US-Iran’s Nuclear Conflict and the Exercise of Arab/Iranian Realpolitik
The partisan circus in the US Congress involving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 3, 2015 speech condemning US-Iran nuclear negotiations is over, while the assessment phase of that speech over the prospects of a nuclear deal continues. If Netanyahu wanted to minimize, if not kill, the chances of a deal that is acceptable to the United States and Iran, he may have succeeded, at least in making its emergence difficult. What is left to be seen is how resolute American and Iranian negotiators will be about concluding a nuclear deal. The issues involved are as intricate as they are obdurate. The most interesting development in this high-stakes drama is the exercise of Iranian and Arab realpolitik aimed at negatively affecting those negotiations. Whether they will create such effects or not, we may be witnessing at least a tacit political realignment between the Israeli and Arab strategic priorities involving Iran. This realignment also appears to diminish the influence of the United States in the Arab world.
The Iranian reaction of the March 3 speech was not astounding. The Iranian government knew that things were going very much as anticipated, and it did not wish to adopt tendentious rhetoric to condemn the Israeli Prime Minister.
President Hassan Rouhani reported to have noted, “People in the world, as well as the Americans, are much more perceptive than to trust the words of advice from a regime that has a long reputation for causing conflict and crisis.”[i] Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif dismissed Netanyahu’s speech as an attempt to create tensions between the US and Iran, a ploy attempt that will help no one (by that he meant Iran and the United States).[ii]
The immediate reaction of the Iranian and American negotiators was that they were not interested in getting swept away by the emotionalism that Netanyahu’s speech had created, at least inside the US Congress. As exuberant as the US legislators were in showing their endorsement of the rhetorical hyperbolas of the Israeli Prime Minister, even they knew that they had to evaluate the final deal by applying ample hardnosed realism. President Obama was quite terse in dismissing Netanyahu’s speech as containing nothing new.
Even though the Israeli Prime Minister was speaking to the US Congress and the American people, he was also addressing the audiences inside the Middle East, especially Iran’s immediate neighbors. He is fully aware of the mounting Arab-Iranian rivalry (which is bordering on animosity) involving the ongoing civil war in Syria and the escalating military conflict between the Shia-dominated government of Iraq and ISIS.
Keeping that in mind, Netanyahu purposely embellished the Arab states’ fear of Iran’s mounting presence and sphere of influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Secondly, he made special mention of the frequently-iterated Saudi rhetoric that, if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia would follow suit. Thirdly, and shrewdly, he avoided any mention of the sectarian rivalry of Saudi Arabia and Iran that has shown its ugly face in both Syria and Iraq.
The most noteworthy aspect of the reaction to Netanyahu’s speech came from the government-controlled Saudi media. In a highly unprecedented manner, the editor-in-chief of al-Arabiya, Faisal J. Abbas, urged President Barack Obama to “listen to Netanyahu on Iran.” Abbas’ editorial was also telling in highlighting Saudi alarm related to the impressive performance of the Iranian forces under the leadership of General Qasem Soleimani, Commander of Iran’s Quds forces, in the military operation aimed at regaining the control of Tikrit from ISIS.
The highly anticipated victory of Iranian-led Shia forces in Tikrit is also significant for two other reasons. First, Tikrit is Saddam Hussein’s hometown. Second, it is also a predominantly Sunni region. The Saudis are fully aware that the capture of Tikrit from ISIS by the Iranian-led forces will result in a further increase in Iranian influence in Iraq.[iii]
The fact that a leading Saudi newspaper so boldly endorses Netanyahu’s criticism of the US about its policy of negotiating with Iran also signals that the Saudis are begrudgingly accepting the fact that they can no longer rely on the United States to guarantee the status quo of the Arab world, which it inherited in the aftermath of World War II and then ensured its survival by building alliances that also guaranteed the survival of the Arab sheikhdoms. When the Iranian Revolution of 1979 brought an end to one of America’s foremost allies—Mohammad Reza Pahlavi—the United States became even more serious about protecting the pro-Western Arab states. The Gulf War of 1991, that ousted Saddam Hussein’s military occupation of Kuwait and also eliminated his potential invasion of Saudi Arabia, was convincing evidence of how unyielding the United States was about protecting the political status quo in the Arab world.
However, the United States’ decision not to prevent the regime change of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 shocked the Gulf Emirates. Saudi Arabia made no attempt to hide its anger toward the Obama administration over the downfall of Mubarak, who was generally regarded as a trusted ally of America. Riyadh (along with the UAE) provided generous economic assistance to Egypt and strongly supported the Egyptian military’s ouster of the first democratically elected government headed by President Mohammad Morsi of the Islamic Brotherhood. The Saudi government not only despised that entity, but also branded it as “terrorist.”[iv]
Saudi support of Netanyahu’s defiance of President Barack Obama and his use of the US congressional forum to demonize Iran was also sweet music for another Saudi blogger, Ahmad al-Faraj. He not only endorsed Netanyahu’s speech, but added, “Since Obama is the godfather of the prefabricated revolutions in the Arab world, and since he is the ally of political Islam, [which is] the caring mother of [all] the terrorist organizations, and since he is working to sign an agreement with Iran that will come at the expense of the U.S.'s longtime allies in the Gulf, I am very glad of Netanyahu's firm stance and [his decision] to speak against the nuclear agreement at the American Congress despite the Obama administration's anger and fury. I believe that Netanyahu's conduct will serve our interests, the people of the Gulf, much more than the foolish behavior of one of the worst American presidents…"[v] Such a disrespectful description of the sitting president in the government-controlled Saudi press clearly signals a yawning chasm between the United States and the Arab Gulf states.
In order to fully comprehend the linkage between the expression of the aforementioned Saudi bloggers and the Saudi government, one has to recall that, according to “leaked U.S. diplomatic cables,” the late King Abdullah Ben Abdel Aziz “repeatedly exhorted the United States to ‘cut off the head of the snake’ by launching military strikes to destroy Iran's nuclear program.”[vi]
The scary part of this narrative becomes further obvious by pointing out that, when Netanyahu was addressing the US joint congressional gathering on March 3, 2015, his chief financial supporter, Sheldon Adelson, was also present in the visitor’s gallery. Adelson is referred to as “the Godfather of the Republican Right,” almost all of whom were present in the congressional hall. In a 2013 speech at New York’s Yeshiva University, Adelson had a very similar suggestion for the United States about how to handle Iran. He “denounced President Obama’s diplomatic efforts with Iran and proposed instead that the United States drop an atomic bomb in the Iranian desert and then declare: ‘See! The next one is in the middle of Tehran. So, we mean business. You want to be wiped out? Go ahead and take a tough position and continue with your nuclear development.’”[vii]
Netanyahu’s March 3 speech underscored the arrival of an era when the Arab states would not hesitate about publicly expressing their disagreements with the United States. In an age when social media rules the global airwaves, the Arab states are likely to use it frequently to promote their national interests, especially when they feel that they are being ignored by their erstwhile dependable ally. In this regard, they are only emulating Benyamin Netanyahu, whose country has written volumes on receiving massive military and economic assistance from Washington, but at the same time dictating the modalities of America’s foreign policy affecting its interests in the Middle East and elsewhere.
For Iran, Netanyahu’s speech has also clarified how important it is to resolve the nuclear issue while President Barack Obama is at the helm in the United States. A Republican President in 2017 might be intransigent in demanding a total stoppage of Iranian nuclear program. Naturally, Iran would reject such a demand. A potential outcome might be the use of US military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. That may be what Israel and the Arab states desire, but certainly not Iran.
[i] Ariel Ben Solomon, “Iran reacts harshly to Netanyahu speech,” The Jerusalem Post, March 4, 2015, http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Iran-reacts-harshly-to-Netanyahu-speech-392944
[ii] Reuters, “Iran FM Zarif criticizes Netanyahu for trying to influence nuclear deal,” The Jerusalem Post, March 3, 2015, http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Iran-FM-Zarif-criticizes-Netanyahu-for-trying-to-influence-nuclear-deal-392790
[iii] Anne Barnard, “Iran Gains Influence in Iraq as Shiite Forces Fight ISIS, The New York Times, March 5, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/06/world/middleeast/iran-gains-influence-in-iraq-as-shiite-forces-fight-isis.html.
[iv] David D. Kirkpatrick, “Saudis Put Terrorist Label on Muslim Brotherhood,” The New York Times, March 7, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/08/world/middleeast/saudis-put-terrorist-label-on-muslim-brotherhood.html?_r=0 ; also see Patrick Werr, “UAE offers Egypt $3 billion support, Saudis $5 billion,” Reuters, July 9, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/07/09/us-egypt-protests-loan-idUSBRE9680H020130709
[v] “Saudi Columnist [Ahmad Al-Faraj]: Netanyahu Is Right To Insist On Addressing Congress About Iran Deal,” The Middle East Media Research Institute, March 2, 2015, http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/8459.htm
[vi] Ross Colvin, “‘Cut off head of snake’ Saudis told U.S. on Iran,” Reuters, November 29, 2010, http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/11/29/us-wikileaks-iran-saudis-idUSTRE6AS02B20101129
[vii] Bill Moyers and Michael Winship, “Netanyahu Speaks, Money Talks,” Huffington Post, March 3, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-moyers/netanyahu-sheldon-adelson_b_6807276.html