Why Arabs Are Concerned About the Iran Nuke Bargain

The proposed nuclear deal with Iran is far from sufficient. It delays, but does not close the door on potential Iranian breakout. There is profound concern among Arab leaders, and for good reason.

President Obama and the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef at the White House, May 13, 2015. Jacquelyn Martin/AP/Corbis

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the other negotiators from the P5+1 (permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) have framed the nuclear deal with Iran as a necessary measure to inhibit Iran’s ability to build a nuclear arsenal or quickly reach nuclear weapons breakout capacity. Arab leaders, members of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), support nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. Consequently, in principle, they would support any technically sound agreement. Yet, there is profound concern palpitating the region and for good reason.

The agreement is far from sufficient in dealing with the Middle East’s nuclear issues. It delays, but does not close the door on, potential Iranian breakout. Furthermore, the agreement completely ignores the nuclear program in Israel, the only non-NPT party in the Middle East. Equally disconcerting is that the “let’s be realistic” approach adopted in justifying the agreement is testimony to a continuing and dangerous policy of nuclear nonproliferation procrastination and exceptionalism in the Middle East, which exacerbates and perpetuates security asymmetries. This procrastination in the short run may respond to some extra-regional, but not Arab, security concerns and is ultimately detrimental to all.

The agreement with Iran has the potential to become a major diplomatic accomplishment or a historic strategic miscalculation, exacerbating an already tumultuous security paradigm. If fully implemented and enforced, the specific measures outlined—such as major reductions in the number of Iran’s centrifuges and its stockpile of nuclear materials—would substantially curtail Iran’s nuclear capacity to weaponize for the stipulated fifteen-year period.

However, there are justifiable concerns about what Iran may do at the conclusion of this period, when its nuclear program is no longer bound by the terms of an agreement. It is noteworthy that all Arab countries are parties to the NPT and have relatively limited peaceful nuclear programs. The agreement’s enforcement period provides time for policy change in Iran, where changing political dynamics and cleavages have been so clearly displayed in the 2009 election protests and the differing approaches of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the incumbent Hassan Rouhani. Nonetheless, the complexities of Middle East dynamics augur against any consensus among analysts in projecting where the region or Iran will be in the future.

There is no basis upon which to assume that the risk of nuclear proliferation in the region will have subsided at the conclusion of the agreement with Iran. In fact, it is more likely that the asymmetries between the capacities of Arab versus non-Arab states in the region will have increased. Israel, a non-NPT party presumed to have nuclear weapons and with confirmed nuclear technology and capacity, would remain beyond any regional or international nonproliferation effort. Iran, albeit an NPT party, would then have the right to enrich and repossess nuclear material, pursuant to the NPT itself (Article 4, Paragraph 1), thus creating an asymmetry in breakout time if it decides to weaponize. Such asymmetry could spark an all-consuming and destabilizing regional war that would intensify international security concerns.

A third point of concern, particularly for the majority of the Arab Gulf states, is how Iran will use the expected enhanced international and regional engagement after the removal of sanctions. Many Arab states wonder whether Iran will embark on a more aggressive, assertive regional foreign policy, emboldened by its reacceptance into the international community. Iran’s evident and openly pronounced influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen is a case in point.

In addition to these intra-regional concerns, the Arab states are equally uncomfortable toward U.S. policies in the Middle East, particularly regarding present and future security policies in the Arab Gulf region. Consequently, offering a U.S. nuclear umbrella or sophisticated hardware and defense systems will not suffice or respond to Arab concerns. Nor will tactical responses—such as a more assertive United States in Syria or more U.S. support in Yemen. Neither of these approaches will respond adequately to Arab concerns over and above what the Arabs received in security assurances and guarantees from President Barack Obama at Camp David, and the Arabs accepting them as enough would be a major mistake.

I am not suggesting that the United States drop the agreement or that Iran should be held to a higher standard than others. However, dealing with nuclear nonproliferation in the Middle East should not be a choice between “realism” and “nothing at all.” It requires a principled determination to deal with nuclear nonproliferation in the region as a whole, the courage of conviction to address these issues throughout the region without prejudice or exception, and the maturity and wisdom to accept concrete steps in an incremental process, provided they are within a serious, transparent, and publicly announced strategy.

I believe this can be done by engaging simultaneously on the following tracks to recalibrate the regional political balance:

  1. Arab countries need to be more forceful in efforts to create a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East before the fifteen-year termination of the Iran nuclear deal. These efforts would provide not only for a continuous Iranian commitment in this regard, but would also include the Israeli program and resolve the problem of deepening security asymmetries.
  1. The international community, particularly the United States, must engage Israel in a more rigorous effort to have it revisit the logic of its nuclear program. One wonders how George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn can initiate the debate about the utility of nuclear weapons for the United States, yet the issue cannot be raised with Israel.
  1. Arab countries—and all members to the NPT—should insist on their right to enrich and reprocess nuclear material under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, even if they do not all have an intention to do so in the near future.
  1. Arab countries should also agree on the establishment of a regional nuclear fuel bank under international safeguards.
  1. Arab states should take the initiative in providing political solutions to regional hotbeds, particularly Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Use of force is a legitimate means; it is not, however, an end in itself.

If Iran shifts its stance toward more constructive foreign policy, the Arab World should engage it in a regional dialogue about the future of the Middle East. The dialogue would then extend to Israel, as stipulated in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Needless to say, this dialogue would require more intensive efforts to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on the basis of a two-state solution, albeit the prospects for success are not promising.

A version of this article originally appeared on The Atlantic Council’s MENASource blog.

Nabil Fahmy, a former foreign minister of Egypt, is dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.