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Obama’s dilemma over Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel

No one denies that since the beginning of the crisis over its nuclear programme, Iran has been successful in breaking the US-Israeli rules for the Middle East. Throughout the (almost) two decades of the crisis, neither the US nor its allies have been able to disprove the claims that Iran’s nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes only. Iran began to succeed after the breakthrough of the deal in late 2013 signed by the P5+1 countries; the US was involved and it stipulated the temporary freezing of Iran’s nuclear programme. In exchange, the agreement provided for the easing of economic sanctions imposed on Iran in the expectation of reaching a final agreement at a later stage.

In addition to varying degrees of support for the deal, there were some who were completely opposed to it, not least Israel and Saudi Arabia. They both believe themselves to be under direct threat from Iran and their political and security demands have not been met by the deal.

Israel expressed its disapproval by describing the agreement as an unprecedented success for Iran because it preserved its nuclear programme and its continued refusal to recognise the Zionist state and perceived threat to “erase” it. It thus found itself in agreement with conservative Gulf States in opposing the Iran deal. Likewise, Saudi Arabia said that other Iranian successes will accompany the deal and will have an impact on Saudi Arabia directly. In addition to the fact that Iran broke the Western domination project in the region, the government in Tehran will also be granted a military, economic and religious (Shia) position at Saudi Arabia’s expense; Riyadh regards itself as the regional (Sunni) leader. It is believed that King Salman bin Abdul Aziz refused to attend the recent Camp David summit as a form of protest at the deal with Iran.

US President Barack Obama was careful to coordinate with Israel over the negotiations with Iran in order to simplify complex points of view; he had similar intentions for his Arab friends, especially Saudi Arabia. He made sure that the US provided all that was necessary to keep them quiet when faced with the agreement. At Camp David, Obama even vowed that he would ensure dissenting countries’ security and safety against any future Iranian threat.

However, it seems that Riyadh in particular was not completely satisfied with America’s promises due to its growing fear of the threat posed by Iran in the region, given the crises plaguing the Middle East in the run-up to the signing of a final agreement next month, and Iran’s involvement in almost all of them. In this, Saudi does not differ much from Israel’s preference for a military option, implemented either by America, or by the White House allowing Riyadh to go ahead on its own. King Salman’s government wants Washington to put pressure on Tehran either to stop its nuclear programme completely or to be more transparent with it; he remains unconvinced that Iran will not militarise its programme and work towards having nuclear weapons.

Saudi Arabia regards Iran’s nuclear activities as just one aspect of its many threats against the kingdom, and so in exchange for its silence in the face of any future agreement it wants to have its own nuclear military capability, possibly bought ready-made. It could do this from Pakistan, especially since Saudi funded a large part of Islamabad’s nuclear programme. As for Israel, in exchange for its silence and dropping its threats of unilateral military action, it wants appropriate compensation that matches its various concerns and fears.

In addition to possessing nuclear power, Israel wants the US to update its weapons on a regular basis. There have also been conditions for America to transfer funds to Israel in the form of “permanent aid” and defending Israel politically and diplomatically in international circles, especially with regards to the conflict with the Palestinians.

In any case, Obama is probably feeling confused about whether or not he will be able to get Iran’s word on one hand, and reconcile Israel and Saudi Arabia’s positions and policies on the other. However, this confusion has not stopped him from working on every front, as he is looking to close the Iranian portfolio during his term and to please both Tel Aviv and Riyadh, one his ally, the other his friend. However, he seems to be speaking with a forked tongue on this.

He will endeavour to convince Israel to back the final agreement in exchange for suitable rewards, starting with its weapons and financial demands. We have heard about the unimaginable number of weapons and absurd amounts of money that Israel may receive at any moment, and saw how Obama derailed the UN conference on the nuclear disarmament of the region in Tel Aviv’s favour.

At the same time, the US president will say that Saudi Arabia will get the lion’s share of rewards, albeit without breaking the rule that stipulates Israeli military superiority. This means that Saudi’s dream of nuclear weapons will not come true with America’s blessing, even if Riyadh decides to go down that road. Obama shares Israel’s opposition to this on the grounds that allowing Saudi Arabia to possess such weapons will start a nuclear race, not only in the Gulf, but also in other countries in the region such as Egypt and Turkey. Such weapons, argues Israel, could one day end up pointed at itself; neither Washington nor Tel Aviv can ever allow that to happen.

This article was first published in Arabic by Arabi21.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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