SETH J. FRANTZMAN
REGIONAL AFFAIRS: Saudi Arabia could bring a calm to the region and slow threats to Israel’s national security
A NEWSPAPER with a cover picture of the flag of Iran and Saudi Arabia, is seen in Tehran last weekend. / (photo credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/REUTERS)
In the wake of the deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran to reestablish relations and potentially reconcile some of their differences, there have been concerns that this is a setback for Israel.
The reason it is portrayed as a setback is that just days before the Saudi-Iran deal was announced, there were reports in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times that Saudi Arabia had presented conditions for it to possibly normalize ties with Israel. The reports were interesting because it seemed Riyadh was asking for security guarantees from the US in exchange for increasing ties with Israel. Then suddenly Saudi Arabia and Iran were signing a deal in Beijing.
This is not necessarily a setback for Israel. Saudi Arabia has important interests in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Riyadh also is likely against Iran having a nuclear weapon. The new ties might mean Tehran listens more to Saudi concerns, or at least gives them credence because of China’s involvement.
The perception in some circles is that US influence in the Middle East is declining, and that Riyadh’s decision-making is guided by this lack of US influence. An article at CNN claimed China had “shattered” the assumption of US dominance in the Middle East.
The reality is more complex. For the last decade and a half, the US has been signaling to the Middle East that it is drawing down its interest in the region. For instance, the Obama administration sought to leave Iraq. The Trump administration sought to leave Afghanistan and Syria. The Biden administration did leave Afghanistan. The US is shifting from its global war on terror to confront near-peer rivals such as China and Russia. This is obvious and is the stated US policy.
A newspaper with a cover picture of the Iranian Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and Saudi Minister of State and National Security Adviser Musaed bin Mohammed Al-Aiban, is seen in Tehran, Iran March 11, 2023. (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)
The question is what this means for Israel. While some see a setback for Israel-Gulf ties, there is no evidence that the Saudi deal will result in an erosion of Israel’s success in the Gulf. The Abraham Accords appear to be thriving in terms of trade and people-to-people connections on some levels. The Saudi deal may not be linked to Israel; it may be due to Riyadh’s own calculations. Saudi Arabia has seen how Qatar and Turkey are able to have their own independent policies and still get concessions from the West. Qatar has been upgraded to a major non-NATO ally of the US. This is despite the fact that Doha has hosted Hamas and the Taliban. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, faces increased criticism in the US, especially in Congress. Therefore, Riyadh’s decision may not be about Israel, but about its own pragmatic interest.
It’s important to remember how Saudi Arabia got here. Back during the Obama administration, Washington made important decisions in Iraq and Lebanon that would affect Saudi Arabia. Riyadh had played a key role in Lebanon since 1989. However, the US appeared to excuse Hezbollah’s increasing growth in power in 2008 and its threats to Beirut. At the same time the US had helped bring Nouri al-Maliki, a pro-Iranian strongman, to power in Iraq. This meant that key states in the region were being handed to Iran. The US policy in this regard was complex, but it was part of a broader shift by the Obama administration to seek ties with Iran. While the US did a “reset” with Russia, working with Putin’s regime, it also ignored Moscow’s aggression against Georgia and would eventually choose not to confront the Assad regime, enabling Russia’s intervention in Syria. As part of this, the goal was the Iran deal, signed in 2015. All of this led to Riyadh feeling Iran was rising too fast in the region.
Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen in 2015 to stop the Iranian-backed Houthis from taking over the country. However, Saudi Arabia’s decision to stand up to the Houthis and also to oppose the Iran deal led to it being sidelined in Washington’s foreign policy on Iran issues. This led to a very cold relationship with the Obama administration.
It’s not surprising that given these circumstances Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states began to see China as a welcome player in the region. But Riyadh also felt that the Trump administration and now the Biden administration have not returned to close ties with Saudi Arabia, and it has come to see an “independent” foreign policy as more in its interest. As such, it has sought to return to ties with Iran.
This kind of policy shift seems ironic, since Riyadh was against Iran when the US was working on the Iran deal, and now is closer to Iran when the US is tougher on Tehran. But that irony is coming about because of other shifts in the region. The era of conflict and countries severing ties has now passed, as many countries are seeking diplomatic ties.
SO HOW does Israel play into all this?
Israel has achieved new diplomatic ties in the region. The Abraham Accords began in 2020, and since then Israel has also been part of the Negev Forum and has had increasingly warm ties with Morocco, Egypt and Jordan, as well as Bahrain and the UAE. Rumors of ties with Saudi Arabia have also increased, but it is understood that those ties would only come after some shift on Israel’s part. The current government is dealing with domestic issues, such as judicial reform. Riyadh has not been a major priority.
How can Israel benefit from Saudi-Iran ties?
First of all, it’s plausible Saudi Arabia may end up investing in Iran, but that would likely only happen if Iran stops backing the Houthis to target Saudi Arabia. It would also come with a toning down of criticism of Riyadh in Iranian state and pro-regime media. This means there may be a toning down of rhetoric in general. Saudi Arabia has an interest in stability, both in Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon. These are all key issues that affect Israel. Iran has sought to hijack Iraq over the years and empower militias there. Those militias can threaten Israel with drones and missiles exported by Iran. The militias also help Iran move weapons to Syria and Lebanon.
At the same time, political chaos in Lebanon can lead to threats to Israel. It’s plausible that the Saudi deal could enable compromise on Lebanon’s presidency and fill the vacuum of power in Lebanon. While the recent terrorist incident in Megiddo and the North show that Hezbollah may still be enabling threats, there are key questions that could be resolved if the Saudi-Iran deal impacts Lebanon.
Yemen is another area where Iran exploited chaos to get a foot in the door. Iran has moved drones and missile technology to Yemen. The Houthis have increased their threats to Israel over the years. Iran also threatens commercial ships in the Gulf of Oman. The Saudi deal could lead to a ceasefire in Yemen or some kind of deal. This could mean a reduction in the Iranian arms flow.
The deal with Saudi Arabia may also come with new ties between Riyadh and Damascus. It’s not known what this would mean for the Syrian regime, but it could mean a return to the Arab League. Would this reduce Iranian influence in Damascus? Probably not, but it could mean that Iran might get the message that moving missiles to Syria destabilizes the regime. It’s not clear what impact this would have on Israel’s “war between the wars” campaign, but it could lead to ramifications for Israel’s attempts to stop Iranian entrenchment in Syria.
Most important, the Iran-Saudi deal may lead to Iran reducing its enrichment and attempted weaponization of a nuclear weapon. Saudi Arabia will not want to sign a deal and then suddenly have Iran develop a bomb that threatens the region. Clearly regional stability means not having a nuclear-armed Iran or a nuclear arms race. China, which will listen to Saudi concerns, may raise this issue with Iran. China and Iran have a new 25-year deal. China also has deals with the Gulf states.
There are a lot of possibilities being opened up now. Turkey could also reconcile with Syria. The Iran-Saudi deal may affect a number of countries. Some of these are key areas of concern for Israel.
It’s likely that Saudi Arabia will pursue these tracks independently, meeting with Iranian officials in Baghdad, while also hinting to Washington that it could increase ties with Israel. Saudi Arabia likely does not see these as mutually exclusive.
Iran, however, does want to believe its new deal with Riyadh will be a setback for Israel and the US. That is Iran’s interest, but it is not necessarily Saudi Arabia’s interest. Riyadh could become a conduit for concerns about Iran and its proxies’ threats to the region, now that the countries have ties.