The "Joint Plan of Action" signed with Iran by the so-called P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K., and the U.S.) on Nov. 24 in Geneva caused Shiite Arabs to celebrate, Sunni Arabs to worry, and Saudis to panic. The Saudi response will have far-reaching and unpredictable consequences.
As Iran's chief negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif, brought home a deal worth about US$23 billion to Iran, Arab Shiites fell into step with Tehran. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq expressed his "full support for this step." President Bashar al-Assad of Syria welcomed the agreement as "the best path for securing peace and stability." Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri of Lebanon called it the "deal of the century." And Hezbollah considered the agreement a "great victory for Iran."
Among Sunni Arabic-speakers, in contrast, responses ranged from politely supportive to displeased to alarmed. Perhaps most enthusiastic was the Egyptian governmental newspaper Al-Ahram, which called the deal "historic." Most states stayed mum. Saudis expressed the most worry. Yes, the government cabinet officially stated that "If there is goodwill, then this agreement could be an initial step toward reaching a comprehensive solution to Iran's nuclear program," but note the skepticism conveyed in the first four words.
If that was the mildest response, perhaps the most unbuttoned comment came from Alwaleed bin Talal, a Saudi prince who occasionally sends up trial balloons for the royal family: He called Iran "a huge threat" and noted that, historically speaking, "The Persian empire was always against the Muslim Arab empire, especially against the Sunnis. The threat is from Persia, not from Israel," a ground-breaking and memorable public statement.