Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, meets with UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan in Tehran on Nov. 28. (Agence France-Presse, Handout, Iranian Presidency)
DUBAI AND TEL AVIV — Cautious optimism by Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states over an interim agreement with Tehran threatens to alienate Israel from traditional friends and potential regional partners seeking a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear threat.
As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to decry the “historic mistake” of the Nov. 23 deal, GCC states, led by the United Arab Emirates, are starting to internalize the prospect of a nuclear-capable, yet severely restricted, Iran reasserting itself in regional and global affairs.
Gulf states that have discretely supported Israeli demands for crippling sanctions backed by a credible military threat are now eyeing outreach and engagement with Iran, experts said.
As “Bibi” browbeats the right to “defend itself, by itself,” moderate Sunni states he once viewed as shadow partners in common cause against Tehran’s radical Shia regime are mulling renewed trade and coordination with their rival across the Arabian Gulf.
The UAE was the first gulf nation to express support for the interim deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. Saudi Arabia followed Nov. 25, with a guarded nod to the potential first step in Geneva.
“The government of the kingdom sees that if there was good will, this agreement could represent a preliminary step toward a comprehensive solution to the Iranian nuclear program,” Riyadh announced Nov. 25.
Just five days after the conclusion of the interim deal, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed visited Tehran and met with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and President Hassan Rouhani. Abdullah stressed the importance of developing UAE-Iranian relations, and said he wished the new Iranian government success as he was inaugurating the new UAE Embassy in Tehran, UAE state news agency WAM reported Nov. 28.
Abdullah stressed that relations between the UAE and Iran are historic and based on respect, cooperation and good neighborliness for the security and stability of the region, according to WAM. He added that Iran is the UAE’s trading partner, and both want to encourage investment in their countries’ private sectors. He said the UAE-Iran joint committee will meet in the first half of 2014.
In the weeks and months ahead, experts anticipate additional exchanges as Saudi Arabia and other GCC states reassess strategic options and aspire to influence the final, comprehensive agreement that may come in a year.
“How [GCC states] will engage with Iran will vary from country to country. … It is likely that UAE will be more inclined to strengthen economic relations if the political situation improves,” said Taufiq Rahim, a Dubai-based strategic adviser and political analyst.
Bahrain, he said, “is more likely to be in lockstep with Saudi Arabia over their next move.”
Gulf experts attributed the emerging readiness to engage with Iran to the erosion of US regional influence and growing GCC doubts about its ability to honor security commitments.
Abdel Khaleq Abdullah, an analyst at the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies, said countries in the region are losing confidence in the US, which seemed too eager to conclude an agreement with the new Iranian president.
While UAE support for the interim accord is appropriate, Abdullah said, warned against a precipitous rush toward Iran.
After meetings last week in Riyadh, Barry Pavel, a former US National Security Council adviser, and Richard Lebaron, a former US ambassador to Kuwait, said they expected the Saudis to begin “testing the waters” by reaching out to Iran in the coming months.
“If they think the scenario is going to emerge where the US is going to have improved relations with Iran, I think they’ll want to hedge their own bets and test Rouhani’s indication that he believes … that improved relations with Saudi Arabia should be an Iranian priority,” LeBaron said.
In contrast, Netanyahu remains fiercely opposed to diplomacy that eases sanctions and confers international legitimacy on Iran without a commitment to fully dismantle its capacity to produce nuclear weapons.
He dismisses as naïve and misguided calls by US President Barack Obama and other world leaders to test the sincerity of Tehran’s self-professed desire for a deal that allows only peaceful use of its nuclear program.
The more world powers waver on enrichment levels, testing and other key aspects of the nuclear deal, the more Netanyahu is willing to risk international opprobrium by hunkering down on the strictest of demands. He is convinced, aides said, that Iran is manipulating the Western desire to close a deal, and will wait years for the opportune time to break agreements in its dash for the bomb.
Soli Shahvar, director of Haifa University’s Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies, said Netanyahu’s characterization of Rouhani as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” is based on the concept of “taqiya” (concealment), a pillar of Shiism.
“Because the Shiite minority faced persecution in the Islamic world, they are obligated by their faith to conceal true beliefs and lie in order to survive,” said Shahvar, an Iranian Jewish expatriate.
Despite last week’s deluge of meetings, telephone calls and diplomacy aimed at softening his stance, Netanyahu maintains Israel is not bound by the Nov. 23 deal.
“Sanctions have been given up in exchange for cosmetic Iranian concessions that can be canceled in weeks,” he said Nov. 24. “This agreement ... endangers many countries including, of course, Israel ... and Israel has the right and the obligation to defend itself.”
A lengthy Nov. 24 telephone conversation with Obama failed to alter Netanyahu’s stance. Nor, Israeli sources said, was he deterred when British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned against attempts to undermine Geneva-brokered understandings.
Addressing Parliament Nov. 25, Hague said, “We would discourage anybody in the world, including Israel, from taking any steps that would undermine this agreement, and we will make that very clear to all concerned.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry is slated to deliver a similar message of restraint, along with pledges to consider Israeli concerns in follow-on talks with Iran, in a visit to Israel later this week.
While Netanyahu has agreed to restrain his rhetoric and begin immediate consultations with Washington over talks aimed at a comprehensive accord, his basic position remains unchanged.
“I refer you to statements released following conclusion of the Geneva talks, as they continue to reflect the government’s position,” Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev told Defense News.
A growing number of Israeli experts and at least one minister in Netanyahu’s coalition government are flagging the danger of such intransigence. Insisting a nonproliferation strategy cannot be based on browbeating and rhetoric, experts are urging Netanyahu to devise constructive proposals to influence terms, conditions and enforcement mechanisms of the comprehensive pact to come.
By continuously raising the military option, they said, Netanyahu appears weak, war-mongering and disingenuous in his professed preference for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear threat.
At the same time, critics accuse Netanyahu of squandering any prospects of cultivating cooperation with the GCC and neighboring states by his unwillingness to push for a two-state peace deal with the Palestinian Authority.
“I suggest that we stop whining ... and use the six months to make sure Iran doesn’t fool the world into enabling a final-status deal that would be dangerous for Israel,” Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said.
At a Nov. 26 conference in Jerusalem, Livni, the Israeli official leading peace talks with the Palestinian Authority, called on Netanyahu to confront coalition hardliners opposed to an agreement aimed at ending the conflict.
“Solving the conflict with the Palestinians would enable a united front with Arab countries against Iran,” she said.
In an ominous indication of dangers ahead, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Lavrov, in a Nov. 25 address to the Civil Society Forum in Rome, reaffirmed Moscow’s support for Iran’s “undeniable right to enrich uranium.”
Once a verifiable agreement is implemented to end the Iranian nuclear problem, Lavrov said, Moscow would renew international efforts to create a similar mechanism to rid the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction.
Further, Lavrov said, “If the agreement on Iran will be implemented, then the cause which is used as a pretext for the creation of the European segment of the anti-missile defense will be invalidated.”
Compounding controversy, Lavrov reiterated Russia’s position that failure to solve the Palestinian problem is the “main cause” for terrorism and extremism threatening the world. He insisted that Hamas be included in ongoing talks to end the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“We are convinced that the non-settlement of the Palestinian problem has been the main cause for the development of groups of extremists and terrorists for many decades, as jihadists continue to recruit youths using slogans of unfair attitudes towards the Palestinian people.” ■