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Is Biden’s effort to secure a nuclear deal weakening the Abraham Accords? 

Sunni Arab states are hedging their bets as the U.S. tries to satisfy Iran, experts tell JNS.

Negotiators meet in Vienna to discuss the  Iran nuclear deal, May 2021. Source: Enrique Mora/European External Action Service/Twitter.
Negotiators meet in Vienna to discuss the Iran nuclear deal, May 2021. Source: Enrique Mora/European External Action Service/Twitter.

The Iran nuclear agreement reached in 2015 played a role in bringing about the Abraham Accords—the normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain—but there are question marks over whether the Biden administration’s overtures to Tehran are now encouraging the demise of the accords.

The Islamic Republic’s jingoism helped motivate the Sunni Gulf states to enter into normalized relations with Israel in 2020, Mideast experts say. 

But now, the essential question for many experts is: Are Sunni Arab nations hedging their bets and engaging in a rapprochement with Tehran, leading to a deterioration of the normalization process? Take the example, in early September, of the United Arab Emirates’ decision to send an ambassador to the Islamic Republic after a six-year diplomatic downgrade in relations.

Iran’s Ghadr-110 ballistic missile has a range of up to 1,200 miles. Credit: Tasnim News Agency.

“There is no doubt that a sense of American inconsistency regarding Iran has fueled the desire of Gulf countries to ‘hedge’ [their positions] between the U.S. and its allies, and Iran. The apparently never-ending nuclear negotiations form an element of this,” Jonathan Spyer, a fellow at both the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS) and the Middle East Forum (MEF), told JNS

Spyer added, “The perceived failure to respond with sufficient and consistent force against such episodes as the attack on Saudi oil facilities in 2019 and the drone attack on Abu Dhabi in 2022 further fuel the sense that there is no clear and firm anti-Iran camp available to join. At the same time, this inconsistency may in fact make Israel a more attractive balancing partner, even alongside continued hedging, since Israel can provide hard power responses to the Iranian threat (in such fields as air defense) on a level beyond the capability of any other regional power.” 

The UAE’s close proximity to Iran, the world’s leading state-sponsor of terrorism according to the U.S. State Department, surely fills the tiny oil-rich nation with acute anxiety. The Iranian regime-backed Yemeni Houthi movement has attacked UAE oil facilities and tankers. 

Brian Katulis, a senior fellow and vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute in Washington, told JNS that “Arab Gulf countries are hedging on two main fronts, first on the global stage, trying to maintain good ties between their own countries and the United States, Russia and China at the same time. 

“Secondly, they are hedging within the region, with some countries like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar seeking to work closely with Israel, either overtly or behind the scenes, while maintaining ties with Iran. That’s mostly a function of their unique geographic position and relatively small size and how their leaders assess it is best to manage risks and threats while expanding opportunities for their countries,” Katulis said.

The UAE’s behavior towards Iran’s regime largely mirrors Washington’s negotiating posture. The U.S. strategy advocates powerful economic incentives to motivate the clerical regime to step back from its terrorism and its illicit nuclear program.

Critics of the 2015 JCOPA argued that the cash pumped into Tehran’s coffers before the Trump administration withdrew from the nuclear accord in 2018 only served to intensify the clerical state’s terrorism.

A renewed U.S. atomic accord with the Islamic Republic could see Tehran receive as much as $275 billion in financial benefits during the first year, according to Foundation for Defense of Democracies Iran expert Saeed Ghasseminejad. 

The economic package for the theocratic state could total $1 trillion by 2030, said the FDD expert. The JCPOA would only impose temporary restrictions on Tehran’s capability to produce nuclear bombs. 

Iran’s regime remains the 800-pound gorilla in the Gulf room, helping to explain the region’s volatility.

Katulis said, “Talks on a new Iran nuclear deal have not achieved their goals, much in the same way that [President Donald] Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign on Iran did not achieve its objectives. The region remains a tinderbox in large part due to the Iranian regime’s destabilizing actions that undermine regional security and the stability of the state system in certain places like Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. The discontent Iran’s regime is experiencing at home will further complicate dynamics.”

Hayvi Bouzo, a Syrian-born Mideast expert and journalist who co-founded Yalla Productions, told JNS, “The trauma in many Sunni Arab countries caused by the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with the Iranian regime is triggered [once more] by the recent negotiations under the Biden administration.

“The nightmare scenario would be that a JCPOA 2.0 deal would be signed. This would translate to the Iranian regime receiving billions of dollars [and] embolden its terrorist proxy militias throughout the region, still without really addressing the fact that Iran has secret nuclear sites that are not being inspected. Also, the deal is only postponing and not really addressing the fact that Iran has all the needed capabilities to develop a nuclear bomb,” she said.

Bouzo noted that “the massive protests that are taking place throughout Iran today—after the “morality police” killed Mahsa Amini for not wearing hijab ‘properly’—could have a major impact on the nuclear negotiations and make it harder for Arab countries to expand their relationships with the Iranian regime. 

“The massive protests in Iran today could result in the exact opposite, which is a closer relationship between Sunni Arab states and Israel, as they see the Iranian regime is in a much more weakened position today,” she said.

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