The American Secretary of State John Kerry and the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed ZarifIt's been almost two months since the Iranian nuclear agreement was signed and debates on the effects it may have on the geopolitical and diplomatic balance of power in the Middle East region show no signs of stopping. The Sunni Arab world is divided. Some believe that the agreement is a mockery borne from Iran's cunning and the USA's ingenuity; others fear that Iran having greater economic resources means more interference from the country on Middle East issues; and still others have faith that the agreement could be a step towards reducing regional friction and conflict. There are also some who see the decision of Khamenei and the political leadership to sit at the negotiating table in the light of Shi'ite history. Below is some of the most significant commentary published in the pan-Arab daily al-Sharq al-Awsat, which is Saudi-owned, and from the site of the Brookings Doha Center, to give an idea of the reaction of the Sunnis in the Gulf to the news of the nuclear deal.
Carpet seller politics
Mamoun Fandy, chairman of the London Global Strategy Institute, is disappointed, saying the 5 plus 1 have signed a “deceptive and disappointing agreement”, playing into the hands of Iran. The first problem in the nuclear agreement is the two different mentalities which inspired it: the “carpet maker” mentality of Rouhani, the Supreme Leader and Foreign Affairs Minister Zarif, and the “McDonald's World” mentality of Obama and his administration. The Iranians thought they could negotiate with the United States on a carpet maker's timetable, taking two years to weave a carpet and a year to sell it. The United States, on the other hand, expected a McDonald's timetable and were counting on reaching a quick deal at any cost. However, Western hopes were dashed and the 5 plus 1 ended up playing the carpet maker's game, which would have sold the West a mediocre quality product presented as though it were top of the range. In other words, Iran would have shouted loudly about owning thousands of centrifuges that don't actually exist and the West, being a cheated client, would have negotiated to halve the number of them. But the number of centrifuges being negotiated, Fandy explains, is higher than the number Iran currently have. As a result the agreement would de facto allow Iran to increase its nuclear programme, while the West lives under the illusion they got a good deal! But nuclear power wasn't Iran's real objective, the academic maintains; its real priorities were different; restoring a good reputation to a system that was crumbling from the inside, reinvigorating the economy and increasing Iran's regional influence. As to the effects of this agreement in the Gulf countries, Fandy argues that the most serious problem is not the nuclear threat, which so worries the West and Israel, but the harmful influence that Iran can exercise on the region and the consequent risk of further destabilisation.
As Ibrahim Fraihat, vice-director of the Brooking Doha Center, reminds us, ending sanctions will give Iran access to greater financial resources the country can use to finance its Shi'ite “friends”. The most common argument is that Iran has funded two civil wars in Syria and Yemen when it was under sanctions, and now, with tens of billions of dollars more in the coffers, could do a lot worse.
The best of a bad situation
'Abd al-Rahman al-Rashid, columnist at al-Sharq al-Awsat and former director of the Al-Arabiya satellite TV, takes a more positive view, dispelling fears of dark times ahead for diplomatic relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia, allies since President Roosevelt met the Saudi king 'Abdulaziz al-Saud on USS Quincy in 1945. Since then diplomatic relations – the writer explains – have proven to be stable and the two countries are able to overcome friction and manage emerging threats and crises in the region. Together in the '60s they faced down Nasserist power in Egypt and Ba‘atism in Syria; in the '70s they united against communists in southern Yemen and in the '80s against Khomeinists in Iran, while in the '90s they were able to deal with Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
A diplomatic crisis, he argues, would be to the detriment of the Gulf countries as it would be reflected on a political and economic level. Without a strong ally such as the United States it is difficult to manage regional threats, and it is even more to grow the economy. For al-Rashid it's no coincidence the Gulf can produce over 15 million barrels of oil daily while Iran, which even owns the second largest oil reserve in the Middle East, only produces three million. Furthermore, the history of Muslim countries and their diplomatic relations shows that the economies of states allied to the US flourish and have greater stability than those historically allied to Russia and China. At this stage it would therefore benefit Saudi Arabia and its neighbours to make an effort, diplomatically speaking, and take the bitter medicine.
Lebanese commentator Nadim Koteich views the nuclear agreement as a posthumous victory for the Green Movement, the young liberal Iranian elite which decided to integrate with the world and abandon Khomeinist revolutionary ideas. Those in Iran who took to the streets to celebrate and welcome Foreign Affairs Minister Zarif after the agreement with the “Great Devil” was reached are the same people who were opposed to exporting the revolution, screaming the slogan “No to Lebanon, no to Syria, my life only for Iran!” And in a way, the Supreme Leader has satisfied these young people, clearing the way for reconciliation with the West and liberating Iranian society's potential. Signing the agreement wouldn't even have been possible without the agreement and blessing of the Supreme Leader, who had to compromise by opening Iran's nuclear sites for inspection. Khamenei – writes Koteich – tried to legitimise the logic of concessions in the light of the history of Shi'ism, drawing on some of the founding myths of the Shia. If the Iranian revolution was inspired by the revolutionary figure Husayn, who was killed in the battle of Kerbala in 680, and Khomeini placed great emphasis on his martyrdom, Khamenei instead takes inspiration from the story of Hasan, Ali's other son. Those with a knowledge of Shi'ite history know that when Ali died, Hasan renounced the Caliphate due to pressures from Umayyad Mu'awiyah, with whom he reached an agreement. Just as Hasan had to take a step back, so too did the Iranian establishment by signing the nuclear agreement, this time having to compromise with the West.
In summary, despite widespread disappointment, the fear of interference and worry that a richer Iran might mean greater bargaining skills for Shi'ites in the Arab world in which they are a minority, the feeling among those leading columnists is that the least worst policy will prevail. It is widely acknowledged that for the Gulf States it is better to accept the agreement which has been signed, even through gritted teeth, and maintain good diplomatic relations with the United States rather than to find themselves acting alone or with only partners like Russia and China which would not be able to guarantee economic growth and stability. Moreover, as noted by al-Rashid, is not the first time that the Gulf has had to adapt to unfavourable conditions imposed by the United States.
Stay up to date: sign up for our newsletter
For insights and analysis subscribe to our biannual journal