Arabs and Israel Agreed —- and Now Don’t —- on the Iran Deal

Israel and the Gulf Arab nations that agree on very little about the Mideast briefly found themselves in accord on one thing: the dangers of the Iran nuclear deal.

Their convergence provided a compelling narrative for critics of the nuclear deal, who said it is so flawed that the nations in the region most threatened by Iran oppose it.

That argument evaporated on Monday, when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry persuaded the six Persian Gulf monarchies to give cautious support to the accord, which Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid Al-Attiyah called the “the best option amongst other options” to thwart any Iranian quest for nuclear weapons.

Underlying that shift are the divergent assessments by Israel and the Sunni Arab states of the Iranian threat and what to do about it.

For Israel, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says, a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a future existential threat to the Jewish state. The Gulf Arabs see an immediate threat from a Persian Shiite hegemon that’s fueling turmoil in the region and subversion among their disaffected Shiite populations.

“These governments start from a different premise from Israel,” Jon Alterman, senior vice president and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told the House Armed Services Committee July 29. “They see the nuclear program as a relatively small part of the array of Iranian threats, and they see Iran’s regional behavior as much more worrying.”

Israel’s Aim

Israel wants to shut down Iran’s potential nuclear weapons infrastructure -- most importantly the uranium enrichment facilities needed to make weapons-grade fuel -- by using military force if diplomacy can’t produce what Netanyahu has called a “better deal.”

The Gulf countries want to mitigate the Iranian regional threat by strengthening their own militaries and the U.S. commitments to their security.

So while it falls short of the Israelis’ standards, the nuclear deal -- backed by increased American aid and commitments -- meets the Gulf States’ needs. Al-Attiyah said he and his Gulf colleagues were satisfied with Kerry’s assurance the U.S. oversight will mean Iran doesn’t get nuclear weapons.

As the Gulf nations see it, “Iran is the source of all instability in today’s Middle East of sectarianism, civil conflict, domestic dissent,” Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy of the Brookings Institution, wrote on the research center’s website.

‘Troublesome Activities’

They want to see the U.S. underscore its recognition of “Iran’s troublesome activities around the region, and to demonstrate its readiness to push back against Iran’s expansionism,” wrote Wittes, who was a State Department official dealing with the Mideast from 2009 to 2012.

In Doha, the capital of gas-producer Qatar, Kerry provided both that recognition and the promise, in his words, of greater “pushback.”

“We know about the support of Hezbollah, the support for the Shia militias in Iraq, the support for Houthi and other involvements in the region, which we have opposed and we continue to oppose and we will oppose going forward,” he said at a press conference.

Neither Kerry nor the Qatari minister mentioned how Iran’s access under the deal to billions of dollars from unfrozen assets and expanded oil sales might affect its spending on its military and proxy conflicts.

Gulf States’ Aim

While Netanyahu is attempting to persuade Congress to kill the deal, the Gulf Arabs have sought to use it to gain more U.S. defense support, including help with asymmetric challenges such as cyber-attacks and support for proxy fighters such as the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, which the U.S., European Union and Israel label a terrorist group.

The Gulf Arab leaders take the view that “Iran now controls four Arab capitals —- Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut and Sana’a -- and that its expansionist ambitions must be checked,” said Alterman, “In checking those ambitions, there is no more important element than a U.S. commitment to their security.”

The U.S. and the Gulf partners have agreed to set up an “action agenda” of “operational steps” to bind the U.S. militarily even more closely to the Gulf nations.

Kerry said those include providing special forces training, conducting more joint military exercises, improving maritime security and interdiction capabilities to obstruct the flow of people and weapons, and working to integrate the countries’ missile defenses against Iranian missiles.

Arms Sales

“We agreed to expedite certain arms sales that are needed that have taken too long in the past,” he said.

Still, there are limits to what the U.S. can sell the Arab states because the U.S. is committed by law to ensure that Israel maintains a “qualitative military edge” over other nations in the region. So Israel alone will be taking delivery of Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35 Joint Strike Fighters starting next year.

Obama has said he wants to open a dialogue with Israel about what more might be done to help it cope with the threats it sees from Iran. Netanyahu has brushed off that offer, at least for now, while he’s working to kill the Iran deal in Congress.

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