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Saudi Arabia Softens Opposition To Iran Nuclear Deal


On a trip to the Middle East this week, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said he had good meetings in Saudi Arabia with leaders there about the nuclear deal with Iran. That would mark a change of heart. The Saudis are regional rivals with Iran and had seemed opposed to the deal. Under the agreement, the U.S. and other world powers would lift economic sanctions if Iran curbs its nuclear program. We are joined now by NPR's Deborah Amos, who covers Saudi Arabia. She's in New York today. And, Deborah, what are the latest reactions from Saudi Arabia to the Iran deal?

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: I think you have to say that the Saudis are playing the good ally as President Obama is putting in this huge effort to sell the nuclear deal at home. The foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, gave the most public endorsement on Thursday, and he said that any deal that curbs Tehran's ability to get a nuclear weapon is welcome. The Gulf states are focused on two key clauses in this deal. These are conventional weapons embargoes for Iran for five years, eight years on missile parts. So it gives them enough time to upgrade their air force. They know that the Iranian air force is weak and they can maintain a military superiority. So they are really happy about that clause, and that is where they focused their attention.

SIEGEL: Has the Saudi ruler, King Salman, spoken publicly about the deal with Iran?

AMOS: You know, I asked Saudi watchers about this and they said look at the newspaper that's owned by his son. It's a big Arabic newspaper. The columnists have been writing lately hailing this agreement, and they called it a poisoned chalice for Iran. And that's a really striking comment because in 1988, at the end of the devastating Iran-Iraq War, Ayatollah Khomeini used that term when he had to accept an end to the war that he said he would fight until victory. So that characterization is telling.

SIEGEL: How do the Saudis get to characterize the nuclear deal as a poisoned chalice?

AMOS: Well, what they point out is that there's intrusive inspections. There's a sanction on conventional weapons. They are calculating it will take four years for Iran's oil industry to recover. And those details are finally sinking in in the Gulf. They've read the agreement.

SIEGEL: Now, Gulf Arab countries have been more immediately worried, it seems, about Iranian non-nuclear activity in the region, whether it's in Syria or Yemen where they see Iran engaging in what they see as aggressive behavior. What are they looking for there in the way of diplomacy with Iran?

AMOS: They are listening to what the Americans say. Saudis remain concerned about Iran's role in Iraq, in Syria, in Yemen. And the Saudis want continued U.S. support for the military operation there in Yemen. Now, today, Iran's foreign minister is in the UAE for talks. He's trying to arrange a summit with the foreign ministers of all the Gulf states, and that's a meeting that could take place in September around the U.N. General Assembly meeting. Robert, the region is on fire, as you know. There are multiple crises. And it's what keeps the Saudi leadership up at night. They want to see that the U.S. is vigorously addressing these issues now that this deal is done.

SIEGEL: The Saudis have warned for years if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, we'll get a nuclear weapon they've said. Is this deal seen as one that leaves Iran capable of having a nuclear weapon in 15 years and therefore Saudi Arabia intends to have one in 15 years?

AMOS: You know, today, at the Council on Foreign Relations, Secretary of State John Kerry was asked that very question. And he said it's not like you can order one by FedEx. It's not easy to build a nuclear capability. However, many analysts in the Gulf say that this deal will set off a conventional arms race. Gulf states are going to want protection. They're going to want to upgrade their air force, Patriot missiles. They want to be absolutely sure that they are protected from Iran, which is a much bigger country than all of the Gulf states put together.

SIEGEL: NPR's Deborah Amos in New York. Deborah, thank you.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.