Deal or no deal?

The US and Iran would benefit from a nuclear deal, but for Israel and Saudi Arabia it could have unwelcome consequences.

In forging a deal with Iran, Obama has to keep an eye on several fronts [AP]

The last two-and-a-half years have been quite eventful for the Arab world. A chaotic cycle of revolutions, counter-revolutions and wars has resulted in regime changes as well as deep political and social transformation. Yet, the change that could have the loudest impact across the region lies ahead: Not a revolution, not another war, but a deal that would end the decade-old dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme and possibly pave the way for a rapprochement between the US and Iran. 

True, the recent meeting in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 – US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – did not produce the kind of breakthrough many were expecting. Yet, in contrast with the past, negotiators worked hard towards narrowing the gap, a sign that there is strong interest on both sides that the talks eventually yield a return. For the first time in 35 years, with Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani, there are two leaders in Washington and Tehran who believe that pragmatism better serves their countries’ interests than confrontation. If they manage to get a long-term deal on the nuclear dispute, Obama and Rouhani will have not only removed a major flashpoint, but also potentially introduced a new twist in the highly competitive Gulf geopolitics.


Both Iran and the US could reap considerable rewards from a nuclear deal.

The Iranians would benefit from the lifting of sanctions, most notably the US-imposed ban on transactions managed by Iran’s Central Bank and the EU’s oil embargo, which have prevented Iran from exploiting the full potential of its lucrative energy sector. The clerical regime would also get a degree of international recognition, a much needed shot in the arm at a time when its domestic legitimacy is fragile and its most crucial regional allies, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah, are stuck in the murderous chaos of the Syrian civil war.

The US, for its part, would defuse a situation that could easily escalate into a destabilising military confrontation, thereby saving lives, money and more. The region’s populace would be spared yet another source of insecurity and violence, and the global economy would avoid the energy hikes that would surely follow a US strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

More crucially, a nuclear deal could make up the basis for further ad hoc cooperation between Iran and the US on issues of mutual concern, such as Syria’s civil war resolution, Afghanistan’s stabilisation, the keeping together of an Iraq beset by ethnic and sectarian divisions, and the fight against their common enemy, al-Qaeda.

The road to a nuclear deal is neither straight nor free of obstacles. Obama will have to keep an eye on several fronts at the same time. While negotiating with the Iranians, whose interest in genuine concessions is yet to be tested, the US president will also have to closely monitor the opponents of a deal, domestic and foreign alike.

Especially worried are Israel and Saudi Arabia, both of whom maintain that a US-Iran rapprochement would unsettle a US-built system of regional alliances that they see centred precisely on the exclusion of Iran.

Especially worried are Israel and Saudi Arabia, both of whom maintain that a US-Iran rapprochement would unsettle a US-built system of regional alliances that they see centred precisely on the exclusion of Iran.

Threatened by deal

Israel, should, in theory, be the one country most eager for a deal, as it considers a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic as an existential threat. But Israel fears that Obama would agree to a weak deal that would not leave any margin for error in case Iran cheats. Even if the deal worked, Israel would have reason to lose sleep. Deep down, it is concerned that a detente with the US could eventually lend Iran more credit to oppose its interests in the region and in the Palestinian Territories.

Saudi Arabia is in a more delicate situation. Up until recently, the kingdom was the main beneficiary from the turmoil that has engulfed the Arab world. In Egypt, the Saudi-backed military disposed of the Muslim Brotherhood, a serious ideological contender to the al-Saud dynasty which had, moreover, flirted with friendlier relations with Iran. In Syria, Obama’s apparent determination to strike Assad for using chemical weapons led the Saudis to believe that the war could be resolved in favour of the rebels. Unsurprisingly, they were furious when Obama agreed with Russia to backtrack on attacking Assad in return for the removal of all of Syria’s chemical weapons. Not only has the deal left Assad in place, it has made him (and his Iranian backers) an interlocutor.

Both Saudi Arabia and Israel may count on strong support in the US Congress – the body with the power to lift sanctions against Iran. If they manage to mobilize them in large numbers, they might well reach the critical mass needed to spoil the US-Iran nuclear talks. This would probably take the form of strong calls for Obama to seek a punitive deal that would curb Iran’s nuclear programme without conceding much. Obviously, this is not a recipe for a breakthrough with the Iranians. Obama will have to give Rouhani something the Iranian president can present as a success, starting with sanctions relief.

Nevertheless, if Obama manages to put limits on Iran’s nuclear programme and ensure a strong international oversight of it, the US president will get the upper hand vis-à-vis Israel. It would be difficult for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to argue that the deal does not bolster Israel’s security, even if he does not like its details. Israeli public opinion would be susceptible to the argument, and so would the intelligence and military establishment, which tends to sympathise with Obama’s view of the Iranian regime as a rational actor.

As for Saudi Arabia, there is, in fact, little Obama can do other than insist on the US’ continued commitment to the bilateral relationship. But this does not mean that US strategic objectives, on Syria as well as on Iran, dovetail with the Saudi ones. It is not in the US’ interest to foment a Gulf ‘Cold War’ between Saudi Arabia or Israel and Iran, if the latter can be lured into a less confrontational approach and is open to pragmatic cooperation.

Riccardo Alcaro is Senior Fellow at IAI, where he coordinates the EU-funded Transworld project on the future of the transatlantic relationship; he is responsible for the organisation of the annual Transatlantic Security Symposium. He is a fellow of the European Foreign and Security Policy Studies.

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