Peace in the Middle East: America's New Post-Iran Deal Challenge


(The National Interest)

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a July 14, 2015 news conference that Israel would not be bound by the nuclear deal between world powers and Iran

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a July 14, 2015 news conference that Israel would not be bound by the nuclear deal between world powers and Iran

Photo by Ammar Awad/Reuters

by Dalia Dassa Kaye and Jeffrey Martini

July 20, 2015

That the final Iran nuclear deal was met with opposition in Israel and Saudi Arabia is no surprise. As we argued over a year ago, neither neighbor was likely to welcome a deal with Iran, even if the official Saudi response has been more muted. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu again declared the deal a “historic mistake,” while the Saudis have left more strident rejection of the deal to former officials like Prince Bandar, who said it's worse than the agreement with North Korea.

Learning more details about the final agreement is not likely to change views, because for these regional states, the threat of Iran has always been about much more than the nuclear issue. For all the talk about whether or not this is a good deal, negotiating with Iran was the original sin from the perspective of Iran's neighbors, legitimizing the Islamic Republic and its nefarious activities in the region.

For Israel, the primary worry is Iran's links to terrorist groups targeting Israel with Iran-supplied missiles. Many in Israel's security establishment worry far less about Iran as an existential threat (they know Israel has the capabilities to defend itself) than about the way Iran might use a nuclear cover for aggressive behavior at the conventional level. For Saudi Arabia, fears of growing Shi'a influence since the 2003 Iraq war have only intensified in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, leading to accusations of Iranian meddling from the Levant to the Gulf. This sectarian dimension has exacerbated what has already been a growing strategic rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh, played out through dangerous proxy conflicts throughout the region.

Real or imagined, there is also a tendency by these partners to read into the nuclear agreement a broader strategy of U.S. rapprochement with Iran, at a time when they already view U.S. influence in the region as being in decline. There are good reasons to be dubious about the Vienna deal leading to a fundamental strategic shift in Washington's approach to Tehran; the issues that divide Iran and the United States run far deeper than what brings them together for the moment. But perceptions matter in this region, and the perception that Iran is the winner of this deal will make it a tough sell to other regional actors.

The good news is that we do not anticipate drastic actions by these partners to scuttle the implementation of a deal, notwithstanding the heated rhetoric. To be sure, Netanyahu has already vowed to fight the Vienna deal as it is considered by Congress, despite growing concern in Israel that his tactics are not producing results, while continuing to damage U.S.-Israeli relations. But if the deal ultimately moves forward, it would be highly unlikely that Israel would launch a military strike on Iran against the wishes of its closest ally and in the wake of an agreement widely endorsed by the international community. Israel would more likely adapt to the reality of the deal, seek to maintain non-nuclear sanctions on Iran and be at the forefront of efforts to expose potential Iranian cheating....

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Dalia Dassa Kaye is the director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy and a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. Jeffrey Martini is a Middle East analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on July 21, 2015. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.