Iranian nuclear talks put Iran-Saudi worries in focus (dpa German Press Agency)

Israel’s government has got a lot of international attention for its opposition to an international deal over Iran’s nuclear programme. While Saudi Arabia has been less vocal, its concerns about the deal run just as deep.
Vienna/Tehran (dpa) – On one hand, Iran and six world powers are racing to reach a nuclear framework deal by the end of March.
On the other, one of those six powers – the United States – is working overtime to allay fears in countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia that such an agreement will not end in disaster.
The worry is that a nuclear deal might temporarily prevent Tehran from making nuclear weapons, but raise the country’s international stature in the process, with no guarantee it might not eventually return to a weapons programme. For a long-time regional rival like the Saudis, that is unacceptable.
US Secretary of State John Kerry was in the Saudi capital Riyadh last week to assure his counterparts from Gulf countries that Washington was still keen on containing Iran’s regional influence and preventing it from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal said that Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its meddling in regional conflicts were of equal concern.
“We see Iran involved in Syria and Lebanon and Yemen and Iraq and God knows where. This […] must stop if Iran is to be part of the solution of the region and not part of the problem,” he said.
On Sunday, Kerry is expected to fly once again to Switzerland to continue talks on the agreement with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Lausanne.
The six powers aim for a deal that would restrict Iran’s uranium enrichment programme to such an extent that it would take the country’s nuclear engineers at least one year to build a nuclear weapon – long enough for UN nuclear inspectors to sniff out such an effort.
Iran, which denies any such weapon plans, wants to get economic sanctions lifted quickly under the deal, and to turn from a pariah country into a respected member of the international community.
“The deal would increase Iran’s influence in the region,” said Henner Fuertig, head of the GIGA Institute of Middle East Studies in Hamburg.
While Saudi Arabia is a key US ally in the Middle East, Iran was a major strategic partner for the United States up to 1979, when relations between Washington and Tehran broke because of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.
The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran runs deep, and the Syria conflict has exacerbated the political confrontation between both countries.
While Tehran has supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Riyadh has backed the rebels.
But Iran’s leaders also believe that Saudi money has gone to the extremists of the Islamic State militias.
“To increase their influence in the region, the Saudis have also supported terrorists,” Iranian President Hassan Rowhani has said.
In addition to these strategic tensions, both countries are major oil producers with sharply opposing views about oil prices, with Riyadh content with the recent price declines, while Tehran has hoped for higher prices that would would help its sanction-hit economy.
Iran and the group of Britain, China, France, Russia, the US and Germany aim to agree on the outlines of a deal by their self-imposed interim deadline at the end of March, and on a detailed agreement by the end of June.
If, however, Tehran ended up deciding against the diplomatic path and for a nuclear arsenal, the balance of power in the Middle East could shift radically, Fuertig said.
“If Iran gets even close to nuclear weapons, the entire region would arm itself with nuclear weapons,” he told dpa.
If there were a deal, Gulf countries would try to counter rising Iranian influence with increasing conventional armaments, he said.
“Last year, Saudi Arabia became the world’s biggest weapons importer,” the German expert added.
While Saudi Arabia’s leaders have given no public indication that they would seek nuclear arms, they have been seeking to develop peaceful nuclear technology, which always carries a risk of being misused for military aims.
Earlier this month, South Korea and Saudi Arabia agreed to cooperate on nuclear power projects for the oil-rich kingdom with Korean technology.