The Gulf States and the Iran Deal: How Soon They Forget

Anwar Gargash (France24)Anwar Gargash (France24)

by Thomas W. Lippman     

Let’s assume Khaled Batarfi is correct: President Trump made the right decision about the Iran nuclear agreement. Batarfi, a prominent columnist and analyst in Saudi Arabia, is one of the stampeding herd of writers and officials in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who rushed to praise President Trump for pulling the United States out of the multinational nuclear agreement with Iran.

Foreign ministers, other diplomats, sages of the media—all across the region they have lined up like obedient schoolboys to deliver the same assessment. What they have not done is say what should happen next, because they have no Plan B. They have only the hope that Iran, somehow shocked into submission by Trump’s move, will now roll over, or that the United States will take military action to force it into submission.

As Thomas Pickering, one of the most distinguished career U.S. diplomats, put it at a conference in Washington this week, “They want us to fight while they hold our coat.” He called Trump’s move “preemptive capitulation,” because under the agreement Iran’s nuclear program had been frozen for the next decade, Iran was complying with its provisions, and there was no need to pull the plug now. He said, correctly, that no one in Gulf has offered any realistic alternative.

That, to put it mildly, is not the prevailing opinion in the Gulf, where Batarfi’s comments were typical:

The flaws of the nuclear agreement became all too present and clear as Iran’s ballistic missiles’ program has been advanced and used against Saudi Arabia. Its research facilities are hidden in military bases. Its expansionist strategy reaches the Mediterranean Sea, the Arab Sea and Red Sea shores. Its new fronts encircle allies in Iraq, Israel and the Arabian Gulf. Most importantly to the civilized world, Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism has reached new heights, breadths and depths. Even if all went well with its nuclear deal, few years from now they would be free, and legitimized, to finish what they had started—a nuclear bomb.

Calling Trump and his advisers “wiser” than the previous administration, he said that they “saw through the Obamian appeasement logic” to recognize the grim truth about Iran.

In a similar vein, Anwar Gargash, minister of state for foreign affairs of the UAE, tweeted that “Iran’s rhetoric & aggressive regional actions were the background to a flawed deal. The veneer of Tehran’s compliance contradicted its bellicose policies. President Trump’s decision is the correct one.”

Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent scholar from Abu Dhabi, praised Trump’s decision at a conference this week and predicted that the “healthy unpredictability” it has created will lead a nervous Iran to be more accommodating. If the United States had continued to honor the agreement, he said, there was “zero chance” of any change.

Saudi Arabia announced its support the same day Trump made the withdrawal official. “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia supports and welcomes the steps announced by President Donald Trump regarding the United States’ withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. The Kingdom also supports reinstating economic sanctions on the Iranian regime, which have been suspended under the nuclear deal,” it said in a statement posted on the website of its embassy in Washington. It said that the Iranians

took advantage of the economic benefits afforded by the lifting of sanctions and used them to continue its destabilizing activities in the region, especially by developing its ballistic missiles and supporting terrorist organizations in the region, including Hizbollah and the Houthi militias, which used the capabilities provided by Iran to target civilians in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, as well as, repeatedly targeting international shipping lanes in a blatant violation of UN Security Council resolutions.

The statement also called on “the international community” to confront Iran’s “destabilizing aggression in the region, its support to terrorist groups, particularly Hizbollah and the Houthis [sic] militias, and its support of the Assad regime—who has committed heinous crimes against its people that led to the death of more than half a million civilians, including through the use of chemical weapons.”

Apparently people in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and like-minded sheikhdoms in the Gulf have short memories. In their rush to load adulation on Trump, they have conveniently forgotten that their countries all endorsed the Iran agreement while Obama was president. After a summit meeting of Obama and leaders of the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh in 2016, they issued a joint statement saying that they all “reiterated support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, noting that successful implementation of the JCPOA, thus far, has blocked Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon and enhanced regional security and stability.”

Well, that was then, before anyone imagined that Donald Trump would become president. Now that the Trump has jettisoned the agreement and possibly turned Iran loose to resume the nuclear programs that it had curbed, the Saudis are talking about acquiring their own nuclear weapons if Iran does so. Both Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince and defense minister, and Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir have said that they would do so.

Those statements, and tepid U.S. responses to them, prompted the Arms Control Association, a prominent anti-proliferation group, to say that Trump’s “reckless decision to violate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which has blocked Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons and put in place a robust monitoring system to detect and deter cheating, has not only opened the door to an expansion of Iran’s capability to produce bomb-grade nuclear material, but it has increased the risk of a wider nuclear arms race in the Middle East, which is already home to one nuclear-armed state,” namely Israel.

In fact there are compelling reasons why Saudi Arabia would not pursue nuclear weapons regardless of what Iran does. But it is hard to dispute that a regional arms race is now at least slightly more possible than it was 10 days ago.

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Thomas Lippman

Thomas W. Lippman is a Washington-based author and journalist who has written about Middle Eastern affairs and American foreign policy for more than four decades, specializing in Saudi Arabian affairs, U.S.- Saudi relations, and relations between the West and Islam. He is a former Middle East bureau chief of the Washington Post, and also served as that newspaper's oil and energy reporter. Throughout the 1990s, he covered foreign policy and national security for the Post, traveling frequently to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. In 2003 he was the principal writer on the war in Iraq for Washingtonpost.com. Prior to his work in the Middle East, he covered the Vietnam war as the Washington Post's bureau chief in Saigon. Lippman has authored seven books about the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, where he serves as the principal media contact on Saudi Arabia and U.S. – Saudi relations.

7 Comments

  1. The Middle East conflicts involving tribes, sects, nations have been going on for thousands of years. Good for business as journalists! But very repetitive.

  2. Dear @CHARLES, the strong countries in Middle East don’t want war. The weak want chaos, so that they can ride the wave. As we all know, these tiny kingdoms won’t dare attack anyone without American support; hence one can say that it is the United States which is creating war and conflict. Take the case of Yemen, the attacker doesn’t even have enough pilots to fly its jets, and can’t defeat a tribe wielding Kalashnikovs with state of the art guns and modern ammunition(bought from the united states).

  3. It is about time to call the Ayatollahs’ bluff. They need to cross the line, to appease their Mahdi, who will not win their war for them. It is time to have Chaldiran again. It is time for the Ayatollahs to be tested. Let them try to use their nukes when they get them. That will be their epitaph.

    Fact is that the Ayatollahs are all talk. Once confronted, they will run scared. So let us test them. In that process, a whole bunch of madmen will finally face reality after Shah Ismail did.

    We Iranians will then have our country back.

  4. Insightful analysis Mr. Lippman. An explanation is that Iran is an obstacle in their way to normalize their relationship with Israel. They want to distract their own citizens and Arab masses that they did not nothing to prevent moving US Embassy to Jerusalem, nor have they have condemned the massacre in Gaza. In fact, it is reported that they are pressuring Pals to accept Trump’s so-called peace plan which is worse than whatever Israel has offered to them. They won’t succeed; the people in Arab countries are more savvy and educated to forget this and the fact that they are being bought not to demand reforms in these rentier, oil-based autocracies. Instabiittes, coups and crises in these medieval kingdoms with modern façade will happen with time.

  5. @ Ali Mostofi

    It was not the ‘Ayatollahs’ but the ‘ordinary’ Iranians who confronted Saddam’s invading army: hundreds of thousands of men and women of all ages who selflessly gave their lives – people like my neighbours, their children, my family and relatives and school and college mates; and it wasn’t the Ayatollahs’ homes that were under constant air attacks, it was the ordinary Iranians’ who paid with their lives while the deposed Shah’s family and his supporters in America and Europe, siding with Saddam and anti-Iranian fronts, were hoping to see our early defeat; for them, just as for you and Trump and Netanyahu today, what mattered was the end of the ‘Ayatollahs’, even if that meant annihilation of millions of ‘ordinary’ Iranians!

    I invite you and the warmongering politicians and journalists to study the Iran-Iraq war and look at its civilian victims and the shocking pictures of mutilated Iranian and Iraqi soldiers in their thousands, including the Iranian victims of Saddam’s chemical attacks, then reflect on your comment. I bet you have not experienced war; never been unprotected at the receiving end under massive savage air attacks rushing aimlessly for shelters that don’t exist, with death so close while buildings one after another are collapsing on you and your neighbours, yet come more attacks and the fighter planes’ terrifying booms and endless explosions and multiple shaking of the ground, the chaos, the dust, the heat and suffocating smell, the wailings, women and children and elderly rushing under collapsing roofs and walls, the body parts everywhere even on the tree branches, people fleeing in confusion faced with imminent death in a storm of dust running over mutilated bodies thrown everywhere as the more explosions and the terrifying sonic boom of warplanes repeat; the tremor, the shock waves that shatter every window repeat and now nothing is visible in the storm of dust; now all you can see is your family, dead and wounded, your neighbour, cats, dogs mutilated everywhere, some under rubble, and yourself wounded covered in blood and dust if you are lucky enough to be alive, and in that chaos is the moment you think God is dead or never existed because men are still the most savage animals ever born on earth. So much savagery and yet its moralisation by nations who claim to be civilised or by psychopaths who claim to care for ‘our’ suffering! Yes, Mr Mostafavi, all these happen within a minute, what if it is carried out at night, and for the whole day, the whole week and month and year?!

    In 2001 the American People experienced a fraction of the war their politicians and war mongering media and ruthless army had for decades been promoting and conducting in many countries, and that horrible day in their history was just ‘one’ episode, it was not carried out for the entire day, for the entire week and month the way the US forces had savagely carpet bombed the Vietnamese. Yes, 9/11 was just ‘one’ shocking experience in one ‘isolated’ location and yet millions of Americans all over America suffered from the shock and aftermath paranoia and had to for months and years see psychotherapists! Only years later does the impact of such horrendous scenes on a generation of children become noticeable as we realise they have become traumatized and mentally disturbed for life! And the poor women, the silent sufferers who have to bear the brunt of such savagery because of the evil men whose unpopularity, desperate need for recognition or profit and racially motivated colonial mentality need war and unprecedented violence to further consolidate their influence and power.

    One should be too alienated, or mentally deranged and deprived of humanity to advocate such barbarism! Unfortunately, treacherous loving humanists who miss ‘their’ Iran are not few.

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