On April 3, the Rand Corporation convened a day-long conference on Iran in the days after a nuclear deal. Participants concluded that that an agreement could herald a new era for Iran and its relationship with the outside world. But experts warned that Tehran would still likely be cautious of relations with Washington and that Israel and Saudi Arabia would still be concerned about Iranian intentions in the region.
Both Tel Aviv and Riyadh “are likely to adapt to the new reality of a deal rather than actively attempt to derail it,” according to the report. The following are excerpts from the perspective, which assumes that Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, the United States and Iran will reach an agreement based on the Joint Plan of Action.
In planning for the regional response to a final nuclear agreement, Israel and Saudi Arabia come to the forefront, as they are the two actors with the most capacity to affect the success and durability of the deal following its signing. Both also view Iran as a regional rival to a greater extent than other neighbors.
Israel Is More Likely to Adapt to a Final Deal Than Immediately Reject It
Based on the dominant views toward Iran among Israel’s security establishment (where Iran is linked to most hostile actions against Israel), as well as the likely contours of a nuclear deal, Israel is not likely to embrace a final agreement. The Israeli responses to and actions after a final deal will thus largely fall into two general categories: rejection or adaptation. Although distinct in that Israeli rejection of a deal would lead to immediate confrontational actions while Israeli adaptation would allow for the implementation of the final deal to play out, these responses are not necessarily mutually exclusive -- rejection of a deal would lead to immediate confrontational actions while Israeli adaptation would allow for the implementation of the final deal to play out, these responses are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Israeli leaders could openly denounce a final deal along the lines that we outlined above because, in their view, such an agreement will not set the Iranian program back far enough to prevent its ultimate attainment of nuclear weapons, and also because Israel is
still concerned about an array of other Iranian actions in the region that are threatening to Israel. A number of Israeli steps aimed at derailing a deal could accompany public and acrimonious official rejection of a final nuclear agreement.
Perhaps the Israeli course of action that should most likely be expected in the aftermath of a final deal it rejected would be encouraging the U.S. Congress to delay or prevent a lifting of sanctions against Iran in an attempt to slow or undermine the implementation of a final agreement.
Rather than publicly rejecting a final deal and pursuing actions that could lead to the deal’s collapse and open rift with the United States, Israel might instead adapt to, even if it does not welcome, a final nuclear agreement.
Particularly if Israel is able to influence the final deal in ways such that the details of the agreement would meet what some Israeli security analysts assess to be Israel’s minimum requirements (e.g., on levels of enrichment, the fate of the Arak reactor, and Iran’s
missile research), Israel’s official position could quietly shift away from the current maximalist positions expressed by Netanyahu. In this case, Israel could refrain from attempts to derail the deal and adapt Israeli security policies to the new reality through measures
such as continued missile-defense development, and possibly new debates about Israel’s current nuclear opacity posture, as Israel considers ways to further bolster its regional deterrence. Israel may also attempt to strengthen its de facto cooperation with Saudi
Arabia and other regional states wary of Iranian regional influence, although anti-Israel public opinion across the Arab world would limit the extent of such cooperation absent a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Saudi Arabia Might Adapt to a Deal but Increase Competition Against Iran Elsewhere in the Region
Like Israel, Saudi Arabia may grudgingly accept a final nuclear deal along the lines of that described at the outset of this report, even if it has reservations about the fact that Iran will retain some residual nuclear program. Indeed, given that Riyadh does not have the
same military capabilities as Tel Aviv – namely, to launch a strike on Iranian nuclear infrastructure – it may be that Saudi acquiescence is more likely than the Israelis. Despite Saudi skepticism that genuine change is afoot in Tehran, the Kingdom does not have a recent history of seeking better relations with Iran when opportunities present themselves. For example, there was some warning of relations between the two Gulf rivals during the Rafsanjani and Khatami presidencies, and the combination of Rouhani and a final nuclear agreement could be the impetus for another thaw. Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif’s visit to the GCC states in December 2013 raised the possibility of some warming in Iranian-GCC relations, although it is important to note that Zarif was not welcomed in either Riyadh or Manama.
Should Riyadh conclude that the final agreement is not in its best interests, it possesses several counters that could complicate implementation and diminish the chances that an agreement could translate into a broader Western-Iranian détente.
The most concerning, but also the least likely, is that Saudi Arabia will lay the groundwork for the acquisition of its own nuclear weapon to balance against an Iran it sees as a threshold
nuclear power given the advanced stage of the Iranian program.
The second Saudi counter, and one that is more likely, is that Saudi Arabia will further roil the regional waters in an effort to complicate the emergence of a broader détente between the United States and Iran, which many Saudis fear would come at the price of the United States recognizing an Iranian sphere of influence. The Kingdom is already engaged in strategic competition with Iran in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and within the Arabian Peninsula when
it comes to countering Iranian influence among the GCC states’ Shi‘a populations.