While much of the focus over the past few weeks has been on the visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington DC, and his open opposition to the deal the West is intending to strike with Iran over their nuclear program, there is another capital where an even more important stand is being taken against the US position on the Iran issue. Riyadh, where the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) recently met with Secretary of State John Kerry.
The six members of the GCC (Saudi Arabia, Oman, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain), as well as other Sunni states in the region are united with Israel on very few issues, but on the possibility of a nuclear Iran they are in lockstep. The meeting with Kerry ended with typical, bland statements regarding mutual respect between the US and her Arab allies and a commitment to continued dialogue, but behind the scenes the interactions with the Secretary of State appear to have been fiery.
Netanyahu’s speech in Congress focused largely on the fact that Iran supports various terrorist groups across the region including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, as well as the Assad regime in Syria. The Prime Minister argued that to allow a state which already acts with such impunity to have the ultimate weapon would be a disaster. That argument has for the past few years been much more persuasive in Arab capitals than it has been in those of the P5+1 negotiating team dealing with Iran.
A cursory look at the region clearly explains why.
Just over the borders from the GCC sectarian wars are raging. In Yemen the government has collapsed and the capital is in the hands of Houthi rebels who are Shi’ite, while in neighbouring Iraq the dominant Shia group in the government is known to have extremely close ties with Iran, and elements of the Iranian army have deployed around Baghdad to help in the fight against ISIS. In Syria the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has been deployed for years, fighting alongside the Assad regime to crush the Syrian opposition and helping to push what began as a movement for democracy into a sectarian bloodbath. Finally, the GCC itself feels under threat due to the alleged links between Iran and the Shi’ite community in Bahrain which has been campaigning against the Sunni monarchy in the tiny kingdom. Even Saudi Arabia, the bastion of Sunni Islam, is concerned by the Shi’ites in her restive eastern province.
In the face of what the Sunni states see as Iranian meddling, the decision by the United States and its partners to push so strongly for a deal on the nuclear issue has met with considerable resistance among traditional Arab allies. There are two elements to the Sunni opposition to a deal with Iran.
First and foremost those governments agree with the Israeli Prime Minister that a deal that fails to dismantle the Iranian nuclear program is unacceptable and likely to at best postpone – and at worst increase the chance – that Iran will eventually get an operable nuclear weapon. Nothing concerns the Sunni states more than the idea of a nuclear umbrella protecting the Shi’ite minority groups in their countries that Iran currently supports.
Second, to some extent any deal that brings Iran in from the cold and allows it to strengthen economically through the ending of the sanctions program is opposed by the Sunni states. They have no interest in the strengthening of Iran on principle, particularly at a time when one of the key balancing powers of the Sunni world in Egypt is in turmoil and unable to effectively project power to check Iranian influence.
Considering the myriad of political, religious and strategic differences between Israel and most of the Sunni Arab states, rarely does an issue come up where they are so closely aligned. On the issue of Iran and the nuclear deal, however, they are utterly united. The opposition of so many countries that usually work closely with the West in general, and the United States in particular, will not have an immediate effect on the outcome of the negotiations with Iran. It may well lead, however, to a set of new and complex alliances in the region. Quiet conversations between officials from all these countries may yet result in actions – covert and overt – to undermine the Iranian nuclear program away from the negotiating table.
The ability of the P5+1 to control the situation when such an untypical and yet resolute alliance has begun to form is limited. Kerry will need to offer much better assurances regarding the nature of the deal under discussion with Iran if he is to begin to rebuild trust among the Sunni Arab states.