BEIRUT – The interim accord hammered out between Iran and global powers focuses narrowly on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, but the reaction across the Middle East points to a broader significance: the prospect of a geopolitical shift with repercussions across the region.
The process is still embryonic and may go nowhere. But the Middle East is already abuzz with speculation about a thaw between Washington and Tehran emerging from the Geneva talks. Some analysts say it may turn out to be a “hinge” moment that – however gradually – alters the political landscape of the highly volatile region.
“This is already being seen as a kind of game-changer,” said Paul Salem, an analyst at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank. “This is not just about how much uranium is being enriched or when. It’s about a new alignment and its potential impacts in Syria, in Iraq, in Lebanon, in all the regional arrangements.”
Condemnation from Israel and angry silence from Saudi Arabia – both key U.S. allies and avowed enemies of Tehran – highlight a profound disquiet about much more than the letter of the preliminary six-month nuclear accord.
Antagonism between Iran and the U.S. has been a major factor in the region’s web of alliances for more than three decades.
Saudi officials view their kingdom and its allies as being engaged in a colossal struggle for regional influence between Islam’s two great branches.
The Sunni-dominated gulf kingdoms accuse Shiite Iran of meddling from Syria to Lebanon to Bahrain. Riyadh plainly would prefer to see Iran consigned indefinitely to membership in an “axis of evil” than engaged in direct and seemingly amiable negotiations with the U.S. secretary of state at a five-star Geneva hotel.
“It is clear that the traditional Arab allies of the U.S. in the region, the Saudis specifically but also the Jordanians, are shocked by this American transformation,” said Fahed Khitan, a political analyst based in Amman, Jordan. “The Saudis and the Israelis are, perhaps for the first time, in a camp together.”
While Saudi officials have kept their ire private so far, Israeli authorities have publicly denounced the preliminary nuclear accord with Iran.
From Israel’s perspective, Iran is a challenge on many fronts, including in Lebanon, which shares a tense border with Israel that is patrolled by U.N. peacekeepers. Iran’s Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, has a powerful military force and tens of thousands of rockets that it can use to target Israel.
In Israel, there has been media speculation that Netanyahu would derail the latest U.S.-backed initiative for peace between Israel and the Palestinians in retaliation for the Iran nuclear accord.
Any change in U.S.-Iran relations will be gradual, diplomats say. U.S. officials have been at pains to emphasize their sensitivity to their allies’ misgivings. Upon announcing the terms of the nuclear deal, Secretary of State John F. Kerry went out of his way to stress that the accord did not necessarily augur a broader reconciliation.
“It is fair to say that Iran’s choices have created a very significant barrier, and huge security concerns for our friends in the region, for Israel, for gulf states and others,” Kerry said in Geneva. “Obviously, one would hope that Iran will make choices … to rejoin the community of nations in full. The first step is to resolve the nuclear issue.”