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Saudi Arabia Fears Iran's Meddling in Arab States as Much as its Nuclear Ambitions

Updated: Mar 31, 2015 5:12 PM ET

It should come as no surprise that Saudi Arabia is closely watching the Iran nuclear negotiations. No country, other than perhaps Israel, has as much invested in keeping Iran not only nuclear free, but economically and geopolitically tied down.

Saudis, whether they speak for the government or independently, regard Iran with deep-seated suspicion that extends into the nuclear deal under discussion. The overall consensus is that they would rather see no deal, than a bad deal. As to the definition of a 'bad' deal, the general response goes along the lines of ‘we'll know it when we see it.’ To Awadh AlBadi, a scholar at Riyadh’s King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, a bad deal is one that “does not answer to all concerns and does not guarantee the peaceful nature of the remaining Iranian nuclear capabilities.”

Fears that a deal might lead to a regional nuclear arms race are real, says AlBadi. While he says that Saudi Arabia is committed to the ideal of a nuclear-weapons free Middle East, he notes that “continued failure in achieving this may lead many nations in the region, including Saudi Arabia, to pursue such an option.” Saudi Arabia does not have a nuclear program at the moment but if Iran is allowed to continue with its program, he says Saudi will do the same. “Any nuclear rights or leverages given to Iran in any deal would make [Saudi Arabia] feel that it has the same leverages or rights,” should it choose to take that path.

But when it comes to the flip side of the argument, that bringing Iran in from the cold through a nuclear deal might improve stability and trade relations throughout the Middle East, AlBadi is pretty clear that the nuclear issue is the least of the region’s problems with Iran. Sectarianism, he says, is as destructive as nuclear weapons. “Iranian interference in Arab States’ internal affairs on a sectarian basis is destroying the social fabric of Arab societies in certain countries,” like Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Even if Iran never resorts to using nuclear weapons, he says, “Iran’s sectarian weapon has already been deployed. This has created a deep mistrust of Iranian intentions and policies.

The only real way to calm regional tensions, he says, is by Iran “abandoning its destructive policies and adapting new ones that seeks peace, security and cooperation in the region.”

In terms of a potential deal’s impact on current regional conflicts in which the two countries have rival interests (Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria), much depends, again, on whether it’s a “good” deal or a “bad” deal, says AlBadi. If Iran sees that a deal comes with leniency on other issues — like its role in Syria and Iraq — it would be encouraged to continue meddling. But “if Iran sees the deal as an opportunity to be a normal member of the international community, acting with responsibility for the interests of Iranian people and their well-being and for the stability and security of the region, peaceful solutions can be found for regional conflicts.”

Tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran flared in the wake of the 1979 Iranian revolution, and sparked again most recently in 2011, as disenfranchised groups rose up against their rulers in the Arab Spring, says Toby Matthiesen, a research fellow at the University of Cambridge and author of a recent book on Shi'ites in Saudi Arabia: The Other Saudis; Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism. This latest round of tensions, however has more to do with Saudi Arabia’s own insecurities as a nation governed by an absolute ruler in an era of popular uprising than Iranian adventurism. He cautions that focusing on the Saudi point of view distorts the reality of the Iranian role in uprisings from Yemen to Bahrain. “Basically the Saudis are trying to blame Iran for everything that goes wrong in the region.” He says the Saudis believe that there is an Iranian hand at play, and it impacts their decision making, but it is not necessarily a realistic view. The Houthis and the Shi'ites in Bahrain “don’t need Iran to revolt — the causes are always local, and in the case of the Houthis in Yemen or Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia [where there has been a long-simmering Shi'ite uprising that the Saudis like to blame on Iran] it has a lot to do with longstanding marginalization by the states in question, partially justified on religious grounds.” Iran may have some influence over some of the revolting groups, but “it’s still fundamentally a local problem,” says Matthiesen. “It is unrealistic to say that Iran is behind all of these revolts singlehandedly, without strong local backing.”

The Saudi-Iran rivalry has become shorthand for a complicated evolution in the region in which the Gulf states use Iranian influence in local uprisings to justify the enhancement of local militaries and the creation of a regional defense block that has more to do with defending autocratic regimes than defeating the constructed enemy that is Iran, says Matthiesen. “It is the culmination of a several years-long attempt to form a Sunni block that can on the one hand defend the old regimes against popular uprisings, while on the other hand justify its existence by projecting an Iranian hand on local frustrations.”

Matthiesen’s view is that the Saudi airstrikes on Houthi targets in Yemen are a far more dangerous situation than the successful conclusion of a nuclear deal with Iran. Whether or not Saudi will respond to a deal with nuclear weapons of their own is hard to say, he says, though he notes that the Saudi officials have purposely let leak that they do have some nuclear agreement with Pakistan. A deal alone is not likely to accelerate a regional arms race though, he says. Iran coming out with a bomb would be a different situation. “Senior Saudi royals have said they will get the bomb off the shelf from Pakistan as soon as Iran has the bomb, not necessarily when the agreement is reached.”

Still, the timing of the Yemen airstrikes seems particularly designed to influence the deal making, says Matthiesen. Just as a breakthrough nears, Iran has been thrust back into the international spotlight as a regional bad-boy fomenting rebellion in a one-time US ally. “We shouldn’t forget that this Yemen war comes at the same time of the most intensive, last weeks of the negotiations. I don’t think this is an accident.” The Saudis may have achieved their media objective, but he doesn’t see a real impact on the Western powers at the negotiation table. “

I think the Saudis were maybe hoping that the Iranians would intervene militarily [in Yemen] in response to the airstrikes, and undermine the nuclear deal, and that hasn’t happened.” If, however, a deal is not reached by the deadline, there is a possibility that Yemen could escalate, and the conspiracy becomes reality.

As much as the Saudis might resist, a nuclear deal, says Matthiesen, benefits the entire region. In the short term there may be economic loss as Iran reenters the global economy, but lifting the threat of war in the gulf will bring long-term stability and economic gain. “The perpetual threat of war in the Gulf, with the US or Israel targeting Iran, is not good for anyone, says Matthiesen. “A region where there are less hostilities is good for everyone. Good for trade. Good for development and good for progress. Having an agreement in place for 10 years, with close monitoring, and communication between Iran and the U.S. so that any problems can be discussed and not over blown, significantly reduces the specter of war in the gulf and the attendant social, political and economic upheaval. Unfortunately I don’t think many leaders in the Gulf see it that way.”

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