Iran Is Now Unfettered

Daragahi, The Atlantic, May 9, 2018

Are the
Gulf countries ready?
President Hassan Rouhani inspects an honour guard during his ceremonial
reception in New Delhi, India. Adnan Abidi / Reuters

the Obama years, Saudi Arabia and its Middle East allies were enraged by
Washington’s perceived indifference to their security concerns over Iran. They
couldn’t seem to convince the president that Tehran’s ambitions posed the
greatest security threat to the region.

Then came
Donald Trump, who seemed eager to adopt their view of Iran as the single most
malignant threat to the region—the world, even. Tuesday, Trump delivered,
announcing that the United States would pull out of the landmark nuclear deal
negotiated by the Obama administration and five other world powers, and
reimpose harsh sanctions that badly damaged Iran’s economy.
Riyadh, along with the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council and its Arab allies,
may find the Trump administration’s scuttling of the deal, known as the Joint
Comprehensive Plan of Action, only initiates a fresh period of uncertainty and
instability in the region. That instability may drive up oil prices, much to
the delight of Saudi Arabia. But it could also raise new security, diplomatic, and
economic concerns. If the deal fully collapses, Iran’s neighbors who opposed it
may also one day be challenged by a country  with a nuclear program that
is no longer under the 24-hour scrutiny of international inspectors.
In his
address Tuesday afternoon, Trump cited Saudi Arabia and regional concerns that
Iran has “caused havoc throughout the Middle East and beyond” in the years
since the nuclear deal was forged, and said this was one reason for withdrawing
from the nuclear deal and re-imposing heavy sanctions on Tehran. Saudi Arabia’s
official news agency issued a lengthy statement,
attempting to explain its support for Trump’s move. The United Arab Emirates and
Bahrain also announced
their support. “I
think Trump gets top grades for this one,” Ali Shihabi, the founder of the
Arabia Foundation, a think tank close to the Saudi leadership, told me. “I
think everyone will be very satisfied with this move because it puts the
Iranians under the microscope.”
But Gulf
leaders may be disappointed by the actions of a fickle president with a history
of making splashy announcements and failing to follow through. The Gulf states
may be anticipating more from the deal’s demise than the United States can
“The view
of most GCC security professionals is that the West was suckered by the
Iranians, who we don’t understand, and cavalierly disregarded legitimate GCC
security considerations,” said David Des Roches, an associate professor at the
Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank of the
Department of Defense. “But they probably expect more follow-up than we are
willing to provide.”
The Saudi
rivalry with Iran dates back decades, to before the 1979 overthrow of 
Iran’s monarchy in a revolution led by Shia Muslim clerics and their followers.
Saudi Arabia’s newly anointed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has blamed
post-revolutionary Iran for many of the region’s ills, including the influence
of ultra-conservative Wahhabi clergy in his own kingdom.
He and
his mentor, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the United Arab
Emirates, have spent months actively lobbying Trump to take a harder stance
against Iran. Abandoning the nuclear deal is one part of that effort.
“In a
way, their opposition to the deal is out of spite to the way they felt they
were ignored by the Obama administration,” Emile Hokayem, a Middle East
specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, told
don’t like the Iran deal, but they don’t regard it in and of itself as a
threat. Rather they see Iran’s broader ambitions as the problem.“The key thing
is this naivete that drove the Obama administration–this view that we’re
dealing with a responsible reliable party created a lot of concern,” Shihabi
said. “Ending the sanctions not only sent the wrong signals but allowed the
regime to continue funding its nefarious activities.”
who speaks regularly to officials and diplomats in the Arab world, suspected
any satisfaction would be tempered by the Trump administration’s incoherent
policies in Iraq and Syria, two geopolitical battlegrounds contested by Iran
and Saudi Arabia.“The cooler heads in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi understand that
you’re in no better position and possibly a worse position,” said Hokayem.
“There’s no absolutely no clarity for what comes next. There’s no sense of commitment
by the Trump administration to anything sustainable in the region.”
Shihabi said Trump’s tough position on Iran,  including his pledge to
institute “the highest level of economic sanction,” would be difficult to walk
back. “He has now taken a very public position and a very clear decision,”
Shihabi said.
Israel is
concerned about Iran’s nuclear program itself, which poses a potential
challenge to Israel’s presumed nuclear arsenal. But Saudi Arabia and its
allies, including the UAE, Egypt, and even Morocco, which recently cut formal
ties with Iran and accused its ally Hezbollah of supporting rebels in the
Western Sahara, are more concerned about Iran’s meddling on the ground: its
support for ideologically fervent militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen;
its alleged shipments of rockets that are now regularly launched by Yemen’s
Houthi rebels at Saudi Arabia; its political domination of Arab capitals from
Sanaa to Beirut.
was particularly concerned that the deal would embolden Iran’s regional
activities, providing them with more cash to support allies in Syria, Lebanon,
Iraq and elsewhere,” Elizabeth Dickinson, a Gulf-based researcher for the
International Crisis Group, an international conflict-resolution organization,
To many
Saudis, those worries have become reality. In the more than two years since the
deal was implemented, Iran’s proxies have picked up more battlefield successes,
Tehran’s missile program has expanded, and its political influence has
increased, even as its nuclear program has been put into check.
experts warn that scuttling the nuclear deal might actually further embolden
Iran. “If the U.S. were to renege on its commitments in the deal, Iran will
almost certainly react in some manner,” Dickinson said. “Axing the nuclear deal
may offer a moment of catharsis, but be ultimately counter-productive.”
worse: the possibility Tehran could use any U.S. withdrawal from the deal to
slowly ramp up its nuclear program if the deal fully falls apart and Europe fails
to meet Iranian demands for economic assurances. While Trump said the JCPOA
would lead to an nuclear arms race, Iran’s ramping up of enrichment is a more
likely spark to such a crisis. In a speech shortly after Trump’s announcement,
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani vowed to stay in the deal, but also said he
had ordered officials to prepare for a possible “industrial-scale enrichment”
in case Europe and others fail to take steps to ameliorate the U.S. withdrawal.
Iranians will probably then say the deal is worthless which means that the
Iranians return to a nuclear program,” said James Dorsey, a Middle East
specialist at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“Which means that you get a nuclear race in the Middle East.”
Sherman, a former U.S. diplomat who helped negotiate the nuclear deal, told
reporters in a conference call on Tuesday: “Iran with a nuclear weapon would be
able to project even more power in the region.”
For the
Gulf, there are other potential repercussions of the nuclear deal’s demise. Oil
prices have been rising ahead of an anticipated new crisis in Middle East,
helping finance bin Salman’s outsized domestic ambitions. But if prices rise
too high, U.S. shale producers will have an incentive to enter the market,
ultimately driving down prices. “The higher prices go, the faster the marginal
shale operators can return to the market,” said Matt Dabrowski, a Chicago-based
political-risk consultant. “Most analysts I speak to see oil prices dropping
into next year, even in a sanctions scenario. Ironically or not, the
beneficiaries will be Western shale producers, who will have another chance to
eat into Saudi Arabia’s market share.”
While bin
Salman and bin Zayed may be on board with Trump’s plan to scuttle the nuclear
deal, not all of the Gulf players are in agreement. Dubai, one of the seven
princedoms that make up the UAE, vies with China as Iran’s biggest trading
partner, and would be hard-pressed to further Iran’s isolation at a time when
its own economy is in a somewhat perilous state. Qatar, which has been
blockaded by Saudi Arabia over its independent-minded foreign policy and
alleged support for militant groups, may drift further into the orbit of
Tehran. Oman and Kuwait, already seeking to play a mediating role between Saudi
Arabia and Qatar and Saudi Arabia and Iran, may come under more pressure to
choose sides. Turkey, which plays an increasingly important role in Gulf
affairs and investment, this morning condemned the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear
deal, putting it opposite Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
“At the
moment the Gulf is already totally torn apart,” Camille Lons, a Gulf specialist
at the European Council for Foreign Affairs, said. “It will definitely pull the
GCC even further apart.”