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Mideast allies pressed Trump to ditch the Iran deal. Are they ready for what’s next?

World leaders slammed President Trump's May 8 announcement that the United States would leave the Iran deal, but Israel's prime minister lauded it. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

ISTANBUL — His closest allies in the Middle East — in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — had pushed President Trump to exit the nuclear accord with Iran, sharing his conviction that the deal had only encouraged Iran’s military adventurism in the region.

But it is precisely those allies that could face the potential consequences of Trump’s announcement Tuesday that the United States was withdrawing from the agreement. The decision, analysts said, is almost certain to further destabilize a Middle East crippled by civil wars and proxy skirmishes that have sent weapons pouring in and millions of refugees streaming out.  

In criticizing the deal Tuesday, Trump said that it “didn’t bring calm, it didn’t bring peace, and it never will.” He did not say what, if anything, would replace the accord or give any hint of how the United States planned to better ensure the security of its allies — at a moment when they are locked in an escalating conflict with Iran playing out in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere.    

“It’s very unclear if the Americans have any strategy for the day after,” said Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “It’s the worst of all worlds. You are going to do away with an arms-control agreement. But there are no building blocks for a regional strategy to contain Iran, or to engage Iran, for that matter.”

“There will be satisfaction in Arab capitals and in Israel” after Trump’s announcement, he added. “But their interests will not be served without a broader policy framework.”

Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said that while the nuclear deal was flawed, “the question I am asking myself tonight is whether Trump has an overall American strategy to deal with Iran.”  

He continued: “At the same time he says he is leaving the deal, he also says he is withdrawing American troops from Syria. So he is sending a signal that he is not interested in the Middle East, and this is contradictory. America cannot withdraw and leave the Israelis and the Saudis to clean up its mess.”

The Post’s Alan Sipress and Karen DeYoung explain how President Trump’s decision might affect an already tense Middle East. (Video: Sarah Parnass, Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have led the charge against Iran in the Arab world, complaining about what they say is its interference in the internal affairs of the Persian Gulf monarchies. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also united in a military coalition against a rebel group in Yemen that they accuse of acting as an Iranian proxy force.

Both countries had complained bitterly that President Barack Obama ignored Gulf security concerns by pursuing the nuclear deal with Iran. Obama agreed to provide U.S. military support to the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen in part to assuage the anger of his Gulf allies, according to officials in his administration. 

The longtime rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia worsened over the past year, as Saudi officials accused Iran of supplying the Yemeni rebels, known as the Houthis, with ballistic missiles that have been fired into Saudi territory. Iran has denied supplying the rebels with missiles.  

Israel has vigorously lobbied against the Iran deal from the outset, saying that no deal is better than a bad deal. “Fix it or nix it” has become Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refrain.

But his security chiefs have raised concerns that the collapse of the deal could backfire for Israel.

How killing the nuclear deal could make it easier for Iran to pursue the bomb in secret

In an interview with Israeli newspaper Haaretz in May, the country’s top military commander, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, said that there was no evidence Iran had breached the deal and that Israel was investing “vast resources” in intelligence to make sure it would know if it were.

“Right now, the agreement, with all its faults, is working and is putting off realization of the Iranian nuclear vision by 10 to 15 years,” he said. “If the Americans decide to withdraw from the agreement on May 12, we will have to rethink our strategic risk management.”

In a sign of the potential for escalation, the Israeli military asked residents of the Golan Heights to open bomb shelters Tuesday night because of the risk of an Iranian attack and “unusual” movement of Iranian forces inside Syria. Syria’s state news agency later reported that Israeli missiles had been intercepted near Damascus. 

Iran to negotiate with Europeans, Russia and China about remaining in nuclear deal

After Trump’s announcement, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said he would continue to negotiate with Europe, Russia and China about remaining in the nuclear deal.  

But the U.S. withdrawal and the prospect of intense sanctions raise the possibility of Iranian retaliation, threatening states that were U.S. allies as well as countries where American troops are present.

Iran “can increase the costs for the U.S. and for regional countries by engaging in small, deniable activities, to remind people that Iran is not without deterrents,” Hokayem said. “We all know that the Iranians can do something nasty here. It’s not clear that the U.S. and others have internalized this in their policy.”   

Michael Wahid Hanna, an analyst with the Century Foundation, said it was possible that Iran would show restraint to preserve the deal with Europe or to isolate the United States from its allies. “There are factions in Iran that would like to take the high ground, for public relations or rhetorical purposes,” he said.

But at the same time, “I am sure Bashar al-Assad, Haider al-Abadi and Ashraf Ghani are nervous about what comes next,” he said, referring to the leaders of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan — countries where there are U.S. troops. While those nations “ostensibly have productive relations with the Iranians, their interests aren’t perfectly aligned.”  

One potential consequence of the United States backing out of the nuclear deal is that the Iranian “means of retaliation” would occur in Syrian, Iraqi or Afghan territory, he said.

Despite the regional focus on the consequences of the deal, the accord “was not what has allowed Iran to play a significant role in regional affairs,” Hanna said. He added that a number of irritants predated the deal, including sectarian tensions between the Sunni Gulf states and Iran, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and a lack of diplomatic engagement with Iran during the first term of the George W. Bush administration.

The proliferation of civil conflicts in the Middle East, many with sectarian overtones, had provided Iran with opportunities “to project influence and act as a spoiler,” he said. 

Despite that history, some of the countries in the region were hoping for a quick fix from the United States — “the deus ex machina that solves everyone’s problems,” Hanna said.

Morris reported from Jerusalem. Ruth Eglash contributed to this report from Jerusalem.

Trump pulls United States out of Iran nuclear deal, calling the pact ‘an embarrassment’

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