Iran-US deal: Shifting equations in Middle East

iran-us-dealThe Middle East, or what we in India like to refer to as West Asia, never ceases to surprise. We saw another surprise sprung on the world in the form of an interim agreement over Iran’s nuclear programme reached in Geneva on November 24 with six world powers.

Much of the world has hailed the deal. Predictably there were those who love to play spoilsport – the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Israel, which has excoriated the deal as a ‘historic mistake’. In an interview to CNN, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it was up to him to “care for the survival of my country…. Iran maintaining its nuclear weapons capability; that is the capacity to produce nuclear weapons threatens directly the future of the Jewish state.”

While Israel and the Saudis do seem strange bed-fellows, their interests have been converging in the recent past. Almost a week before the Iran agreement, the Israeli media reported that Israel and Saudi Arabia were jointly planning a possible military response in case the talks failed to produce a satisfactory outcome. Saudi Arabia, it was indicated, has given Israel permission to use its airspace in an attack on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear facilities. The two countries, officially enemies, have also reportedly agreed to cooperate on the use of rescue helicopters, tanker planes and unmanned aerial vehicles.

Some analysts believe that it was just a proverbial testing of the waters. Sure enough, shortly after the deal was signed Saudi analysts have maintained the official stance that ‘Israel is part of the problem’ (in the region).

However, both countries are upset over the nuclear deal which comes on the heels of the arrangement that the US reached with Russia over Syria’s chemical weapons. There too, it was seen as a failure on the part of the US to strike Syria, and, therefore, at Iran.

Israel fears that Iran, which has called for Israel’s obliteration from the map of the world, will train any future nuclear weapons at it. They also see Iran as the main backer of Hamas and Hezbollah. And Hezbollah, the protégé of Syria and Iran, is the only militant group that has delivered in the region – in pushing the Israelis out of Lebanon in 2000, and in the war with Israel again in 2006. This ability to deliver forged a striking example of Shia-Sunni cooperation through the Hezbollah-Hamas alliance, in a region rife with sectarian violence today. And Hamas has slowly but surely been increasing its military strength.

Saudis also want to see a weakened Iran. As a major oil producer, Iran threatens Saudi’s oil influence and also its hold over the Muslim world – reflected in the Shia-Sunni sectarian strife that is currently tearing the region apart. Saudis are simply terrified that Iran would export its brand of Islamic revolution to the monarchy. Hence, the Saudi dissatisfaction with the US, reflected in its refusal of the UN Security Council seat, won after days of intensive lobbying.

For the time being, however, Saudis have muted their response, which has probably something to do with their military and defence dependence on the US. Moreover, some other Gulf countries have welcomed the agreement – Oman helped broker the deal, the UAE has welcomed it because of economic interests and close ties with Iran.

Israel has been upping the ante. It has gone ahead and done what it deemed best to get back at the US: announced the building of additional settlements in Palestinian territories still under its control. This is clearly to damage the peace process since the settlements lie at the heart of the Oslo accords and peace negotiations within the two sides. The US has been pushing to resuscitate the negotiations which had been frozen for the last three years.

Israel may soon find itself isolated on the deal. Even editorials in the Israeli media have hailed the deal. The deal puts sufficient obstacles in case Iran decides on a nuclear ‘breakout’. Iran also is also a major stakeholder in maintaining stability in the region. It has the ability to rein in both Hezbollah and Hamas. Both Israel and Iran also have common cause in keeping Sunni jihadists at bay. In fact, Iran’s backing of the Syrian regime may actually be a boon for Israel. It is believed in the Arab world that Bashar al Assad is less of a threat to Israel than any of the numerous rebel groups battling the regime. After all, Assad has sealed the borders along the Golan Heights, which has effectively prevented any non-state actor – Palestinian or other rebel group – from crossing over into Israel. Given the scenario that can alternatively develop, Israel may wish to begin its own back-channel negotiations with Iran. And of course, rethink its decision on settlement construction.

(The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author)