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.”