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.
Alwaleed then detailed how the Iranians are "in Bahrain, they are in Iraq, they are in Syria, they are with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas, which is Sunni, in Gaza." As this listing suggests, Saudis are fixated on the danger of being surrounded by Iran's agents and are more scared by the non-nuclear implications of the joint plan than the nuclear ones. Gregory Gause of the University of Vermont sees Saudis worrying that the accord opens the way "without any obstacles" for Iran to achieve regional dominance. (This contrasts with the Israeli and Western position, which focuses on the nuclear danger.)
Abdullah al-Askar, foreign affairs committee chairman of the kingdom's appointed Shura Council, elaborates: he worries "about giving Iran more space or a freer hand in the region. The government of Iran, month after month, has proven that it has an ugly agenda in the region, and in this regard no one in the region will sleep and assume things are going smoothly. … The people of the region … know that Iran will interfere in the politics of many countries."
Saudi media reiterated this line of analysis. Al-Watan, a government newspaper, warned that the Iran regime, "which sends its tentacles into other regional countries, or tries to do so by all means necessary," will not be fettered by the accord. Another daily, Al-Sharq, editorialized about the fear that "Iran made concessions in the nuclear dossier in return for more freedom of action in the region."
Some analysts, especially in the smaller Persian Gulf states, went further. Jaber Mohammad, a Bahraini analyst, predicted that "Iran and the West will now reach an accord on how to divide their influence in the Gulf." The Qatari government-owned Al-Quds Al-Arabi worried about "a U.S.-Iran alliance with Russian backing." Rumors of Obama wanting to visit Tehran only confirm these suspicions.
The Saudi ambassador in London, Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz, drew the most overt public conclusion, threatening that "We are not going to sit idly by and receive a threat there and not think seriously how we can best defend our country and our region." To put it mildly, this is not how Saudi diplomats normally speak about fellow Muslims.
What does this unwonted rhetoric amount to? Iranian bellicosity and the Obama administration's pro-Iran policies have combined to end many decades of Saudi strategic reliance on Washington and to begin thinking how to protect themselves. This matters, because as Alwaleed rightly boasts, his country is leader of the Arabs, enjoying the most international, regional, cultural, and religious clout. The results of this new-found assertiveness – fighting against fellow Islamists, allying tacitly with Israel, perhaps acquiring Pakistani-made nuclear weapons, and even reaching out to Tehran – marks yet another consequence of Barack Obama's imploding foreign policy.