Iran's nuclear deal puts Saudis on edge

An Iranian family walks past anti-US graffiti on the wall of the former US embassy in Teheran.
An Iranian family walks past anti-US graffiti on the wall of the former US embassy in Teheran.AFP

RIYADH/DUBAI (REUTERS) - Iran's nuclear deal with world powers on Tuesday will make the Middle East a "more dangerous part of the world" if it comes with too many concessions, a Saudi official told Reuters, signalling Gulf Arabs' deep unease at the agreement.

The lack of official responses from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies reflected huge nervousness about a deal set to end the pariah status of Iran, already Riyadh's main rival for influence across the Middle East, and unchain its economy from crippling sanctions.

However, it was largely left to journalists, clerics and analysts to articulate those fears, which go hand in hand with a sense that Saudi Arabia's main ally, Washington, now has divided loyalties after helping Iran to come in from the cold.

"Iran made chaos in the Arab world and will extend further after the agreement, and the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries should reduce their confidence in America and turn their focus to Russia and China," said Mohammed al-Mohya, the news anchor on the state-run Saudi Channel 1.

Riyadh regards Iran's support for Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, Iraq's Shi'ite militias, Lebanon's Hezbollah and Yemen's Houthis as evidence that Iran wants to gain hegemony across the Middle East for itself and Shi'ite Muslim allies.

It fears this would come at the expense of the interests of Saudi Arabia, the richest Sunni power and birthplace of Islam, and its Sunni-ruled Gulf partners.

While acknowledging that the Vienna deal would mean "a happy day" for the Middle East if it stopped Iran gaining a nuclear arsenal, the Saudi official told Reuters through a social network that he feared it would instead allow Iran "to wreak havoc in the region".

"We have learned as Iran's neighbours in the last 40 years that goodwill only led us to harvest sour grapes," he said.

While publicly voicing lukewarm support for the talks, Saudi officials in private have often argued that Iran could not be trusted to keep to a deal, and that any release of international pressure would simply allow it to ramp up backing for proxies.

WAR IN YEMEN

Only a few months ago, Saudi Arabia sent its fighter jets to bomb the Shi'ite Houthi forces who have taken power in neighbouring Yemen, and who it says are encouraged by Iran, something that Teheran denies.

"What I'm hoping for is that we won't end up having wars by proxy in the region, that Saudi Arabia will not feel pushed to fight indirectly wherever Iranian influence is," said Abdulaziz al-Sager, the Jeddah-based head of the Gulf Research Centre.

"If Iran is determined to expand its influence, and use sectarianism as its way to do that, then I think they will be pushing Saudi Arabia to go into war by proxy."

Riyadh gave Washington only a few hours' notice of its intervention in Yemen, a sign that it no longer looks unquestioningly to the United States as guarantor of its security and is prepared to push a more assertive foreign policy of its own.

"The 'Great Satan' and the Europeans have surrendered to Iran, the terrorist Iran has proved that it is in the right and they are in the wrong," tweeted Saleh al-Rajhi, director of the Centre for American Studies at Riyadh's Institute of Diplomatic Studies.

He said it only remained for the United States to visit the grave of Iran's late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, "to ask for his blessing".

US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have held several meetings to reassure Gulf states in the culmination to the deal, the latest of which was held in Camp David in May.

For many Gulf Arabs, particularly Sunnis angered at what they see as an inadequate international response to wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, where Sunnis make up a majority of the hundreds of thousands who have been invaded or driven from their homes, such assurances mean little.

"It is clear now that Americans are following their interests, irrespective of any historic promises given by the former leaders of both countries. Now the Obama administration is just looking at the ayatollahs," said Mohsen Al-Awaji, a Saudi Sunni Islamist activist.