Riyadh seems set to host and chair the next Arab Summit meeting scheduled to convene in the Saudi capital in mid-April, with Iran set to be one top issue that Arab leaders will examine both at the summit and in the lead-up to it.
Arab diplomats say that Iran is already an issue of interest to most Arab capitals given the current differences between the US and the EU on the nuclear deal between the West and Iran on Tehran’s nuclear programme.
Clearly, the same diplomats say, Riyadh is keen to lobby a collective Arab stand to support a strongly worded message to be sent to Tehran from the Arab Summit meeting.
However, they add, what is worrying is not the Saudi position, which was shared with the US during last week’s meeting in Washington between US President Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman.
“What is at stake is not the isolation that the Saudis are hoping to see Iran suffer, but the possible plan by Trump to withdraw from the nuclear deal and the possible consequences of it,” one Cairo-based Arab diplomat said.
Trump is making no secret of his wish to take a tough stance on Iran, and it is an open secret that his choices of a new secretary of state and a new national security adviser are already loaded with tough messages against Iran.
“The choices of the new foreign policy team that is going to work with Trump are not just sending Iran a message that it has to be worried, but is also sending us a very disturbing message in Europe about what to expect in the coming weeks and months in relation to Middle East security and stability,” said a Cairo-based European diplomat.
Trump has threatened that he will withdraw the US from the deal that was concluded after tough negotiations between Iran and the West in 2015 on Tehran’s nuclear programme.
He has threatened that he will do this by mid-May if the Europeans do not get Iran to agree to a follow-up deal that would allow for extra constraints on Iran’s ballistic missiles programme and additional rights for inspections of its nuclear facilities.
According to diplomats, so far the attempts of the Europeans to convince Tehran to show a semblance of accommodation for the US demands have failed. They add that there seems to be little reason to hope that the Iranians will change their mind as mid-May approaches.
“The Iranians don’t want Trump to withdraw from the deal, but they will not bow to his demands either,” said a diplomat speaking from a leading European capital. He added that “as we get closer to mid-May, we might even see tougher rhetoric from both sides.”
Already Washington and Tehran have been exchanging negative messages, especially after the shake-up in the US foreign policy team earlier this month.
Last week, EU Foreign Policy Commissioner Frederica Mogherini expressed concern about the fate of the nuclear deal. She said that if the deal was disrupted it could threaten regional stability.
According to a source at EU headquarters in Brussels, the fear of the Europeans is that if Trump decides to walk out on the deal and to introduce new sanctions against Iran to appease the Israelis and the Saudis who have been urging Trump to give Tehran a hard time, the Iranians will consider themselves free of their obligations to put a halt on their nuclear activities.
“Then it might not be very long before Iran gets close to having its own nuclear bomb. And we know very well what kind of reaction that would prompt in Israel and for that matter in Saudi Arabia, whose officials are openly talking about their own ‘nuclear rights’,” the source said.
The Europeans, he said, have been trying to get assurances from Tehran that it will talk to Riyadh about its intentions in Syria and Yemen where a Saudi-Iranian proxy war has been going on unchecked.
“I am not sure we have enough to please the Saudis, and I am not even sure that anything short of an Iranian decision to reduce its influence in the Arab countries neighbouring Saudi Arabia entirely would be reassuring enough for Riyadh,” he said.
Saudi officials have been making no secret of their political and diplomatic consultations with counterparts in the Middle East and beyond, saying that they fear Iranian schemes for the Middle East.
According to the Saudi narrative, Iran wants to bring down the rich Sunni regimes in the Gulf, top among them the regime in Riyadh, in order to secure influence over the region’s Shia population.
The Saudis have endless accounts to share with their interlocutors about the kind of influence Iran is aiming for in Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq, and of course Lebanon and Syria.
Saudi concerns over the “expansionist” aims of Iran across the Middle East are widely shared in leading Arab capitals.
The resolutions of the Arab Summit next month will reflect Arab condemnation of the Iranian policy of interference in the Arab world and will ask the international community to pressure Iran to stop such policies.
It is not clear, however, whether resolutions made at the Arab Summit will go far enough to send a threatening message to Iran as Riyadh would hope.
According to a source close to the preparations, the Saudis know that the only threat of weight that Iran will seriously consider is one made by Washington. However, he added that the Saudis would like to see a collective Arab position in support of Riyadh to come out of the Arab Summit meeting.
The volume of support that the Saudis wish to have might not be fully accommodated at the Arab Summit, given the fears of some Arab countries that if the US decides to act against Iran this will likely be through an attack on Iranian targets in Syria, already a theatre for the Iran-Saudi proxy war.
Cairo-based Western diplomats say that if the Saudis do not get the firm threat against Iran they want out of the Arab Summit they might get it a few weeks later out of the comprehensive political deal that the US is considering for the Middle East.
This deal could offer a basis for the possible resumption of the long-stalled Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, and it could also offer a new regional order in which the Sunni Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, could side with Israel and the US to deter the Iranian threat either through sanctions or “other means,” they have said.
* This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly