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Riyadh offers wary support for revived Iranian nuclear deal

Saudi views Iran’s nuclear programme with concern, but remains worried any revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action won't contain Iran's missile programme or its support for militias

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud Creative Commons
Saudi Arabia's foreign minister Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud

Negotiations to relaunch the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – which was scuppered in May 2018 when the US unilaterally withdrew under Donald Trump – appear to be entering their end-game.

Since April 2021 diplomats have been talking in Vienna and elsewhere, but the process now looks close to a conclusion. 

The European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy Josep Borrell said in late July “the space for additional significant compromises has been exhausted” and he put forward a proposed text for a new deal.

“It is not a perfect agreement, but it addresses all essential elements,” he said.

Iran’s neighbours in the Gulf are watching the process more carefully than most.

Tehran’s potential to develop nuclear weapons is just one of several concerns for them. Other key issues include Iran’s ballistic missiles and its support for proxy militias around the region.

The GCC states supported the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) when it was signed by Barack Obama in July 2015. Soon after, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman said Riyadh supported “any arrangement that guarantees preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”

However, when Trump pulled out the GCC states again backed the US. The Saudi ambassador to Washington at the time, Prince Khalid bin Salman Al-Saud, said Riyadh “fully supports” Trump’s move.

Since President Joe Biden came into office, pledging to revive the deal, the GCC states have again changed tack. In November 2021 a US GCC Iran Working Group called for “an urgent mutual return to full compliance”.

One frustration for the GCC countries has been their position as bystanders to the talks.

Along with some other GCC states, Riyadh had lobbied in early 2021 to be given a seat at the negotiating table. That failed and instead they have had to rely on bilateral briefings from some of those involved.

At times, they have also turned to the media to spell out their concerns.

In May, foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud said in an interview with CNBC that a new JCPOA “will be potentially a good thing if it’s a good deal”.

However, he added “for us, it is most important that we address the holistic issues — the nuclear non-proliferation, regional activity.”

Few who backed Trump’s policy are ready to admit it was a failure, but Iran has certainly used the time since 2018 to extend its capabilities.

On August 1 the head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI), Mohammad Eslami, told the Fars news agency his country now had the technical ability to produce a nuclear bomb but had no intention of doing so. 

The following day the head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), raised further concerns.

Iran has a “very ambitious nuclear programme,” said Rafael Grossi on August 2. “The programme is moving ahead very, very fast and not only ahead, but sideways as well, because it’s growing in ambition and in capacity.”

Such activities are what is driving the current support in Riyadh and other Arab capitals for a new deal.

On August 3 at a nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) conference, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UN Abdulaziz bin Mohammed Al-Wasel expressed “deep concern” over the IAEA reports and added “Saudi Arabia supports all international efforts to prevent Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons”. 

Given the strained relations with Riyadh over oil production, the Biden administration has been glad to note that there is less controversy over the JCPOA. 

“A number of our partners who were, to put it mildly, not wild about the JCPOA in 2015 and 2016 have over the years changed their tune on the JCPOA. I would point to our partners in the Gulf,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said on August 16.

“They support it for the same reason that we’re pursuing it, because it is in our national security interest; it’s in turn in their national security interest.”

Riyadh is not solely relying on the Vienna talks to curb Iran’s behaviour. It has also been trying to improve relations with Tehran via a series of bilateral talks hosted by Iraq.

Further talks have been mooted for the near future, possibly at the level of foreign minister.

The developments with Iran also fit into a wider context of shifting diplomatic allegiances around the region, not least in terms of Israel, which has built up close, overt ties with the UAE and, to a lesser extent, with Bahrain. 

Riyadh has declined to normalise relations with Israel but, behind the scenes, Israeli officials say they talk to all the Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia.

The shared perception of Iran as a threat is among the critical factors that is propelling that forward. 

With any new version of the JCPOA likely to leave Iran’s missile programme largely untouched, Israeli, Saudi and other Gulf officials will want to continue with such diplomatic activity.

If the deal is not revived, they will be even more compelled to do so.

Dominic Dudley is a London-based journalist, covering politics and economics in the Middle East

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