Israel and Saudi Arabia have loomed large in reporting about the regional reaction to the UN Security Council plus Germany’s preliminary deal with Iran as they negotiate an end to the international boycott of Iran in return for practical steps permanently forestalling an Iranian nuclear weapon. Israel is a small country of 7.5 million with a GDP around the same as Portugal’s, and it isn’t actually all that important in the Middle East, which contains 600 million people if you include North Africa– and with which the US does $400 billion a year in trade.
But despite the fear-mongering and hysteria of Israeli politicians [see below], the general reaction in the region has been much more positive than the Likud government would have us believe. Moreover, far from there being an Israel-Arab consensus against the agreement, much of the Arab world welcomed the Iran deal and saw it as a first step toward getting nuclear weapons out of the Middle East altogether. That is, they are hoping that once Iran’s nuclear enrichment program is restructured as permanently peaceful, the United Nations Security Council will turn up pressure on Israel to give up its nuclear weapons.
Turkey, a NATO ally of the US that has some disputes with Iran (notably over Syria) nevertheless warmly greeted the announcement. Turkey has a population of 76 million, as does Iran, i.e., both are just a little less populous than Germany.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul said on Twitter on Sunday,
“I welcome today’s agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. I have been advocating a solution through diplomacy and we hosted many diplomatic efforts in Turkey to this end . . . This is a major step forward. I hope it’ll be sealed with a final agreement soon. I congratulate all parties for their constructive engagement.”
Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has a doctrine of seeking good relations with neighbors in order to expand trade. After AK came to power in 2002, Turkey’s foreign trade expanded a great deal ( it was $239 billion in 2012) and trade with the Middle East expanded from almost nothing under the nationalist, secularist generals to 22%. (Turkey’s GDP is $788 billion in nominal terms, more than that of the Netherlands and just behind Indonesia, making it the 17th largest economy in the world, lagging behind not only Indonesia but Mexico and South Korea).
The new commerce of the past decade is worth billions to Ankara and comes as cream on top of expanded trade with Europe and Asia. By 2011, Turkey’s trade with Iran had gone from almost nothing to $16 bn. Some 2500 Iranian companies have invested in Turkey. But in 2013 the value of the trade has fallen from the previous year, largely because of international sanctions that make it difficult for Iran to develop its oil and gas production and difficult for Turkish banks to interface with Iranian ones. Turkish officials view the level of trade with Iran as far below what could be achieved, and as currently almost insignificant. They would like to expand the trade to $100 billion, and had aimed for $30 billion by 2015.
International sanctions were therefore extremely inconvenient for Turkey’s policy of trade expansion in the region. Moreover, Turkey depends on inexpensive natural gas from Iran for some of its own electricity production. Compared to the Turkish-Iranian tiff over Syria, the possible cooperation in energy and trade expansion is much more important to Ankara. Likewise, the AKP supports the Palestinians under Israeli occupation, and has that in common with Iran. Turkey is champing at the bit to trade unhindered with Iran and to invest in it, as well as to welcome further Iranian investment in Turkey. The Kerry-Zarif deal could not be more welcome in Ankara.
Iraq, with a population of over 30 million and a GDP of $212 bn., also enthusiastically greeted the news. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said,
“Reaching an agreement between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the six nations over Iran’s nuclear program is a major step in the security and stability of the region… We hope that the process of confidence-building and dialogue will continue in the interest of both sides to prevent nuclear proliferation and to recognize the right of Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.”
Iran and Iraq were probably at one point in a nuclear arms race with one another (and with Israel, which started it), so it is remarkable that Baghdad defends Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful energy purposes. Al-Maliki has poor relations with the Sunni Gulf oil monarchies and so is isolated. He depends on Iran for trade and electricity and for support in his war of attrition with Sunni extremists who keep blowing up his capital.
Iraq hasn’t paid any attention to the international sanctions on Iran because it needs Iran too much, and indeed it may have been extending aid to Iran to help it in its economic difficulties. The Maliki government has been caught between its American ally and its Iranian one, and been subject to pressure from each side. Kurdish Member of Parliament Mahmoud Osman made this point, saying that if relations between Washington and Tehran improved, it would reduce pressures on Iraq. Osman said that Iraq would benefit economically, because it would not have to extend aid to Iran to help it get through the harsh sanctions. This is the first time I’ve seen the allegation that Iraq is helping Iran with aid (it used to be the other way around). I would be very surprised if Iraq is not helping Iran smuggle petroleum out in contravention of American sanctions.
Lebanon’s Foreign Minister, Adnan Mansour, welcomed the agreement as “positive.” In particular, he tied it to Iran’s agreement never to produce a bomb, and saw it as a step toward the de-nuclearization of the Middle East. That is, Lebanon is hoping that after the Iran nuclear problem is dealt with, the world community will next turn to the Israeli nuclear problem, which Mansour says threatens his country.
Egypt, a country of 84 million with a GDP of $254 bn, took much the same tack as Lebanon. A spokesman for interim Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy “welcomed” the agreement and also saw it as a move toward the de-nuclearization of the Middle East.
The spokesman for the Jordanian government, Muhammad al-Mumini , said that the agreement was “a step in the right direction.” He went on to express his hope that the international community would go on to take equal interest in resolving the other security problems in the region. (He meant the Syrian civil war, which is putting an enormous burden on Jordan, and the problem of Palestinian statelessness, which concerns the 60% of Jordan’s population that consists of families ethnically cleansed by the Israelis from their original homes). Jordan’s King Abdullah II had long warned that a war with Iran would be a catastrophe for the whole Middle East, but a few years ago in the Bush era he was not always on the same page with his American and Saudi allies.
The Gulf Cooperation Council of oil monarchies was not as negative as the US media keeps reporting. The cabinet of the United Arab Emirates praised the agreement and said it hoped it would lead to regional stability and an end to nuclear proliferation. Likewise, Qatar and Bahrain welcomed the development, and like Lebanon and Egypt said they hoped it would lead to a nuclear free zone in the Middle East. We know Oman approves because it hosted the preparatory meetings between the US and Iran. Kuwait (a country of 3.2 million with a GDP of $173 bn) seems to dislike the agreement, since it appears to be silent on it.
As for Saudi Arabia, which some pundits allege is so upset by the negotiations that it is ready to throw in with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, well, not so much. The Saudi Minister of Culture, Dr. Abdul Aziz bin Muhyi’d-Din Khoja, said that the preparatory agreement could lead to a resolution of the Iran nuclear problem, assuming that that country acts in good faith. He was also glad that the agreement recognized the right of countries in the region to benefit from nuclear power. (Saudi Arabia wants nuclear reactors, something Iran already has at Bushehr, but Israel had bombed Iraq when it built a light water nuclear reactor, so Riyadh seems to see the UNSC undertakings as removing any Israeli veto against peaceful reactors in the region). Like Egypt and Lebanon, Saudi Arabia also saw the understanding as a first step toward also removing Israeli nukes from the Middle East.
Algeria, a country with a population of 38 million and a GDP of $209 bn, warmly welcomed the deal.
There was no question that Syria would be happy about the breakthrough, and Damascus said it showed that the region’s problems can be resolved through negotiation.
So actually, folks, the Likud government of Netanyahu is completely isolated in its loud rejection of these negotiations. Virtually everyone else in the Middle East is positive, and most of the countries that count (by size and power) are absolutely enthusiastic. The degree of Israeli isolation is matched only by the extremeness of its rhetoric. One Israeli cabinet member who has read too much Tom Clancy warned of “suitcase bombs” provided by Iran to terrorist for use in Western cities. Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapon and there aren’t any such things as suitcase bombs and no country has ever given away a nuclear weapon to anyone, let alone to a scruffy terrorist. And, again, Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapon or any particular prospect of one. Israel in contrast has several hundred warheads and the means to deliver them, bombs that it developed sneakily and under false pretenses. And Israel routinely uses its nuclear stockpile to threaten or blackmail other countries (as with Ariel Sharon’s threats directed at Saddam Hussein’s Iraq).