Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and US President Barack Obama are facing the next step of the historic nuclear deal signed earlier this week: reassuring those who are skeptical and fearful of what it means.
President Obama will host Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir at the White House today, just days after the US helped secure a deal with the kingdom’s greatest regional rival.
Reassuring Saudi Arabia, a trendsetter for other Sunni Gulf states, may be the most important diplomatic task of these early days following the deal, reports the Wall Street Journal:
Saudi Arabia is both a longtime American ally and, by far, the most important of the Arab monarchies and sheikdoms that lie just across the Persian Gulf from Iran. Its attitude toward the Iran deal will be critical to the way the pact is received in the broader Arab world.
The Saudis have been deeply worried about the Iran agreement, both because of fears it won’t stop the Iranian nuclear program and because of broader concerns that it will allow Iran to grow as a regional power when it receives the financial windfall from the end of sanctions under the accord.
Secretary of State John Kerry hosted Mr. al-Jubeir yesterday. In the first public comments on the nuclear accord by a Saudi official, the foreign minister said that, “We hope that ... if the deal is implemented that the Iranians will use this deal in order to improve the economic situation in Iran and to improve the lot of its people ... and not use it for adventures in the region.”
"If Iran should try to cause mischief in the region, we're committed to confront it resolutely."
Saudi Arabia is already signaling that it will act to counter any such Iranian action, reports The Christian Science Monitor, focusing particularly on Yemen and Syria.
According to ... military officials and analysts, the nuclear deal has left the Saudis scrambling to make as many battlefield gains in neighboring states as possible before sanctions are lifted over the next year, potentially leaving Iran flush with more than $100 billion in unfrozen funds and new revenues – resources they say Tehran will use to expand its proxy wars.
Concerns that Saudi Arabia has communicated privately to the United States have been enough to prompt US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to announce a trip to Riyadh designed to allay the House of Saud’s fears and avert any military escalation.
Fears about a surge in regional influence may be unwarranted, at least in the short term. Iranian leaders are expected to focus on resuscitating Iran’s crippled economy; economic hardship brought on by sanctions helped deliver the presidency to Hassan Rouhani in 2013.
“I don’t think [the nuclear deal] will empower them to think that now they can run riot in the region at all,” Shahram Chubin, an Iran analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Geneva, told the Monitor earlier this week.
“After all the neglect that happened these last few years, they really have a lot of catching up to do, for the quality of life for their own people.”
From Beirut to Kabul, Iran’s model now is defensive, says Carnegie’s Chubin. Syria, especially, has been costly in cash and dead Iranian generals, and also has tarnished Hezbollah. “Iran is not madcap about doing more,” he says.
Saudi suspicions of Iranian influence are nothing new, as diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks show. The New York Times reports that Saudi officials track Iranian activities overseas in painstaking detail, and seek to counter Iran's brand of Shiite Islam with the Kingdom's own Sunni ideology.
The documents, which Saudi Arabia has made it a crime to spread at home, illustrate what the Times calls a rivalry "with deep roots in the religious ideologies that underpin the two nations."
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who plans to travel to the Gulf soon after the Eid al-Fitr celebration marking today's end of Ramadan, said in an address today that the agreement would pave the way for better regional relations.
"By solving the artificial crisis about its nuclear program diplomatically, a new opportunity for regional and international cooperation has emerged," Mr. Zarif said, according to Reuters.
Meanwhile, the Iranian government is scrambling to sell the deal to its hardliners.
Hamidreza Taraghi, a political analyst close to Ayatollah Khameini, told The New York Times that while the tone of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini's letter to President Rouhani after the deal might have "seemed friendly," it was in fact "cold."
“Notice how he only thanked the negotiators but did not congratulate them on a victory. Our leader is worried about several points in the deal,” Mr. Taraghi said.
In response to the supreme leader’s comments, hardliners began scrutinizing the deal to see if it crossed any of his red lines. At a news conference Thursday, Foad Izadi, a professor of public diplomacy at the University of Tehran, said that the deal crossed “18-1/2” of 19 red lines he had counted, according to the Times.