As U.S. and Iran Seek Nuclear Deal, Saudi Arabia Makes Its Own Moves
EDITOR'S CHOICE | 31.03.2015

As U.S. and Iran Seek Nuclear Deal, Saudi Arabia Makes Its Own Moves

As America talks to Iran, Saudi Arabia is lashing out against it.

The kingdom, Iran’s chief regional rival, is leading airstrikes against an Iranian-backed faction in Yemen; backing a blitz in Idlib, Syria, by jihadists fighting the Iranian-backed Assad regime; and warning Washington not to allow the Iranian-backed militia to capture too much of Iraq during the fight to roll back the Islamic State, according to Arab diplomats familiar with the talks.

Through Egypt, a major beneficiary of Saudi aid, the kingdom is backing plans for a combined Arab military force to combat Iranian influence around the region. With another major aid recipient, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia is also expected to step up its efforts to develop a nuclear bomb, potentially setting off an arms race in the region.

All this comes just a few weeks after the death of King Abdullah and the passing of the throne to a new ruler, King Salman, who then installed his 34-year-old son Mohamed in the powerful dual roles of defense minister and chief of the royal court.

“Taking matters into our own hands is the name of the game today,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist and former adviser to the government. “A deal will open up the Saudi appetite and the Turkish appetite for more nuclear programs. But for the time being Saudi Arabia is moving ahead with its operations to pull the carpet out from underneath the Iranians in our region.”

With the approach of a self-imposed Tuesday night deadline for the framework of a nuclear deal between Iran and the Western powers, the talks themselves are already changing the dynamics of regional politics.

The proposed deal would trade relief from economic sanctions on Iran for insurance against the risk that Iran might rapidly develop a nuclear bomb. But many Arab analysts and diplomats say that security against the nuclear risk may come at the cost of worsening ongoing conflicts around the Middle East as Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Muslim allies push back against what they see as efforts by Shiite-led Iran to impose its influence — often on sectarian battle lines.

Unless Iran pulls back, “you will see more direct Arab responses and you will see a higher level of geopolitical tension in the whole region,” argued Nabil Fahmy, a veteran Egyptian diplomat and former foreign minister.

Airstrikes carried out by a Saudi-led alliance on Monday hit a weapons storage depot in Sana, Yemen, a city the Iranian-backed Houthi movement controls.CreditJaber Ghurab/European Pressphoto Agency

In Yemen, where a bombing campaign by a Saudi-led coalition killed dozens of civilians in an errant strike on a camp for displaced families, the Saudis accuse Iran of supporting the Houthi movement, which follows a form of Shiite Islam and recently came close to taking control of the country’s four largest cities. (Western diplomats say Iran has provided money to the group but does not control it.) In Bahrain, across a short causeway from Saudi Arabia, the kingdom and its allies accuse Iran of backing opposition from the Shiite majority against the Sunni monarchy.

And Iran has also cultivated clients in government in the great Arab capitals of Damascus, Baghdad and Beirut, the last through its proxy, Hezbollah.

Even if the proposed deal constrains Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the Saudis and their allies note, the pact would do nothing to stop Iran from projecting its influence through such local proxies and conventional arms. Sanctions relief from the deal could even revive the Iranian economy with a flood of new oil revenues.

“The Americans seem nonchalant about this, like, ‘This is your sectarian problem, you deal with it,’ ” Mr. Khashoggi said. “So the Saudis went ahead with this Yemen operation.”

Watching Secretary of State John Kerry pursue a deal in Lausanne, Switzerland, many in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states say their ultimate fear is that the talks could lead to a broader détente or even alliance between Washington and Tehran.

Washington is already tacitly coordinating with Iran in its fight against ISIS in Iraq. As a result, the American-led military campaign is effectively strengthening the Iranian-backed government in Syria by weakening its most dangerous foe, Arab diplomats and analysts say.

So they wonder what else Mr. Kerry is talking about with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, “on those long walks together” in Lausanne, said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, in Qatar. “Is there something going on underneath the table?”

Easing the hostility between the United States and Iran would tear up what has been a bedrock principle of regional politics since the Iranian revolution and the storming of the American embassy in 1979. “But let’s not forget that we are still dealing with the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Mr. Shaikh said, reflecting the skeptical views of many in the Saudi Arabian camp.

“There is a disbelief in the Arab world that these negotiations are only about the nuclear file, and a frequent complaint here is that we are kept in the dark, we are not consulted,” said Gamal Abdel Gawad Soltan, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo. “The U.S. is much less trusted as an ally, as an insurance policy towards the security threats facing the governments in the region, and so those governments decide to act on their own.”

President Obama has argued that a verifiable deal is the best way to secure the Arab states because it is the most effective way to ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear bomb. Even military action to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities, the Obama administration argues, would set it back only temporarily.

Some analysts further maintain that a nuclear deal could induce Tehran to adopt a less confrontational foreign policy as well, by engaging it in economic and diplomatic relations with the West and, eventually, its neighbors. If Iran were less of a pariah, it would have more to lose, argued Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “An engaged Iran is a less threatening Iran,” she said. “I think a nuclear deal with Iran will have a calming impact on the region.”

But she acknowledged that at the moment Saudi Arabia and its allies did not see it that way. “The Saudi and Iranian rivalry is being played out now in a hot war in Iraq, in Syria and now in Yemen,” she said. “The confrontation is causing people on both sides to dig into their sectarian positions.”

Aversion to the Iran deal in the Saudi camp is also representative of the latest convergence of views with the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been deeply critical of the nuclear pact. But “they can be on the same side without necessarily talking,” said Mr. Soltan of the American University in Cairo.

Whether an Iran deal is consummated or not, he and several other analysts said, the negotiations have contributed to a divergence with the Obama administration and a growing desire for greater autonomy among the Sunni Arab states.

Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf allies bucked the Obama administration to sponsor the military takeover and repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 2013, for example. And last year the United Arab Emirates carried out airstrikes from Egyptian bases against Islamist allied militias in Tripoli, Libya, without notifying Washington. Some American diplomats were so incredulous that the U.A.E. acted on its own that they doubted early reports until a second set of strikes confirmed them.

“There are issues that you cannot expect a superpower to engage in directly because of their own politics and interests, and if you don’t have the capabilities or the initiatives to deal with them yourself then you are not providing enough of a deterrent to other regional players,” said Mr. Fahmy, the former Egyptian foreign minister. He added, speaking of Arab relations with Washington, “There is a difference between a security relationship and a security addiction.”

Mr. Khashoggi, the Saudi editor, argued that Saudi Arabia’s own campaign to push back against Iran without waiting for the Americans was showing signs of success. Saudi Arabian and Turkish sponsors, he said, had backed the coalition of jihadist groups that recently captured the Syrian city of Idlib in the first major victory in months against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

One participant in the coalition was the Nusra Front, the Syrian arm of Al Qaeda, a terrorist group in the eyes of the West. But members of the jihadi coalition “are the ones who captured Idlib, it is an important development, and I think we are going to see more of that,” Mr. Khashoggi said. “Coordination between Turkish and Saudi intelligence has never been as good as now.”

The after-the-fact American support for the military campaign in Yemen, he said, was also a reassuring sign that Washington was willing to back Saudi leadership as it pushes back against Iran across the region. “The Americans are going along with that,” he said.

The operation “proved that a regional power can lead, they do not have to wait for America,” he said, “and if the issue is moral or justified, American will get on board.”

DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK, nytimes.com

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