By MEL FRYKBERG
RAMALLAH (IDN) – Regional reactions to the April 2 framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme have been mixed both in Israel and its Arab neighbourhood. Vested interests including geopolitical ambitions, economic competition, religious ideology, personal political ambition, and strategic alliances have all played their part in this mixed reaction. [P02] JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF | KOREAN TEXT VERSION PDF
As one of the chief antagonists to any deal reached between the P5 +1 – five permanent members of the UN Security Council, namely China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, plus Germany – and Iran, the predictable reaction of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the agreement has been one described by Israeli critics as “hysterical” and “right-wing reactionary”.
Days before the framework agreement was reached, Netanyahu continued to try and pressure the US administration to back out of any accord, claiming that Iran represented an existential threat to Israel, while simultaneously dredging up the Holocaust.
Once the deal was done, much of Israel’s extreme right-wing cabinet was in agreement that US President Barack Obama had thrown Israel under the bus – as if the central issue of the agreement reached was Israel.
Netanyahu, convinced of a higher calling, tried unsuccessfully to force Obama into obtaining an agreement from Iran that recognition of Israel’s right to exist was a prerequisite for any nuclear deal.
Israeli commentator Alex Fishman voiced what many Israelis feel in Israel’s right-leaning ‘Ynet News’ website.
“Our friends in Washington have sold us out, along with their other allies in the Middle East, for a pittance”, was how he summed up the deal.
Fishman argued that the interim agreement was evidence of the strategic importance Iran attributes to its military nuclear programme.
However, not all Israelis concur with their government.
Prof Haggai Ram, head of Middle East Studies Department at Israel’s Ben Gurion University and an expert on Iran, challenged that assessment, stating that the claim that Iran presented an existential threat was a fig leaf for Israel’s occupation.
Ram said that for years Israel argued that peace with the Arabs was impossible and when that bogeyman turned out to be false they looked for a new one – Iran.
“Basically, since 1996 they have warned us that in a year, Iran will have a nuclear weapon,” said Ram in an interview with the left-leaning Israeli daily ‘Haaretz.’
“Let’s assume they are on the way. Are they intending to use nuclear capabilities to destroy Israel?
“In my opinion, the answer is a sweeping and unequivocal no. Most historians of the Islamic Republic of Iran since 1979 point out that Iranian policy is not dictated by messianic or religious considerations but rather pragmatic ones based on state interests,” said Ram.
“To say Iran poses an existential threat to Israel is wrong, if not a deception. Israel has bigger and more dangerous enemies. Iran serves as a fig leaf to the real danger to Israel’s fate – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
The Israeli government was not the only one in the region voicing concerns about Iran’s regional political ambitions.
Indeed, Israel has found strange bedfellows in a number of Arab governments who have also voiced scepticism over the agreement.
Samir Altaqi and Esam Aziz from the Middle East Briefing (MEB), a research and risk advisory company, believe the Arabs have reasons to question Iran’s motives. In an article, ‘What to Expect From the Arabs After the Iran Nuclear Deal’, MEB said: “The Region’s leaders do not reject a nuclear deal with Iran as a matter of principle, but they see the whole issue of Tehran’s nuclear programme from a different perspective from that of Washington.”
“They understand that for any country to seek a nuclear weapon means one of two things: either it is trying to build a decisive retaliatory capacity or it is trying to expand its influence out of its borders through nuclear blackmail.”
The article went on to point out regional polarisation, citing the disintegration of Yemen as an example where the Iranians have supported the Houthis. Further examples of Iranian interference include Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria and Bahrain.
“The problem here is that Iran – without a nuclear bomb, but free of sanctions and of any serious restrictions on its ballistic capabilities – will still be more aggressive in the regional theatre,” said MEB.
Sunni Saudi Arabia, whose military is fighting against the Houthis in Yemen, is also wary of its Shi’ite adversary and the deal reached with Iran, believing that Iranian influence flourishes on weak central governments and sectarian instability.
The Saudi cabinet released a conciliatory public statement in regard to the Iran deal but simultaneously called for “commitment to the principles of good neighbourliness and non-interference in the internal affairs of the Arab countries and respect of their sovereignty” even though the Saudis and Iran are backing opposing sides in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Nasser Ahmed Bin Ghaib, a researcher from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), told ‘Al Jazeera’ the Gulf States with their struggling economies are worried about economic competition, with the possibility of cheap Iranian oil flooding a saturated oil market and further lowering prices, following Western acceptance of Iran.
However, there are also mixed reactions to the Iran deal in the Gulf.
“Those who support a deal argue it would prevent the region from sliding into a destructive nuclear arms race that would deplete everybody. But others say the deal will have a number of negative consequences for the Gulf,” Bin Ghaib told ‘Al Jazeera.’
Egyptian political analyst Ahmed Abd-Rabo told Egyptian daily ‘Al Ahram’ he believes sectarianism in the Middle East seems the most likely outcome as the feud between Sunnis and Shias deepens.
“This follows anxiety in the Saudi-led Sunni camp following the conclusion of the framework agreement between Iran, the leader of the Shia camp, and the West,” said Abd-Rabo.
Turkey for its part is also divided over the Iran question. Akin Unver, assistant professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, says Turkey’s Iran policy shifted in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Afraid of Iran’s regional ambitions Turkey was complicit in NATO’s defence shield in 2011.
“However, playing out behind the shadow of Iran's nuclear programme was Turkey's strategy of securing an eventual Iranian contribution to the European Union's Southern Gas Corridor – first, in the form of Nabucco, and after it was discarded, the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) project,” explained Unver.
So despite being disappointed about being sidelined diplomatically during negotiations with Iran, Turkey could still reap some benefits from Iran in the form of Iran being connected to the Southern Gas Corridor.
Most Iranians are elated at the prospect of rejoining the international community as a respected member, except of course for Iranian hardliners who believe the Iranian leadership has been too accommodating with the American “Great Satan”. [IDN-InDepthNews – 8 April 2015]
Photo: The ministers of foreign affairs of France, Germany, the European Union, Iran, the United Kingdom and the United States as well as Chinese and Russian diplomats announcing the framework of a Comprehensive agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme (Lausanne, 2 April 2015). Credit: Wikimedia Commons