Few members of the international community responded positively to U.S. President Donald Trump’s May 8 decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Since Trump’s announcement, many countries have alternately expressed dismay, regret, and fear at the possible consequences from this blow to the JCPOA.
U.S. commentators and European MPs alike have long agreed that the crowning achievement of the multilateral agreement, the facilitation of a relatively toothless Iran, which was stripped of any ability to develop atomic weapons, would help bring some stability to a teetering region. Two principal blocs have, predictably, bucked these trends, and have been quick to congratulate Trump on his uncompromising approach: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is an interest group unto himself, as well as Saudi Arabia and its Gulf state allies.
Israel fully supports @realDonaldTrump’s bold decision today to reject the disastrous nuclear deal with the terrorist regime in Tehran. The deal didn’t push war further away; it actually brought it closer. The deal didn’t reduce Iran’s aggression; it dramatically increased it. pic.twitter.com/sxJHocLqu7
— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) May 8, 2018
KSA reaffirms its support of the strategy previously announced by President Trump towards Iran, and hopes the international community will take a firm and unified stance against the Iranian regime, and its destabilizing aggression in the region, its support to terrorist groups.
— Saudi Embassy (@SaudiEmbassyUSA) May 8, 2018
Netanyahu’s celebration of Trump’s decision needs little explanation – the Israeli prime minister has long attempted to torpedo the Iran Deal, including by addressing the U.S. Congress in 2015 to try and scuttle the agreement before it was finalized. The smaller Gulf states have, by and large, followed suit in hailing Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal and re-impose sanctions on Iran. As reported in Asharq Al-Awsat, Bahrain’s leaders spoke positively about the “US commitment to confront Iranian policies and its ongoing attempts to export terrorism in the region,” while Qatar, diplomatically mincing its words, emphasized that it is in the interest of all Gulf states to avoid a nuclear arms race with Iran.
In an official statement also cited in Asharq Al-Awsat, the Saudi kingdom explained its support for U.S. withdrawal from the deal as based on “the need to exert all efforts that would limit the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East and the world.” In reality, however, Saudi Arabia’s principal concern is hardly with the proliferation of nuclear weapons. If it was, the country’s Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, would have been unlikely to insist in a March 15 principal goal is to emerge victorious from the conflicts it is waging in Syria and Yemen, themselves battles against Iran for uncontested regional dominance. This objective would be much easier to achieve if its rival was economically and politically crippled.
Comments from the kingdom’s supporters have more explicitly made this point. Speaking to Reuters, Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political science professor and advisor to the UAE’s Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, argued that U.S. violation of the deal would be a blow to Iranian muscle-flexing in the Middle East. “Iran today, after the deal, is one bit weaker than Iran during the deal,” he said. “The net result of yesterday’s withdrawal is going to make Iran and its allies weaker by imposing the sanctions financially and politically.” The United States’ withdrawal from the agreement would weaken both Iran, he explained, as well as the Houthis in Yemen, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and Assad-aligned forces in Syria — thereby allowing Saudi Arabia to emerge victorious and more regionally powerful.
If Saudi Arabia and its allies were actually concerned about Iran having a nuclear weapon, then they would, in fact, decry America’s violation of the deal. As former-U.S. President Barack Obama wrote in a widely shared Facebook post after Trump’s announcement, the JCPOA was the most effective tool in stopping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. As Obama’s statement also made clear, a regional arms race will be hastened, rather than prevented, by U.S. withdrawal from the agreement, particularly in the absence of alternative proposals.
The deal’s likely death will also do little to address the most immediate threat to regional stability – Saudi Arabia itself. Thanks to the Saudi-led coalition’s bombardment of Yemen, the country has suffered 15,467 civilian casualties since 2015. On top of this, the coalition’s actions, including its blockade of the country, have directly resulted in a famine that has afflicted more than 7 million Yemenis and left 1 million infected with cholera. On top of this, Saudi Arabia has hardly had a minor role to play when it comes to sponsoring international terrorism. TIME Magazine lists the country as the second largest source of foreign fighters, after Tunisia, for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). During her time as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton warned that donors from Saudi Arabia were the “most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide” in a leaked memo. Theological scholars, meanwhile, have long pointed to the influence that Saudi Arabia’s brand of Islamic ideology, Wahhabism, has had on the rise of armed Islamist movements.
The small Gulf states should be concerned with bringing stability to their neighborhood. This will not, however, be achieved by ending the Iran Deal. Instead of celebrating its likely demise, these states would do better to try and reign in their long-time ally, Saudi Arabia.