Deal in Geneva: Accord leaves America's friends edgy

Neither Saudi Arabia nor Israel approves the West's nuclear deal with Iran, but for sharply different reasons.

US Secretary of State John Kerry  (centre) embraces EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Geneva.  Photo / AP
US Secretary of State John Kerry (centre) embraces EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Geneva. Photo / AP

The Saudis

Saudi Arabia dislikes the deal the West has cut with Iran for two reasons.

The first is obvious: it is an encouragement to its greatest regional rival, a country it regards as a menace. The fact the West largely agrees Iran is a menace makes it all the harder to bear. The royals in Riyadh believe the West's focus on Iran's nuclear programme distracts from the real threat: Iran's promotion of Shia interests throughout the region, particularly in the Arab parts of it that Sunni Saudi Arabia regards as its own backyard, and above all in Syria.

The second reason is subtler. Its bluff has been called, and now it must live up to the responsibilities it has invoked for itself. It wonders whether it has the capability to do so. So should we.

Yesterday the Saudis offered grudging support for the deal, with an official statement saying that it "could be a first step towards a comprehensive solution for Iran's nuclear programme, if there are good intentions".

Nawaf Obaid, a senior Saudi adviser, said: "We were lied to, things were hidden from us. The problem is not with the deal struck in Geneva, but how it was done." He said the country would start pursuing its foreign policy goals independently.

It has already begun. Saudi Arabia sent its tanks into neighbouring Bahrain at the start of the Arab Spring. It feared the rulers there might waver in their tough approach to the island's Shia majority, which it believes the Iranians stir up to make trouble.

This year, it backed the Egyptian military's removal of democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi, despite Washington's misgivings. And now it is taking control of the Syrian brief. It believes America's lack of interest in intervening militarily means handing victory to Iran, on whose militias President Bashar al-Assad is now dependent. Last week, a Saudi-backed alliance came into force of all the Islamist rebel groups apart from those aligned to al-Qaeda. Riyadh made it clear it favours a military "solution".

There are, paradoxically, those in the US who welcome this new assertiveness. Few American presidents feel comfortable sending troops into the melee of Middle Eastern sectarian politics. If local regional powers take up the gauntlet, so much the better.

With America's fracking explosion predicted to make it self-sufficient in energy within a few years, it worries less than it used to about the geopolitics of oil. However, history and common sense suggest that the West, even at its most isolationist, cannot ignore the Middle East for long. A quarter of a century ago, when the US was fighting the Cold War, it scored another remarkable regional triumph as the CIA-backed mujahideen drove Soviet troops out of Afghanistan.

Saudi Arabia, America's friend, seemed to have everything under control. It chose which of the new Afghan warlords to back; it even had its own core of idealistic Saudi volunteers out there, some from privileged families, led by a young man called Osama bin Laden. The observant will have noted things did not work out so well. Saudi Arabia doesn't want to see Western armies back in the Middle East. Nor does anyone else. But diplomatic triumphs one decade can lead to that very outcome in the next.

- Richard Spencer, Telegraph Group Ltd

The Israelis

Having lost the battle to stop the international deal reached this week on Iran's nuclear programme, Israeli officials are already picking up the pieces and planning a fight to shape a final agreement that negotiators hope to reach in six months.

Israeli officials say the final deal must go beyond freezing Iran's programme and roll back the achievements they say has made the Islamic Republic a threshold weapons state. From Israel's perspective, the world powers must show they have not been duped by Iran's campaign of amiability and still have the stomach to press on with crippling sanctions if needed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who believes Iran is determined to produce a nuclear bomb, condemned the agreement between Iran and six world powers as a "historic mistake" and said Israel was not bound by the deal.

Most of Iran's nuclear infrastructure, including its ability to enrich uranium, a key step in making bombs, remains intact.

Yesterday, Netanyahu said he would not give up. Speaking to members of his Likud Party, the Israeli leader said he would dispatch his national security adviser, Yossi Cohen, to Washington in the coming days to co-ordinate the next move with the Americans.

"This permanent agreement has to lead to one result: dismantling the Iranian nuclear military capability."

The initial deal with Iran has raised tensions between Israel and the US, and news that the Americans had secretly negotiated much of the agreement threatened to deepen those differences.

The differences between the allies stem in part from different perceptions on the extent of the Iranian threat.

To Israel, a nuclear-armed Iran threatens its very survival. Israel points to hostile Iranian rhetoric referring to Israel's destruction, Iran's support for militant Arab groups along its borders, and Iran's development of long-range missiles capable of reaching the Jewish state.

For Washington, Iran is a distant, albeit pressing, issue, one of a plethora of difficult challenges it is facing at home and abroad. While Obama has repeatedly said he will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear bomb, Israel says Iran should not be allowed to even get close to that point.

While Netanyahu has reiterated his veiled threats to attack Iran if necessary, military action seems to be out of the question while talks proceed.

Officials say Israel will use a combination of discreet diplomacy and blunt public comments to press its case. Among Israel's demands are a halt to all uranium enrichment and the destruction of a plutonium-producing reactor that is under construction.

Israel's Cabinet minister for intelligence affairs, Yuval Steinitz, said he believed compromise was still possible. He suggested that if Iran is intent merely on producing electricity it could buy nuclear fuel rods from abroad instead of enriching its own.

Israeli newspapers were filled with commentaries dissecting Netanyahu's failure to prevent the deal and said he would have no time to sit idly.

"Netanyahu has his work cut out for him. ... This is no time for empty threats and self-pity," wrote Nachum Barnea, a columnist for Yediot Ahronot.

- Josef Federman, AP

- NZ Herald

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