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November 27, 2013 10:29 am

Fear Over Iran Deal Leads to New Regional Alliances

avatar by Paul Alster

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The Arak IR-40 heavy water reactor in Iran. Photo: Nanking2012/Wikimedia Commons.

The interim Geneva agreement between the P5+1 nations and Iran, which eases some international sanctions on the Islamic Republic in return for suspending its uranium enrichment program, has been hailed in many quarters as a major diplomatic triumph, but not in Israel and not in the Sunni Muslim states of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.

Those in favor of the agreement stress that they have not been deceived by Iran. “Verification is the key,” said Secretary of State John Kerry, insisting that the United States had “no illusions” and was aware of the danger of easing up on Iran. It had entered into the deal “with eyes absolutely wide open.”

There is also the stick behind the carrot that any reneging by Iran might result in possible military action, although the dithering U.S. policy on Syria hardly strengthens that threat. With the American public’s appetite for another war at an apparent all-time low, the feeling is that even if the Geneva deal falls apart, Israel might be left to act without direct U.S. participation against Iranian nuclear facilities.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday reiterated his long-held opposition to the deal. “What was achieved last night in Geneva is not a historic agreement; it is a historic mistake. Today the world has become a much more dangerous place because the most dangerous regime in the world has taken a significant step toward attaining the most dangerous weapon in the world.”

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A number of respected voices from within Israel, including former Chief of Defense Intelligence Amos Yadlin, believe that the deal should be given a chance, emphasizing that it is only the first step on a potentially long road of negotiations. “If this was a final agreement, it would indeed be a very bad deal, but this is not the case,” Yadlin said. “I hope that the prime minister is now formulating a strategy to see what happens in the next six months.”

But what is it in the P5+1 deal with Iran that the Israelis, the Saudis, and other Sunni states in the region find hard to swallow?

  • Sanctions relief – The P5+1 took the view that limited sanctions relief was more likely to encourage Iran to halt its nuclear development program if it felt that real engagement with the international community was on the table. Israel and the Saudis insisted that it was precisely because of the sanctions that Iran was ready to cut a deal, as its economy was in meltdown. They argued that rather than easing up on sanctions and giving Iran the breathing space it craved, the international community should turn the screw and impose additional punitive sanctions in order to fatally cripple Iran’s ability to continue its nuclear program.

The six-month interim Geneva agreement appears to have thrown Iran a lifeline without requiring anything in return.

  • No dismantling of infrastructure – Had the Geneva agreement included some dismantling of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, it is possible that Israel would have supported the deal. Iran, however, is not required to take apart any of its equipment or facilities put in place in recent years. Iran’s ability to restart its nuclear program remains intact.

Professor Zeev Maghen, an expert on Iranian affairs and Senior Fellow at Israel’s Shalem Institute, is among many highly skeptical of the deal.

“This deal goes one worse [than the Syrian deal] and does not even involve the dismantling of any of the material,” Magen told the Investigative Project on Terrorism. Referring to the Iranian centrifuges that could enrich uranium to 20 percent nuclear weapons grade material, he added, “We’re saying they can spin their washing machine on a slow cycle instead of a fast cycle, and when they feel like it they’ll just switch it to the fast cycle once again.”

  • Ineffective inspections – The spectre of a similar, failed attempt to stop North Korea from making nuclear weapons looms large to the deal’s critics in Israel and elsewhere. When the U.S. and others felt North Korea wanted genuine negotiations, their desire for reaching a deal appeared to blind them to the embarrassing reality that the North Koreans were pulling a fast one. North Korea continued to move toward the nuclear capability it eventually achieved while deceiving the West of its desire to reach a deal in exchange for the easing of international sanctions.

Critics of the Iran talks fear that the P5+1 have fallen for the same trick. Another source of concern is that U.S. Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, a key part of the U.S. negotiating team with North Korea a decade ago, has again been entrusted with negotiating for America.

When the International Atomic Energy Agency agreed on a deal with Iran to inspect its facilities in 2012 – facilities that have subsequently progressed Iran’s nuclear program – Israel’s then-Finance Minister and current Mister of Intelligence Yuval Steinitz warned that Iran had “been playing hide and seek with the West” for years.

“There is always a new surprise in terms of the Iranian nuclear program,” Zeev Maghen observed. “I guess the surprise would be in this case if there are no surprises. It is possible that there are other sites, and some of those [on the inspection list] are decoys.”

  • No let up in Iran’s state-sponsored terrorism – While Iran is obliged to halt its nuclear development program during the six months of the Geneva agreement, nothing within the deal links any future comprehensive agreement to cessation of Iran’s sponsorship of international terror organizations, or its repeated calls to destroy Israel. Iran will continue its patronage of the Lebanese terror movement Hezbollah, is reportedly re-establishing its support for Hamas in Gaza, as well as remaining the key ally – both in providing weapons and military personnel – to the genocidal Assad regime in Syria.
  • Saudis-Sunnis feel betrayed – “It’s clear from everything you hear and read that the Arab world is not excited about what is going on in Iran, so there is a convergence of interests on this specific issue,” Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Paul Hirschson told the IPT.

Until now, it had been hard to imagine Israel and Saudi Arabia publicly finding common ground, but they have on the Iranian issue. It appears that contacts between the two countries in advance of a perceived sell-out by the U.S. have been developing throughout this year and have accelerated in recent weeks. The Sunni states feel betrayed by the Geneva agreement.

“I think what was not mentioned in the agreement is the most important,” former Kuwaiti minister Sa’ad bin Tefla al-Ajmi told Al Arabiya TV, “and that is the agreement in itself is a blessing to the aggressive policy of Iran in the region and its interventions in the region, whether in Iraq or in Syria or in Lebanon or in Bahrain and in Yemen.”

“In order to understand what the Gulf States are doing on this issue,” David Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told the IPT, “you have to look beyond their formal statements. When you analyse what is being said there is great concern about this amongst at least four of the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] states – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the UAE. They all see themselves as deeply threatened, undermined, and encircled by Iran.”

Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist who blogs at paulalster.com and can be followed on Twitter @paul_alster

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