Israel and Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia worry the nuclear accord between Iran and global powers will further destabilize the Middle East
By SAM DAGHER
BEIRUT-A nuclear deal signed Tuesday between Iran and global powers aims to make the world a safer place. But many in the Middle East fear the opposite will prove true.
Regional critics say the pact appears to reward Tehran for a series of interventions in conflicts that have ratcheted up sectarian tensions, from Syria to Iraq to Yemen. The conflicts have fueled perceptions in Sunni-dominant countries-and shared by rival Israel-that Shiite Iran is waging stealthy proxy wars to widen its role as a regional power broker and check Saudi Arabia’s influence.
Case in point, said Ahmed Ramadan, a Syrian opposition leader based in Istanbul, are the billions of dollars Iran has spent propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime since the start of that conflict more than four years ago. Mr. Ramadan held little hope that the nuclear deal could pave the way for a change in Iran’s stance in Syria, where it has also dispatched thousands of fighters to support Mr. Assad’s Shiite-aligned government.
“Iran’s hands are dripping with the blood of Syrians,” Mr. Ramadan said. “It will have to do a lot to wash this away.”
For his part, Mr. Assad sent telegrams on Tuesday to both spiritual leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani, congratulating them on Iran’s “glorious victory,” according to Syrian state media. “We are confident the Islamic Republic will continue to back and with more vigor the just causes of all people,” he said.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the agreement an “historic mistake” and warned that lifting economic sanctions on Iran will give it “hundreds of billions of dollars” to boost support for allies in the Middle East that are also Israel’s enemies. He and other Israeli officials warned they would aggressively lobby against the deal.
Iranian officials have pledged to use freed-up funding from sanctions relief to revive the domestic economy and restart projects that had stalled for lack of funds during the sanctions era. But these officials, including deputy foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, have recently underlined Iran’s continued support for regional allies, particularly Syria.
Mr. Rouhani said after the deal Tuesday that Iran only sought closer relations with its neighbors, and wouldn’t exert pressure on them. He urged Iran’s neighbors not to fall for “the propaganda of the Zionist regime.”
“Our relations start afresh today,” he said. “We seek more closeness, unity, brotherhood and better relations.”
Hassan Hassan, an associate fellow with the London-based think tank Chatham House, said Gulf Arab states including Saudi Arabia-which despite its rivalry with Iran stands to benefit from increased business ties with it-will outwardly embrace Mr. Rouhani’s olive branch. But he warned this won’t diminish the proxy wars both sides are waging against each other in places like Syria and Yemen, and could feed the sense of victimhood among the region’s Sunni majority who now see the U.S. conspiring with Iran against them.
“ISIS will benefit a lot from this deal; segments of the Sunni community in the region will see Iran as having won and brought in from the dark,” he said, referring to the Islamic State extremist group.
Since 2011, when popular uprisings and then civil wars engulfed some Middle East countries, Iran has projected its military and political might to safeguard a sphere of influence spanning from Tehran to Beirut and from Baghdad and Damascus.
Its efforts, many say, have plunged the region into a full-fledged sectarian war between Iran and its Shiite allies against Sunni groups of all stripes. These people fear a rapprochement between Iran and the U. S.-absent any change in Tehran’s behavior in the region-will only add to Sunni grievances, which have increased since the U.S. invasion of Iraq more than a decade ago.
So while Turkey welcomed the nuclear deal, the country’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu hoped it would present an opportunity for Iran to change what he called its “sectarian-driven policies” in the region.
News of the deal comes one day after Iraq’s religiously and ethnically divided security forces announced an incursion into Anbar, the vast Sunni majority province that has long been seen as an incubator for Sunni extremism and resentment against the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.
Monday’s offensive marked the first time that Shiite-majority militias-many of them backed by Iran-launched a large-scale invasion into Sunni areas that remain heavily-populated with civilians.
“We believe this nuclear deal will make Iran more stable and stronger and this will mean more negative interference in Iraq,” said Sadoun Sadeq al-Dulaimi, a tribal leader from Anbar.
Saudi Arabia on Tuesday cautiously welcomed the deal and said that it has always supported an agreement with Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons with strict verification measures and mechanisms to snap back sanctions if Iran violated it.
“In light of the nuclear program agreement, Iran must use its resources to serve its internal development and improve the conditions of the Iranian people instead of using them to cause instability in the region,” said an unnamed official quoted by state news agency.
The official said the kingdom is looking forward to build better relations with Iran as a neighboring country on the principle of non-interference in the affairs of others.
However, the kingdom has adopted a more assertive foreign policy since the new king ascended in January. Saudi Arabia has conducted a punishing air campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are seen as allied with Iran.
“What Saudi Arabia is doing is standing up to Iranian influence, which is now decreasing in some regions,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said in Amman last week. “We are insisting that Iran doesn’t have a direct interference in the affairs of the Arab region.”
Some of Iran’s allies say Saudi Arabia and others may take the deal as an opening to increasing funding for its own regional proxies.
“We need to see how Saudi responds to this agreement. They are also fueling the proxy wars of the region,” said Mohammed Obeid, a former government official in Beirut close to Hezbollah’s senior leadership. “I believe they’ll accelerate their activities in Yemen, Syria and Iraq to have a chip on the table as talks continue.”
Throughout the talks and even during its final hours this week, Iran has assured Hezbollah that there will be no change in its support for the Lebanese political and militia group, said Mr. Obeid. Hezbollah’s chief Hassan Nasrallah affirmed that during a televised speech to his supporters in Beirut on Friday, saying Iran would never recognize Israel’s right to exist and would continue its support for allies like the Syrian regime and what he called “resistance movements” across the region including in the Palestinian territories.
He said Arabs who cared about the Palestinian cause are mistaken to see Iran as their foe. “If you are an enemy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, then you are an enemy of Palestine and Jerusalem,” Mr. Nasrallah said.
-Maria Abi-Habib in Beirut, Ahmed Al Omran in Riyadh, Matt Bradley in Baghdad, Asa Fitch in Dubai, Joshua Mitnick in Tel Aviv and Emre Peker in Istanbul contributed to this article.