Why Saudi Arabia Stands to Lose from Trump’s JCPOA Withdrawal

    Samuel Ramani

    Security, Middle East

    U.S. President Donald Trump signs a proclamation declaring his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington, U.S. May 8, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

    An escalation of Iranian belligerence will undercut Saudi Arabia’s security, as Yemen is likely to be the first area where Tehran will flex its military muscles.

    President Donald Trump announced on May 8 that the United States would withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was immediately condemned by many U.S. allies—particularly its European allies—but received enthusiastic support from Saudi Arabia. Shortly after Trump’s speech, the Saudi Foreign Ministry expressed solidarity with the U.S. decision and urged the United States to impose stringent sanctions against Iran.

    As Saudi Arabia remains embroiled in a struggle with Iran for regional hegemony, its support for Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA is unsurprising. However, a closer examination of the implications of Trump’s decision suggests that Saudi Arabia’s jubilation will be short-lived. Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA could exacerbate latent tensions between Saudi Arabia and its regional allies; and embolden Iran to engage in aggressive policies that undercut Saudi Arabia’s security and weaken its regional influence.

    The most immediate concern for Saudi Arabia is that Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA will weaken the cohesion of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Since the outbreak of the Qatar crisis in June 2017, the GCC has been divided into two blocs over the acceptability of engagement with Iran. The GCC’s pro-isolation bloc, which includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, believes that Iran is the primary source of instability in the Middle East and that Tehran must be contained at all costs. The GCC’s pro-engagement bloc, which consists of Kuwait and Oman, echoes Saudi Arabia’s concerns about Iranian conduct but believes that selective cooperation and trade with Iran will benefit regional stability.

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