The Strange Bedfellows of the Iran Nuclear Agreement: Israel and Saudi-Arabia

What the Israel-Saudi-Arabia dissent to the agreement shows more than anything is that it’s no longer just about nuclear weapons but about regional politics.

Netanyahu is doing everything in his power to scuttle the nuclear deal painstakingly worked out in Vienna between Iran and the P5+ partners. Most recently, he welcomed a delegation of 22 Democratic freshman congressional members to Israel, some of whom were on their first trip to the country. This was an all-expense paid trip, one of many that is coordinated by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), where US legislators are brought to Israel to tour the country and meet with important members of the foreign and defense establishment.

In an almost two-hour long meeting with the visiting members, Netanyahu—who apparently spoke for most of that time himself—expressed a strong opposition to the agreement, while refraining form explicitly telling the members how to vote in next month’s ballot. According to Steny Hoyer, the most senior member of the delegation, Netanyahu “feels strongly about it, so he argues strongly.” However, he did so in a logical fashion, outlining the various sections of the deal one by one, explaining his disapproval.

As House and Senate members are lining up for or against the agreement, it is interesting to note that a similar process is going on in Iran, where President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif are being challenged by hardliners, who have recently lambasted the deal on various Iranian TV channels. Apparently, according to one report, when Javad Zarif together with head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, submitted the full text of the deal to the Iranian parliament and proceeded to answer questions, some of its most hardline members pretended to be sleeping. But perhaps even more interestingly, a leading Teheran Ayatollah, Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Movahedi Kermani, proclaimed in his Friday sermon (on July 16) that, “The Zionist regime (Israeli) and Saudi Arabia are angry about the nuclear deal, and this is the best proof of the value of the deal.”

Thus, we have come full circle, and it has to be asked: has it occurred to Netanyahu that he may have been one of the main driving forces behind his now much-hated agreement? Did Bibi not consider that openly addressing congress to convince US lawmakers to oppose the deal was the most effective road to more substantial Iranian concessions? If these things did indeed occur to him, then why would he still want to try to scuttle the deal and why is he risking a new all-time low in US-Israeli relations?

We have all heard the arguments for and against. While convincingly explained by Joe Lieberman in a congressional hearing, simply explaining to Iran that US domestic legislators were “not sold” on the deal and that we now have to go back to the negotiation table is not likely to be very effective. In fact, as this report claims—and as Zarif himself has pointed out earlier—Iranians are well aware of how US domestic politics works, and most likely, a rejection of the deal in congress would mean a retaliatory rejection by the Iranian Parliament. Just about the opposite of an approval to go back to the negotiation table. Indeed, most of those critical to the deal seem to understand that the alternatives, short of using force, are not going to produce an ideal outcome given the circumstances and the progress that has already been made in the negotiations. That should also be obvious to Prime Minister Netanyahu.

In fact, such an outcome may even be preferable to Netanyahu. Because he has probably decided that it was not all about nuclear weapons after all. In fact, it was more about regional politics. Looking at Saudi Arabia’s reaction makes this point clear. According to former IAEA director Hans Blix (and I paraphrase from a conversation that I had with him in 2005), “most Middle Eastern politics could be explained through the lens of Iranian behavior.” When asked why Saddam Hussein had presided over the destruction of his country’s nascent WMD stockpile but then refused to admit to it to the IAEA, he explained, “because Saddam wanted Iran to believe they still had them.” Thus, similarly, Saudi-Arabia is more afraid of a denuclearized Iran that has the money to influence the region’s politics, than a defiant and rogue, but poor, Iran that acts as the world’s favorite Pariah, and that can legitimately be “squashed” and checked at only a moment’s notice.

Although Israel’s certainly has not dropped its concern over Iran’s nuclear capabilities and breakout time (nor should they), Netanyahu’s posture shows that he prefers deterring Iran’s nuclear capabilities over a more complex verification and monitoring regime that promises an enhancement in US-Iranian cooperation and Iranian conventional capabilities. For Iran, this agreement does indeed give them the tools to regain their economic strength and dominate the region, a prospect feared by Saudi-Arabia, with a large Shia minority. For Israel, while an economically strong Iran is not necessarily a threat, an economically strong Iran with strengthening commercial relations with both the US and Europe, is. Under such circumstances, a strengthening of ties with Saudi-Arabia may be Israel’s best bet. And it’s indeed what is happening: Iran and Israel recently officially admitted that they have held secret talks—no less than five times over the past 17 months according to this report. According to Shimon Shapira, a retired Israeli general and an expert on Hezbollah, the Israelis and Saudis have discovered they share the same problems and challenges, as well as answers.

However, there is one slight problem, Saudi-Arabia does not recognize Israel and does not plan to do so in the near future. Full cooperation, say the Saudis, would only be possible if Israel accepts and implements Saudi-Arabia’s proposal for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the Arab Peace Initiative. So Netanyahu is effectively stuck between a rock and a hard place. But one can always dream…wouldn’t it be nice (and a bit ironic) if a peace with the Palestinians would be the side-effect of Israel’s rejection of the Iran nuclear deal?


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