The conventional wisdom holds that a deal with Iran over its hotly disputed nuclear programme would be a good thing. As Syria continues its meltdown and other unstable neighbouring countries show little sign of improvement, it seems obvious that stopping the Islamic Republic’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is central to the Middle East’s future security and stability.
But while preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability is undoubtedly a noble aim, the unintended consequences could be severe indeed.
The fact is that the nuclear crisis of the past decade has had the helpful effect of driving erstwhile Middle Eastern foes closer together, with the spectre of a nuclear-armed Iran trumping their deep geopolitical and ideological differences. Once that spectre is removed, keeping them together could be a serious challenge.
For many states across the Middle East, the possibility that Iran could acquire either an actual or latent nuclear capability obviously presents a dire strategic threat. Most obviously threatened are the Israelis. They are acutely aware that a nuclear-armed Iran would put an end their four-decade nuclear monopoly in the region and significantly erode their local clout. The leverage provided by nuclear weapons might also embolden Iran in its support for anti-Israeli Palestinian groups and Hezbollah and prompt other states in the region to pursue nuclear weapons of their own – creating a slew of new threats and challenges to the security of the Jewish state.
Iran’s nuclear ambitions aren’t just a problem for Israel; they have also stirred considerable concern among the Middle East’s Sunni Arab states. Although these countries have been less public in their criticism of the Iranian nuclear programme because of the political dangers of doing so, they also view the prospect of a nuclear Iran as a significant strategic challenge or even a direct threat.
Much like the Israelis, Sunni Arab strategists believe that an Iran emboldened by nuclear weapons would aggressively challenge their interests in places such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Sunni governments also worry that a nuclear capability could win Tehran considerable support among the region’s Arab publics, who would welcome a challenge to Israel’s nuclear monopoly.
Compounding all these fears is the worry that after the disaster of the Iraq War, the United States may no longer have the inclination or ability to single-handedly stop Iran’s nuclear machinations.
But the net effect of these worries has, paradoxically, been rather positive. The Iranian threat has in fact fostered a degree of Middle Eastern co-operation that has historically been almost impossible to achieve – not just among the Sunni Arab states, but between the Sunni Arab states and Israel.
The enemy of my enemy
Sunni states see Israel’s towering military capability (and its all-too-evident willingness to deploy it) as a means of putting pressure on the EU and the United States to take robust diplomatic and economic action against Iran – even if they themselves would scarcely welcome a Israeli military operation against Iran if it ever actually happened.
Similarly, from an Israeli perspective, Arab diplomatic pressure on the Iranian nuclear issue legitimises Israel’s calls to sanction and isolate Iran.
These mutual interests have significantly stabilised and improved Israeli-Sunni Arab relations. This has not been lost on observers outside the region; a 2009 RAND study noted that as a result of the Iranian threat, “Israeli officials publicly indicated that they considered Saudi Arabia a "moderate” state with whom cooperation was not only conceivable but desirable".
Similarly, the American commentator Jeffrey Goldberg argued in 2009 that “with Shiite Iran growing stronger, Jews and Sunni Arabs suddenly have a potent basis for friendship”, while Tom Ricks has reasoned that an “historic Arab pivot” toward Israel could be emerging in response to growing Iranian power.
This viewpoint has also long been circulating among Israeli strategists. Yossi Alpher, former adviser to Ehud Barak, argued as far back as 2007 that “mainstream Sunni countries – traditionally adversaries of Israel – are now its potential allies in the struggle against Iran”“.
This pragmatic climate has come about primarily because of the Iranian crisis – and it could easily deteriorate, or dissipate entirely, if a comprehensive nuclear deal to stop Iran’s programme is ultimately brokered.
Back into the fold?
If a deal were struck, the Sunni Arab states would likely split into two camps. States such as Qatar and Oman would see an opportunity to normalise relations and reintegrate Iran into the regional order; meanwhile, Egypt, Jordan and especially Saudi Arabia would still see a non-nuclear Iran as a significant threat.
But certain Arab states might well seek a broader Arab-Iranian rapprochement, and could use the opportunity afforded by a deal to press more forcibly for international pressure on Israel to relinquish its nuclear arsenal and create a "nuclear-free Middle East”.
That would naturally ratchet up tension between Israel and the Sunni Arab states. And while some Arab countries would remain wary of Iran even if it backed off its nuclear programme, they would still hardly see any merit of continued close co-operation with Israel.
This is because for countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait or the UAE, a non-nuclear Iran would be mainly a political and ideological threat, not a military one. Dealing with that simply would not require military alignment with the Israelis – and, in fact, the diplomatic complexities of co-operation with the Jewish state could actually drag them down in competition against Iran.
A halt to the Iranian nuclear programme should be pursued, and should be welcomed if it is ever achieved, but we cannot ignore its more worrying strategic implications. A deal would certainly bolster the nuclear non-proliferation norm, and also likely improve relations between Iran and the wider international community – but it might also destroy the valuable rapprochements and fragile links that have at last started to develop between old foes.