time for retaliation has come.

“For years, Iran has been crossing the red-line and has been supporting militias and terrorist groups across the Arab world,” says a Saudi official familiar with the military campaign. “Now in Yemen, we are finally standing up and making a stand, and our stand will only strengthen, not weaken after this deal.”

Ground incursion mulled in Yemen

According to officials close to the decision-making process, Riyadh is mulling the deployment of hundreds of Saudi Marines and Special Forces – possibly with a role for Egyptian forces – to secure the Yemeni port city of Aden, the interim capital of the beleaguered pro-Saudi government. 

Saudi officials say Riyadh has accelerated its plans for a ground incursion in Yemen in order to ratchet up pressure on Iran and score military gains long before any sanctions are potentially lifted under the nuclear deal between Iran and the US and five other world powers.

In Syria, Saudi Arabia supports armed groups fighting against President Bashar Al-Assad, whose security forces increasingly rely on those of Iran and Hezbollah. Sources in the Free Syrian Army, one of the rebel groups, say Saudi Arabia has in recent days more than doubled its funding, a move aimed at helping to check Iran’s proxy forces in southern Syria.

“Saudi Arabia is keeping our campaign alive- they have made it clear that the south should not be lost,” says FSA commander Assad Zoubi.

Observers say Saudi Arabia will continue to ramp up its military pushback against Iran until it receives assurances from the US and the West that any final deal will call for Tehran to end its interventions in the Arab world.

“What Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arab world is looking for is not an agreement that only deals with the nuclear issue, but one that also brings an end to Iranian interference in the Arab world which has become the major source of instability in the region,” says Hani Wafa, analyst and political editor at the Saudi daily Al Riyadh.

Saudi nuclear ambitions

Meanwhile, observers and officials say Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer, is to accelerate its own drive for nuclear energy by fast-tracking the construction of up to 10 nuclear reactors and laying the groundwork for potential uranium enrichment.

The Saudi nuclear program has been dormant since 2007. Yet with Iran receiving a potential stamp of approval by the international community, and with the signing of a recent nuclear cooperation agreement with South Korea, Riyadh seems determined to produce atomic energy as early as 2021 and has refused to rule out uranium enrichment.

Saudi Arabia insists that it only wants to develop nuclear energy. Still, fears remain that it could develop a parallel weapons program, potentially with help from its ally Pakistan, and that Iran’s advancement will spark a regional nuclear-arms race.

“There is a feeling in Saudi Arabia that if Iran can produce nuclear energy with the blessing of the international community, why not us?” Mr. al-Jasser says. 

“This program has become an issue of national security for Saudi Arabia – in order to compete with Iran, it, too must become a nuclear energy state.”

“For Iran and Saudi Arabia, nuclear energy is a means, rather than the end game.”

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