But Shihabi said Trump’s tough position on Iran, including his pledge to institute “the highest level of economic sanction,” would be difficult to walk back. “He has now taken a very public position and a very clear decision,” Shihabi said.
Israel is concerned about Iran’s nuclear program itself, which poses a potential challenge to Israel’s presumed nuclear arsenal. But Saudi Arabia and its allies, including the UAE, Egypt, and even Morocco, which recently cut formal ties with Iran and accused its ally Hezbollah of supporting rebels in the Western Sahara, are more concerned about Iran’s meddling on the ground: its support for ideologically fervent militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen; its alleged shipments of rockets that are now regularly launched by Yemen’s Houthi rebels at Saudi Arabia; its political domination of Arab capitals from Sanaa to Beirut.
“Riyadh was particularly concerned that the deal would embolden Iran’s regional activities, providing them with more cash to support allies in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere,” Elizabeth Dickinson, a Gulf-based researcher for the International Crisis Group, an international conflict-resolution organization, said.
To many Saudis, those worries have become reality. In the more than two years since the deal was implemented, Iran’s proxies have picked up more battlefield successes, Tehran’s missile program has expanded, and its political influence has increased, even as its nuclear program has been put into check.
But experts warn that scuttling the nuclear deal might actually further embolden Iran. “If the U.S. were to renege on its commitments in the deal, Iran will almost certainly react in some manner,” Dickinson said. “Axing the nuclear deal may offer a moment of catharsis, but be ultimately counter-productive.”
Even worse: the possibility Tehran could use any U.S. withdrawal from the deal to slowly ramp up its nuclear program if the deal fully falls apart and Europe fails to meet Iranian demands for economic assurances. While Trump said the JCPOA would lead to an nuclear arms race, Iran’s ramping up of enrichment is a more likely spark to such a crisis. In a speech shortly after Trump’s announcement, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani vowed to stay in the deal, but also said he had ordered officials to prepare for a possible “industrial-scale enrichment” in case Europe and others fail to take steps to ameliorate the U.S. withdrawal.
“The Iranians will probably then say the deal is worthless which means that the Iranians return to a nuclear program,” said James Dorsey, a Middle East specialist at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “Which means that you get a nuclear race in the Middle East.”
Wendy Sherman, a former U.S. diplomat who helped negotiate the nuclear deal, told reporters in a conference call on Tuesday: “Iran with a nuclear weapon would be able to project even more power in the region.”