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Preparing for the fallout from Iran’s nuclear deal

The saber-rattling between Iran and Israel is likely to escalate in light of the latter’s vehement opposition to the nuclear negotiations

Sharif Nashashibi

Published: Updated:

Whether a deal over Iran’s nuclear program is reached by the extended deadline of Monday or at a later date, the regional repercussions will be huge. An agreement would improve relations between Tehran and Western powers, particularly its arch-foe the United States, though there would still be longstanding sources of friction beyond the nuclear issue.

The saber-rattling between Iran and Israel is likely to escalate in light of the latter’s vehement opposition to the nuclear negotiations. However, the biggest regional fallout will be felt with regard to relations between Tehran and Riyadh, which are currently facing off in proxy wars to a greater extent and on more fronts than is the case with Israeli-Iranian rivalry.

The escalation and widening of Saudi-Iranian rivalry in recent years may pale in comparison with what will follow a nuclear deal and Tehran’s subsequent rehabilitation

Sharif Nashashibi

A nuclear deal would entail the lifting of wide-ranging sanctions imposed on Iran, which would boost its economy and military. This would enable it to more forcefully flex its regional muscle, particularly in the Arab states and conflicts where it is most involved: primarily Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and to a lesser extent Yemen. Tehran’s involvement could thus be prolonged and deepened.

Saudi Arabia has made it clear that it will not stand idly by, with Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir reiterating just four days before the deadline for nuclear negotiations that his country “is working to confront Iran’s trouble-making activities in the region. We are determined that Iran should not have a negative intervention in the region or in Arab countries.”

Riyadh has already shown such determination recently by increasing material support for Syrian rebels – contributing to a string of battlefield gains – as well its military campaign against Iran’s allies in Yemen. Tehran in turn has become more entrenched in Iraq and Syria, and increasingly boastful about the expansion of its regional influence and of its Islamic revolution.

Escalation

However, the escalation and widening of Saudi-Iranian rivalry in recent years may pale in comparison with what will follow a nuclear deal and Tehran’s subsequent rehabilitation. In their war of words and in their actions, including increased military expenditure, both sides seem to be gearing up for such a development.

Riyadh has sought to consolidate its regional influence to offset Tehran’s, which has been on the ascendance since the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of neighboring Iraq. Saudi Arabia is combining its traditional use of soft power (diplomatic and economic) with a greater willingness - particularly under its new monarch - to resort to hard, military power.

To varying extents, it can count on the support of most Arab governments (with the exceptions of Syria, Iraq and Lebanon), including those of the wealthy Gulf states, and of geo-strategically important countries such as Egypt and Jordan.

This is evidenced by the speed with which Riyadh was able to put together an Arab coalition against its opponents in the Yemen conflict. In the week prior to the nuclear-negotiations deadline alone, Jubeir held talks with Jordanian officials, and Saudi King Salman met with Qatar’s emir. Riyadh’s regional outreach is likely to intensify further.

Saudi policies vis-à-vis the Middle East’s conflicts, as well as efforts to form a pan-Arab military force, suggest efforts to chart a course more independent from the United States.

Washington’s negotiations with Iran, its reluctance to adequately support Syrian rebels, and its cooperation with Tehran in Iraq have angered Riyadh, which has grown more vocal in its frustrations. A central Saudi concern is that a nuclear deal will soften U.S. (and more generally Western) opposition to Iran’s regional footprint.

A sense of patriotism will afford Tehran domestic support for its foreign policies, particularly when framed in terms of safeguarding the country from jihadists, imperialists and other aggressors.

However, it is uncertain to what extent Iranians will be willing to see their resuscitated economy used to pay for costly, long-term military ventures abroad, and to perpetually prop up foreign allies, at the expense of much-needed internal development.

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Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya News, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash


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