Originally Published 2015-07-17 00:00:00 Published on Jul 17, 2015
The Iran nuclear deal could mark a strategic realignment between the US and its traditional Sunni allies in the region. The Arab countries have been vocal in criticising Washington's policies in Egypt, Syria and Iraq, which they say have given an upper hand to "Iranian allies".
New balance of powers

Iran and the P5+1 announced that they have reached a final agreement on the nuclear issue, a day after the self-imposed deadline of July 13, 2015. The negotiating parties, particularly Washington, DC and Tehran, were under tremendous pressure from their European counterparts to meet the final deadline set after nearly two years of negotiations. The deal, which is subject to a UN resolution and a US Congressional vote before it is codified, signals the potential end to Iran's political and financial isolation.

With US President Barack Obama promising to veto "any legislation that prevents the successful implementation of the deal", the stage is set for the removal of all sanctions against Iran. While the nuclear talks have been largely welcomed internationally, Iran's regional counterparts have been severely critical of them. Regional powers, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, have voiced concerns about an "emboldened" Iran boosting its "interference" in the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen and creating conditions for greater destabilisation in the region.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the only regional leader, thus far, to remark on the final deal calling it a "mistake of historic proportions". Israeli Interior Minister Silvan Shalom encapsulated his Government's position since the beginning of the talks, in stating that Iran will be "completely free" to produce a nuclear bomb in 10 years. He added that Iran could pose an existential threat to Israel and to the entire region by causing an arms race with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt and leading them to pursue nuclear capabilities.

Israel, which has traditionally considered itself the supreme military and nuclear power in the region, could now be challenged by Iran. Israel not only fears a security threat from Tehran's ability to enhance support to groups like Hezbollah and Hamas but also from the possibility of Iran's regional rivals shoring up their military arsenals. Israeli Defence Minister reiterated these concerns just days before the deal, stating that Israel is likely to enter into talks with the US "to preserve its qualitative military edge" not only because of Iran but because Washington provides sophisticated weapons systems to Iran's rivalling Arab states.

While the Israeli administration has actively expressed its reservations over the nuclear deal, the responses of the Arab states have been relatively muted throughout the negotiations. Even though they officially endorsed the nuclear negotiations, the Gulf leaders, Egypt and Turkey used the media to convey their apprehensions. The announcement of the final deal met with almost complete silence from the Gulf leaders, with only Kuwait and the UAE sending congratulatory messages to Iran. The Saudi Press Agency, on the other hand, issued statements reiterating concerns about Iran's "aggressive" regional policy.

Riyadh's mild warning encased its increasing effort towards taking greater military initiatives in order to offset Iran's influence in the region. While Riyadh is likely to look for shifts in Iran's regional policy, it will continue to take assertive actions in the region to counter Iran's policies. These include increasing support to rebel groups in Syria, building stronger military alliances with other Sunni states like Turkey and Egypt as well as pursuing military and nuclear ties with extra-regional powers.

Saudi Arabia, which had initiated an ambitious plan for the development of nuclear power production in 2011, has given significant impetus to nuclear projects in the last year. It set aside its differences with Moscow over the conflict in Syria to sign a nuclear energy deal in 2015. It also inked nuclear energy deals with China and South Korea in August 2014 and March this year, respectively. France has emerged as an important partner for the Gulf states to diversify their security portfolios and reduce dependence on the US.

The nuclear deal could, therefore, mark a strategic realignment between the US and its traditional Sunni allies in the region. The Arab countries have been vocal in criticising Washington's policies in Egypt, Syria and Iraq, which they say have given an upper hand to "Iranian allies". Leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council leaders openly "snubbed" President Obama's Camp David initiative in May that was meant to assuage their concerns over the nuclear negotiations.

Even though Mr Obama reportedly spoke with Mr Netanyahu and Saudi King Salman after the deal in order to reiterate US support for curbing Iran's "terrorist" activities, it is evident that the regional powers are moving towards a 'go it alone' policy. Unless Washington demonstrates a tangible effort to restrict Iran's regional policy, it is likely that there could be an escalation of conflicts in Syria and Yemen, where Riyadh and Tehran are locked in a geo-strategic battle.

(The writer is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

Courtesy: The Pioneer, July 17, 2015

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