Arab states in the Persian Gulf on Sunday greeted the interim nuclear deal struck between Iran and the West in Geneva with sullen silence.
Despite their muted response, however, the Gulf states have watched the growing signs of reconciliation between the United States and Iran with undisguised horror. As the Geneva talks rolled into Saturday night and a deal edged closer, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah summoned the emirs of Kuwait and Qatar to Riyadh for urgent talks on how to respond.
The world’s largest oil producer and a staunch American ally for decades, Saudi Arabia has led the Arab world’s diplomatic push for the US to crush the Iranian nuclear program. In a U.S. diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks in 2010, the elderly King Abdullah was quoted urging Washington to “cut off the head of the snake” in reference to Iran.
To Arab eyes, a deal between Iran and the West threatens the entire balance of power in the region. If it is welcomed back into the international fold, the Iran’s potential as a hub for business, trade and tourism, buoyed by its massive untapped reserves of oil and gas, is enormous.
In the end, the three Gulf monarchs gathered in Riyadh said nothing. Saudi officials said they could not publicly criticize the Geneva deal but that deep concerns remained about Iran’s wider ambitions in the region, particularly in Syria where Iran has sent troops to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while Saudi Arabia and Qatar have funneled weapons and cash to the rebels.
“The concern is that by agreeing to curb its nuclear program Iran will get a free pass elsewhere in the region, particularly in Syria,” said one Saudi official, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic.
Most troubling for the Gulf states is the sense that their influence in Washington is waning. A former Saudi ambassador to the United States, Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud, S, Prince Bandar was installed as the kingdom’s intelligence chief last year to capitalize on the influence he wielded during the two Bush presidencies. But the prince has found the Obama administration a very different, more cautious, animal to its Republican predecessors.
“There is real fear that America is shedding all its responsibilities in the region, that our diplomacy has failed. We need to seek new alliances elsewhere,” said the Saudi official.
While hawks around the region talk of breaking ties with Washington, however, most are more realistic. The United States remains the dominant military power in the region and its support is essential to Arab security.
Despite its own misgivings, the United Arab Emirates welcomed the Iranian nuclear deal as “a positive step.”
“This deal has a narrow focus in the sea of problems we have with Iran. Syria remains a huge concern,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent UAE political commentator whose positions often reflect those of the government. “But overall the deal is a relief. Anything that reduces tensions between the U.S. and Iran is positive for the region.”