Former secretary of state and longtime Republican Party fixer James Baker, speaking on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS on Sunday, alleged that the Iran nuclear deal being struck by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany is “going to alienate all of our allies in the region. Not just Israel but all of moderate Arab states that are now fighting Iran doing battle in Yemen and elsewhere. So it’s a very, very difficult concept, in my view, to think that that’s where this is going to go…” Baker is known for his strong ties to Arab Gulf oil monarchies such as Saudi Arabia. But was he really speaking for them? A review of reactions from the Middle East itself does not support Baker’s assertion (a talking point many pundits have retailed on television in the past week and a half).
First, we need to ask which of the Arab states Baker is trying to speak for or ventriloquize. It isn’t all twenty-two member states of the Arab League. It isn’t Syria, an Arab nationalist country of 23 million people, where the beleaguered Damascus government, which depends on Iranian support, greeted the Lausanne agreement with enthusiasm. It isn’t Iraq, a largely Arab country of some 32 million, where the government of Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi warmly welcomed the announcement of a framework agreement on Iranian enrichment. Iraq had its own small nuclear weapons program in the 1980s, which was rolled up by UN inspectors in 1991, and so its hopes for this agreement are especially important. Iraq, like Syria, now has a military alliance with Iran. The position of these two Arab countries is hardly unexpected, but it is interesting that when Western pundits opine on the anxieties of “the Arabs,” they seem to exclude the entire Fertile Crescent, traditionally the beating heart of Arabism.
Another major Arab state with a storied role in modern Arab nationalism, Algeria, congratulated the negotiating partners on their achievement and praised their “positive intentions.” Tunisia, the only fairly successful democracy to emerge from the Arab revolutions of the past four years, praised Lausanne and said that “any solution that allows us to avoid war in the region is welcome.”
So it seems clear that “the Arabs” haven’t exactly lined up in opposition to the Iran framework agreement. Indeed, many members of the Arab League actively welcome it or are hopeful about it.
Baker, of course, is an old oilman and was really talking about the six Arab Gulf monarchies that belong to the Gulf Cooperation Council, of which Saudi Arabia is loosely speaking the leader, but within which Qatar and Oman are often mavericks. Still, even there, Baker’s cautions need some qualifications. The Oman foreign ministry welcomed the Lausanne announcement as opening a new stage in increased security and stability in the region and worldwide. Foreign Ministry Secretary-General Sayyid Badr AlBusaidi went even further, tweeting that “The international agreement between Iran and the P5+1 must be considered an accomplishment for the international community and a victory for peace.”
After the basic political framework of the deal was read out in Lausanne last week, President Barack Obama called King Salman of Saudi Arabia to brief him on the state of the negotiations. Soon thereafter, the Saudi cabinet issued a communiqué in which it welcomed the negotiations. It expressed its hope that a binding final agreement will be reached that augments security and stability in the region. The cabinet reaffirmed Saudi Arabia’s support for peaceful solutions that allow the countries of the Middle East to deploy nuclear energy for civilian energy generation, under the inspection regime of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The cabinet drew attention again to the Arab League call for a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear warheads. Peace and security in the area, it said, depend on good-faith dialogue and non-interference in the internal affairs of Arab states.
This communiqué is 180 degrees away from the reaction of the Israeli cabinet, which rejected the Lausanne framework entirely and seemed to demand a complete cessation of Iranian nuclear enrichment via centrifuges, even for the purpose of producing fuel for reactors to make electricity. The Saudi position showed a great deal more trust in the UN Security Council and the IAEA to achieve a verifiable deal. The Saudis did, however, seem to want to tie this diplomatic breakthrough to their demand that Iran cease intervening in Syria and Yemen. Saudi proxies are fighting the Iran-backed Baath government of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the former. In the latter, the Saudis and their allies have for the past two weeks been conducting bombing campaigns against Houthi rebels, whom they accuse of being cat’s paws of Iran (which is not true—they are a local, grassroots group that may have gotten some aid from Iran). The Obama administration and its partners, the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany), however, have been adamant that the nuclear negotiations are about enrichment and nothing else.
Qatar’s foreign minister made a statement on the Lausanne framework agreement that differed in no particular from the Saudi one (a rare occurrence), except that Qatar did not bring up Iran’s interventions in Arab politics.
Of course, it may be that the public Saudi statements in general support of the Lausanne framework conceal a great deal of private anxiety, as some Arab pundits insist. Some of those concerns are not centrally about the nuclear issue, but have to do with fear that the United States will move away from its tight alliance with the House of Saud to a more balanced view of regional conflict, and fear that an unfettered Iran will become even more influential in the Arab world than it already is. Moreover, it should be noted that behind the scenes, Saudi Arabia has sometimes been absolutely hysterical about Iran, according to State Department cables released by WikiLeaks. In 2008, King Abdullah’s government spoke of the need to “cut off the head of the snake.” But while some Saudi leaders no doubt continue to hold such views, the cabinet of King Salman is now publicly supporting Obama’s initiative.
Still, the notion that “the Arabs” in general oppose Lausanne, or even that the GCC unanimously condemns it, cannot be supported from the public record. Certainly there is nothing like the strident efforts of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to derail the negotiations. Rather, the member states of the Arab League are divided among allies of Iran, independent nationalists who view the accord positively, and the conservative Gulf oil monarchies. The spectrum runs from enthusiasm to cautious acceptance, with even one of the GCC states, Oman, showing enthusiasm. Netanyahu is an outlier in the Middle East on this issue and can’t claim the cover of the Arab world for his rejectionism.