JERUSALEM – For Israel and Persian Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, President Obama’s telephone call with President Hassan Rowhani of Iran on Friday was the geopolitical equivalent of discovering your best friend flirting with your main rival.
Although few nations have a greater interest in Obama’s promise to stop Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, his overtures to Rowhani were greeted with alarm here and in other Middle East capitals allied with the United States. They worry about Iran’s sincerity, and fear that Obama’s desire for a diplomatic deal will only buy Iran time to continue a march toward building a nuclear weapon.
Beyond that, the prospect of even a non-nuclear Iran — strengthened economically by the lifting of sanctions, and emboldened politically by renewed U.S. relations — is seen as a dire threat that could upend the dynamics in this volatile region. One academic in a Twitter post likened the phone call to “the fall of the Berlin Wall.” An Israeli lawmaker said he hoped Obama would not be the next Neville Chamberlain, known for appeasement of the Nazis in 1938.
“There is a lot of suspicion and even paranoia about some secret deal between Iran and America,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist. “My concern is that the Americans will accept Iran as it is — so that the Iranians can continue their old policies.”
Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni-dominated gulf countries share a concern about a shift in the balance of power toward Iran’s Shiite-led government and its allies. For Israel, Iran remains the sponsor of global terrorism and of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
“They can change the regime, but one thing won’t change and that is the hostility against Israel,” warned Uzi Rabi at Tel Aviv University. “Part of the plan is to drive a wedge between Americans and Europeans and Israel. I hate to say it, but what the Iranians managed to do is to change the whole game.”
New York Times