Special Commentary

Iran Nuclear Deal: Israeli and Saudi Arabian Objections

31 Dec, 2013    ·   4229

Ruhee Neog and Ayesha Khanyari look at the objections raised by the two countries

While the interim nuclear deal signed with Iran has earned praise from many quarters, it also has its share of detractors. Chief among them are Israel and Saudi Arabia, with whom the US has the most firmly held relationships in the region. The basis for their opposition to the deal, responses to their objections, and potential next steps will be explored below.

Israeli Objections
The basis of Israel’s opposition is the existential threat a nuclear Iran poses.

Although Israel had initially offered its support, the current deal with Iran is not the one it had envisaged. It was hoping that Iran and the P5+1’s conciliatory overtures the willingness displayed by both to broker a deal would put paid to Iran’s nuclear weapons programme for good. Israel’s primary contention therefore is that because the deal only suspends uranium enrichment and does not halt the nuclear weapons programme in its entirety; Iran could achieve breakout capacity in a matter of months. The failure of the deal to define a final goal has also been cited. This also speaks to the Israeli stand that a deal that does not firmly tackle Iranian uranium enrichment is not a deal worth supporting, and is ample cause for alarm. Thus, Israel would either like to keep the sanctions in place, or have a deal that brings Iran’s uranium enrichment programme to a complete halt. It believes that offering sanctions relief without the guaranteed dismantlement of Iranian nuclear weapons infrastructure is making too many concessions too quickly. Especially since speedily re-instating sanctions would not be an easy task if Iran were to defy the terms of this interim deal. In addition, the hard-hitting sanctions imposed on Iran have also been credited with finally being able to manage getting Iran to the negotiating table. The Israeli take on this, therefore, is if sanctions are fulfilling their intended purpose, why should they be lifted when they are most effective? Should they not instead be strengthened to signal Western determination in an effort to get the best possible deal from Iran?

In Response to Israeli Objections
The slowing down of Iran’s capacity to produce a nuclear weapon is being seen as the interim deal’s most significant achievement, but the Israelis do not necessarily agree. In that sense, many agree that that this is only an interim deal - a deal to agree on a framework for a final, comprehensive solution. The final goal of this deal was really to set conditions and reach some sort of consensus for further talks, which it seems to have satisfactorily achieved.

Also, painting a picture of Iranian desperation (due to sanctions) and Western benevolence is a little misguided. This is motivated by the assumption that since sanctions have visibly hurt Iran, and Rouhani cited sanctions relief as one of the priorities of his post-election agenda, Iran had no option but to placate the West. This is not strictly true - the US, in particular, was just as keen, after years of diplomatic stagnation, to reach an agreement.

What Next?
There has been talk of a military strike on Iran if the situation arises (Iranian weaponisaton), reflecting the dissatisfaction that deal has elicited in Israel, a country whose borders are vulnerable to Hamas and Hezbollah – both groups supported by Iran. This, as it plays out in the US Israel lobby, coupled with the hurdles likely to be posed by a partisan US Congress, is going to be a difficult course for the Obama administration to navigate back home.

Saudi Arabia
There is a long history of aggression, hatred and mistrust orchestrated by Tehran against Riyadh. However, it would have been diplomatically impossible for the Saudis to publically condemn the deal despite the frustration it has felt over the past several months.

The very nature of the talks, which were conducted in secret, made the Saudis feel neglected by a major ally. The way US policy towards West Asia has evolved in recent times makes the kingdom sense a kind of US disconnect from the region. The Saudis are unhappy with US reluctance to engage in Syria. They are stepping up efforts to aid the rebels fighting against Assad while the Iranians continue to support Assad’s regime. It is clear that the US does not wish to be dragged into regional problems as it has in the past. It wants to disengage, and this is what the Saudis fear. The interim deal gives Iran renewed influence in the region and hence threatens the other stakeholders who are suspicious of Iran’s ambitions.

At present, Israel might be viewed as a bigger threat than Saudi Arabia, but looking at the long-term implications, Saudis could prove to be a greater threat to regional stability. Saudi Arabia cannot ignore Iran’s slow climb back into the international fold if it wishes to retain its present influence in the region; hence there is a possibility that it can act upon this in the future. The Iran nuclear deal is a prelude to a US-Iran strategic partnership that will enable Iran to have greater autonomy in the region and an upper hand in Syria and Iraq. This makes Saudi Arabia insecure.

What Next?
Claims that the deal will result in an arms race in the region are a little farfetched. There is talk that the deal will incite the Saudis to develop nuclear weapons with Pakistani backing. It cannot be ignored that Saudis in the past have helped Pakistan to upgrade its nuclear programme, but this does not indicate that they will go to Pakistan to have the favour returned. Also, Pakistan would prefer not to get into trouble with yet another neighbour which could have serious repercussions on the maintenance of its relations with the US.

The Saudis are working towards a more assertive foreign policy. There are efforts to form a new national security doctrine to address the rising insecurity caused by an emerging Iran and the Shia population. The revamping of its foreign policy is to prevent Saudi Arabia from being dislodged as the regional hegemon. Saudis are unlikely to stand by if Iran tries to extend its influence in the region.

Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the US is troubled; it does not enjoy the kind of relationship it once did with the US. Furthermore, the interim nuclear agreement is a direct consequence of the dramatic change in the interaction and relationship between Iran and the US. US interests at present are more inclined towards Iran, and the Saudis feel double-crossed by a major ally. In such a situation, it will not be very difficult to assume that with the US quietly moving out of the region, it gives scope for other players to move in. New players may include EU (Germany, Britain , France) or China, who have a great chance to fill the vacuum if the US decides to downgrade its alliance with Saudi Arabia or abandon the region altogether.

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the Saudis business magnate, may not be part of the government but his speeches on behalf of the royal family are significant. He has warned that Obama is in need of a political victory of any kind to fulfill his desperation for a foreign policy success. He has accused the Iranians of taking advantage of Obama’s weakness who is in a rush to have any sort of a deal with Iran without worrying about its consequences.

However, the Saudis are not keen on immediate action despite its strong and clearly signalled reservations about the interim agreement. They will continue to examine the deal closely with concern. If they feel a further pinch and are not happy with the way things progress they are likely to strike back in the near future. Adjusting to this new chapter in US-Iran relations is not going to be easy for Saudi Arabia.

‘Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows’, and it would be natural to assume that given the convergence of interests, Israel and Saudi Arabia would come together in dealing with Iran. There are too many complexities and areas of fracture at play in this purported ‘relationship’, and speculations about any kind of Israel-Saudi Arabia joint action would be an over statement.