Gulf States’ Motives in Supporting US Withdrawal from the Nuclear Deal
Saturday, May 12, 2018
President Donald Trump’ announcement of the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal coincided with GCC countries’ calls for Arabian Gulf region free of nuclear weapons. These calls were backed by the Arab states, which are seeking to rally international support for a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction.
Initial reactions from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kingdom of Bahrain concerning the US decision revealed a support for the reevaluation of the nuclear agreement with Iran to address regional security threats.
In contrast, the positions of Oman and Qatar towards Trump’s decision were neutral, albeit the statements issued by the two countries amounted to undeclared reservation on the US decision. On its part, Kuwait has explicitly expressed its rejection of the US decision.
Although these divergent positions reveal different stances and calculations, one cannot overlook that the US decision was -in part- a result of the diplomatic pressure made by some Arab states. States expressed their concerns regarding the Iranian threats to the security and stability of the region in international forums. In addition, Arab states engaged in direct confrontations with Iranian backed militia in conflict zones, as a part of their effort to constrain the Iranian expansion.
Reasons for Support
It may be true that the Arab Gulf states have not opposed the nuclear agreement at the time, but they have accepted it with caution. In various occasions they voiced their concern that the Iranian regime may not fulfill its commitments, whether it is to cease threatening its neighbors, or to commit itself not to develop its nuclear program.
However, the post-nuclear agreement developments have demonstrated the validity of Arab concerns about the failure of the nuclear deal to curtail Iran’s threats. In this regard, several Iranian trends have emerged to threaten the Gulf and regional security, which have been the main drivers of supporting the US decision. The most notable of which are the following:
1- The Iranian missile threat originating from Yemen: Iran took advantage of lifting the sanctions to boost its economic lifelines, pumping money and weapons to its regional arms, especially the Houthis in Yemen. In this context, figures indicate that the Houthis launched more than 125 missiles toward Saudi Arabia, albeit Riyadh’s defenses were able to intercept some of them. Missiles flow to the Houthis demonstrated that Iran has exploited many of the loopholes in the nuclear agreement to develop its missile capability and threaten its neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, efforts to stop the transfer of Iranian technology to the Houthis seemed ineffective.
2- Iranian expansion through its Shi’ite agents in conflict zones: Lifting the sanctions has allowed Iran to expand its regional role in conflict zones in the Middle East, whether through its agents in Iraq, Lebanon or Syria, in an attempt to continue its policies of exporting the revolution to the Middle East. For example, Iran has supported Shi’ite armed militias (the Popular Mobilizations Forces) in Iraq, intervened in the Syrian conflict and Lebanon through Hezbollah, which is the key Iranian arm in the region.
3- Iran continues to develop its nuclear capabilities: The nuclear agreement has not dismantled the infrastructure of the Iranian nuclear program, it has only contributed to scaling it down. Tehran still possesses 3,000 centrifuges that may form the basis for building a nuclear power in the future. The terms of the nuclear agreement, which limits Iran’s enrichment capacities for 15 years only, will allow Iran to resume its threatening activities post the “breakout” time. Accordingly, the three countries (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain) viewed the (P5 + 1) agreement as a postponement to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, not necessarily blocking them. Thus, it did not lead to a zone free of weapons of mass destruction and did end the Iranian threat.
4- Betting on economic pressure to limit the threats: One of the key arguments for the Gulf’s position was the bet that re-imposing sanctions on Tehran could be a message from the US to tame the destabilizing behaviors of the Iranian regime. Piling up economic pressures will constrain its abilities to provide financial and technical support to its militias, which threaten the security of the region.
That message is of paramount significance, amid the decline in the Iranian economy over the past years due to directing a major part of the financial capacities to institutions such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which plays an essential role in its expansionist activities in conflict zones. For several months, Iranian reports refer to continuing protests against the deteriorating economic conditions.
Although the US withdrawal from the agreement is, in part, a response to Arab fears, it cannot be considered a “magic wand” that will put an end to Tehran’s mounting threats to the security of the region. There are still potential challenges that may face the implementation of Trump’s decision, as follows:
1- Stepping up threats in the region: Various security analysts expect Iran to push back through its agents in the region. For example, Tehran could increase its support for the Houthis in Yemen, speeding up the transfer of missile technology to them to ramp up missile attacks against Saudi Arabia and the coalition forces in Yemen. It is therefore expected that the Arab coalition in Yemen will, in the next phase, cooperate with the US to prevent the smuggling of Iranian weapons into Yemen. The coalition forces will seek, at the same time, to secure more victories on the ground against the Houthis.
Tehran is also expected to further escalate the tensions in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria to harm the US and Arab interests. Accordingly, the US should intervene to settle the crisis in Syria, especially as there is a possibility that Washington might reconsider its pledge to withdraw all US forces in eastern Syria to deny pro-Iran forces the chance to take control of areas in Syria.
2- Threatening the security of the region: Iran may attempt to destabilize the region directly; one possibility may be to attempt to escalate sectarian rifts in Bahrain. It may also intensify cyber-attacks against the states of the region.
In view of these two possible moves in the aftermath of the US withdrawal, the US may launch a comprehensive strategic plan to counter the Iranian threat after withdrawing from the agreement. The US shall address the European rejection, which constitutes one of Tehran’s maneuvers to avoid the resumption of the US sanctions.
In short, the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal could be the beginning of the implementation of the regional project to rid the Arab Gulf of nuclear weapons and constrain Iran’s threats to regional security and stability. However, the decision still needs a clear plan of action that includes specific measures to address security threats and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.