US allies fear not just nuclear deal, but how it strengthens Iran

The US is trying mightily to convince Israel that it is more secure with the Iran nuclear deal. But the prospect of a strengthened Iran asserting itself in the region may be even harder for the Saudis to take.

Jason Reed/Pool/File
Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal speaks during a joint press conference with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Riyadh, Nov. 4.

US allies in the Middle East, starting with Israel but including Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies, don’t know which is worse: the deal that the US and other world powers just concluded with Iran on its nuclear program, or the reality of the US engaging with Iran and helping to pave their arch enemy’s path to greater regional power.

The US is acting quickly to assuage those concerns.

President Obama spoke by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu within hours of the Iran nuclear deal’s signing early Sunday – inviting an Israeli national security delegation to Washington next week to discuss the comprehensive agreement that world powers hope to reach with Iran over the next six months.

Secretary of State John Kerry was equally quick to address Israel’s concerns in particular. “Israel and the United States absolutely share the same goal here. There is no daylight between us,” he told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.

Mr. Kerry has telegraphed one message to Israel and Israel’s American supporters, especially in Congress, since the interim Iran deal was signed in Geneva: that Israel is more secure under this deal and with Iran locked into international obligations than with Iran moving ahead without restrictions on its nuclear program.

The administration wants to convince Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf partners, that a diplomatic solution that places tough limits and obligations on Iran’s nuclear program – something they all say they prefer – will be much preferable to the military action that might be the only alternative.

In addition, some analysts see a political motive in the administration making a point of consulting the Israelis on the Iran deal. By inviting an Israeli national security team to Washington to discuss the elements of a permanent deal with Iran, they say, Obama is trying to put the Israelis in his camp – or at least to soften their objections to a comprehensive agreement – before a very skeptical Congress can count on full Israeli support in any effort to scuttle a deal.

In any case, Washington’s Middle East partners are so far not sounding convinced by administration assurances. Mr. Netanyahu deemed the interim deal a “historic mistake” – although he agreed to dispatch his national security team to Washington to press Israel’s point of view on what a comprehensive deal with Iran should look like.

“This accord must bring about one outcome: the dismantling of Iran’s military nuclear capability,” Netanyahu said in announcing the delegation he would send to Washington next week.

The Israeli leader’s focus on dismantling Iran’s “military nuclear capability” led some analysts to wonder if Netanyahu was publicly recognizing that Iran will retain some nuclear program at the conclusion of a final deal. But others say it is hard to imagine that Israel is conceding at the outset of negotiations that Iran will retain a uranium enrichment program.

“I can’t imagine he’s conceding enrichment as a reality at this point,” says George Perkovich, vice president for studies and a nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. Netanyahu “could say that what he means by that is ‘no enrichment,’ because lots of countries rely on imported fuel for peaceful nuclear power generation.”

Saudi Arabia is probably even more alarmed by the Iran nuclear deal than Israel, because Saudi Arabia is more fearful than Israel of the larger regional role that a comprehensive deal would almost certainly guarantee Iran.

The Saudi government’s official reaction to the Geneva deal was tempered, but some analysts say the government’s true feelings – what one called a “seething behind closed doors” – came out in surrogates’ comments in the hours following the deal.

Of particular interest to many Middle East analysts were comments by Nawaf Obaid, an adviser to Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former head of Saudi intelligence and a prominent and influential former Saudi ambassador to Washington, who told a London audience Monday that the Iran deal would only widen the growing rift between Riyadh and Washington.

Speaking at London’s European Council on Foreign Relations, Mr. Obaid said the Saudis were particularly galled by the secret channel of talks between the Americans and the Iranians that began before this month’s nuclear negotiations.

The Saudis, accustomed to being the Americans’ go-to regional power, were most disturbed by “the way [those talks] were … hidden from us,” said Obaid, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center in Riyadh.

More broadly, Saudi Arabia is concerned by how a deal by world powers reintegrating Iran into the international community will enhance Iran’s drive to assert broader regional power, Obaid said. And he suggested Saudi Arabia will not sit idly by as that occurs, telling his audience, “We will be there to stop them, wherever they are.”    

Administration officials will listen to Israeli concerns next week and will no doubt meet with Saudi officials in an effort to allay their concerns – just as Kerry made a fence-mending stop in Riyadh early this month to smooth over differences between the two countries on Iran, Syria, and other regional issues.

Kerry was effusive with the Saudis on that trip, calling Saudi Arabia “the senior player” in the Middle East. But it will take more than audible praise and declarations of common cause to offset the alarm over US policy set off by the Iran deal, some experts say.

One offsetting option the US should consider is a “network” of security pacts with regional allies, says Steven Spiegel, a scholar at the New York-based Israel Policy Forum.

To accompany any comprehensive deal with Iran, the US should sign security accords with Israel and Saudi Arabia in particular declaring that any attack by Iran on those countries would be considered an attack on the US, says Dr. Spiegel, who is also the director of the Center for Middle East Development at the University of California at Los Angeles.

American security guarantees to these countries are already implicit to varying degrees, Spiegel notes. But he says that explicit accords – different in each case to meet each country’s particular concerns – could do much to allay concerns about the US entering into a nuclear deal with Iran that could lead to broader US-Iran engagement.

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