Is Israel the Loser In the Saudi-Iranian Rapprochement?
The Saudi-Iranian agreement, brokered by China, to renew diplomatic ties has now been followed by the Saudis inviting Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi for an official visit. It looks as if the two rivals are serious about promoting ever-better relations. What does this mean for Israel, which has its own security ties to Saudi Arabia, with which it shares intelligence about Iran and its allies in the region? The most important of those allies are the Shi’a Houthis, who have since 2015 been fighting the Saudi-backed Yemeni government. While Iran has lavished weapons and money on the Houthis, rather than send its own military to fight, the Saudis have entered the conflict directly with 100 planes and 150,000 troops. Will a peace agreement in Yemen between the Houthis and the Sunnis be the fruit of Raisi’s visit to Riyadh? Clearly the Saudis want to pull back from the country, but don’t want to leave Yemen completely in the hands of the triumphant Houthis; that would constitute an admission of total defeat. The Saudis must be hoping to persuade Iran to agree to some sort of modus vivendi in Yemen, possibly a power-sharing arrangement between the Houthis and the federal government. In return, the deep-pocketed Saudis might invest billions in cash-strapped Iran.
More on this Saudi-Iranian rapprochement is discussed here: “Diplomacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran could isolate and constrain Israel,” by Eric R. Mandel, The Hill, March 21, 2023:
Suppose the Israeli defense establishment, the prime minister, and the inner security cabinet decide that Iran’s uranium enrichment at 84 percent, close to what’s needed for a nuclear weapon, and progress in weaponizing a warhead is making a nuclear breakout imminent. They share the information with their ally, the United States, which has promised never to allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon. What next?
Biden has continually tried to reassure Israel that Iran will not become a nuclear power “on my watch,” but he has yet to make a direct threat of using military force if, for example, the IAEA discovers that Iran has been enriching uranium to a weapons-grade level of 84%. Nor has Biden provided Israel with the two weapons the Jewish state most needs to attack Iran: first, the KC-46 Pegasus tanker, which the Israeli air force would need for refueling planes that will have to fly all the way from Israel to Iran and back; second, the 30,000 pound Massive Ordnance Projectile (MOP), the “bunker buster” which Israel would likely need to destroy the underground facility at Natanz and another one deep inside a mountain at Fordow. It is worrisome that Biden has not sent both weapons to the Israelis; were he to do so now, such a move would get the attention of Tehran, and give Iran reason to pause its long march to complete its nuclear program.
Although America is unhappy that China appears to be the new kingmaker in the Middle East, having brokered a deal for Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore diplomatic ties, it may conclude the region is more stable, at least for the short term, with the adversaries talking and less saber-rattling. Perhaps the Biden administration thinks this diplomacy has created an opportunity to convince Iran to rejoin the nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Negotiations regarding the JCPOA have been suspended, but President Biden’s Iran envoy, Robert Malley, has not given up his attempts at diplomacy.
Would the Bidenites really be so foolish as to welcome the restoration of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and other signs of warming relations between the two countries, like the Saudi invitation just extended to President Raisi to visit? From the American point of view, the enmity between the two countries helped to push Saudi Arabia closer to Israel, and closer to the United States as well, which it had counted on for its security, but has since, with Biden in the White House, been disabused of that assumption. The closer these two Islamic powers become, the worse for the non-Muslim West. Perhaps this rapprochement will lead the Iranians to try to persuade the Saudis to end their participation in the Yemen war, thereby letting the Houthis win. Such a demand might remind the Saudis of Iran’s attempts, over many years, to build a “Shi’ite crescent” extending from Yemen, where the Houthis have since 2015 been supplied with Iranian weapons and money, to the Iran-backed Shi’a militia — the Kata’ib Hezbollah — in Iraq, to Alawite-dominated Syria, to Hezbollah in Lebanon. It’s difficult to believe that the Iranians would suddenly end those carefully-cultivated ties and leave the Shi’a in the region to survive on their own. How long would those various Shi’a groups last, against the overwhelmingly more numerous Sunnis, and the weapons and money that the fabulously rich Sunni Arab states of the Gulf can so easily supply?
With the agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, however, Israel may feel more isolated than ever — especially with its hoped-for diplomatic relations with Riyadh leapfrogged by its archenemy, Tehran. In addition, China’s diplomatic coup further marginalizes the influence of the United States, Israel’s chief ally. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hope for a coalition of nations against a nuclear Iran seems to be weakened.
Everything about this Saudi-Iranian agreement is worrisome for Israel. Many Israelis had been led to believe, from hints dropped since 2020 by Benjamin Netanyahu, that Saudi Arabia was close to joining the Abraham Accords and normalize ties with Israel. Those hopes have now been conclusively dashed. Iran has managed to jump to the head of the Saudi queue, in front of Israel, that has been completely consumed with domestic fights over a proposed judicial overhaul that has sucked out all the oxygen from Israel’s political elite.
Even if the U.S. were convinced that Iran is crossing Israel’s nuclear “red line,” would the Biden administration still support an Israeli strike that could cause it new headaches by destabilizing the region? Not likely. A red light from Washington to Jerusalem will be hard to overcome, despite a long-stated plan for Israel to go it alone if necessary. America’s precedent of allowing its “line in the sand” to be crossed in 2012, when President Obama chose not to act against Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people, indicates that other U.S. “red lines” also may be ignored. So, the pressure on Israel not to strike Iran will be enormous.
I think we all realize that when Biden assures us that Iran will not get nuclear weapons “on my watch,” he doesn’t mean it; he is merely hoping to head off a strike by Israel by providing this assurance. Israel is prepared to go it alone, but it wants to wait until it is absolutely sure that Iran intends to acquire a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, it waits for Biden to give Israel the weapons it needs. That unwillingness says far more about Biden’s intentions than his claim that Iran won’t be able to make a bomb “on my watch.” He won’t do it himself, and what’s worse, he won’t help Israel, which is wiling to take on the task by itself, by delivering to the Jewish state the weapons it most needs.
Israel’s partners in the Abraham Accords, such as Bahrain, may follow Saudi Arabia’s lead and restore normalcy with Iran. Bahrain may act to get Iranian secret forces to stop inciting its 80 percent-Shiite citizenry.
Would Iran ever agree to stop its support of the Shi’a, who make up 80% of the population of Bahrain and are unhappy to have a Sunni ruler? What would Iran get for ending that support? Perhaps it would hope to persuade Bahrain to call a halt to its normalization of ties with Israel and withdraw from the Abraham Accords. Or is there something more it wants – to pre-position Iranian planes in Bahrain in case of a war with Israel?
Meanwhile, Israel’s enemies close to its borders, whom Iran supports — Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad — may believe Israel is now more vulnerable, especially with Israeli domestic discord reaching a fever pitch and challenging its national cohesion. Also, knowing that Israel’s most important ally — the United States — is diminished in the eyes of the Middle East because of China’s influence increases the risks they will take, with potential for miscalculations and violence. The perception of Israel as weakened is never good for America or the West.
Hezbollah has 140,000 rockets and missiles stored in Lebanon for future use against Israel, but ever since the Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006, Nasrallah has been reluctant to use any of them, and in the last few years, he’s made many blood-curdling threats, but not dared to launch any of those missiles. Instead, Israeli planes have relentlessly bombed Hezbollah operatives in Syria in an attempt to prevent Iranian weapons from being transferred by Hezbollah operatives to the weapons hideouts in Lebanon.
Hamas keeps the Gazan front quiet; it wants Israel to keep allowing 20,000 Gazans to work in the Jewish state, and for that continued calm is needed. When its operatives do strike Israel, Hamas does not claim responsibility.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad is the most violent of the groups, and it has extended its reach recently from Gaza into the West Bank. PIJ operatives in Jenin and Nablus have been most responsible for the recent attacks on Israelis in the West Bank.
I don’t see how the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement will lead these terror groups to conclude that Israel is more vulnerable. The Israelis are continuing to “mow the lawn” with air strikes in Gaza on Hamas and IDF raids on terrorists in the West Bank. If anything, the IDF might be more willing to deal even more forcefully with these terror groups as a way to clear the decks, eliminating the threat of a multi-front war, before the main event — an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
China would also pressure Israel not to destabilize the region with any pre-emptive actions on Iranian territory, now that their oil shipments from Saudi Arabia and Iran — the lifeblood of their economy — are more secure. As Mark Dubowitz of The Foundation for Defense of Democracies put it, “This is a brilliant stroke by China and Iran to undercut Saudi-American and Saudi-Israeli normalization. It helps bring Tehran in from the cold and undermines American and Israeli efforts to build a regional coalition to confront Iran as it is on the cusp of developing nuclear weapons.”
Neither China, nor the U.S., can persuade Israel not to attack Iran if the Israelis believe there is no other way to prevent Tehran from manufacturing a nuclear weapon. China has much less influence on Israel than the U.S. It does not supply either aid, or weapons, to the Jewish state. As for fears of an Israeli attack “destabilizing” the region, isn’t it more likely that depriving the world’s foremost terrorist state of a nuclear weapon, a state that has been making mischief in a half-dozen countries as part of its plan to create a “Shi’a crescent” from Yemen to Lebanon, will lead to greater stability in the region? And might not a successful attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities hearten the domestic opposition to the regime, which would have been thoroughly humiliated and weakened, which perhaps could even embolden that opposition to take to the streets again, but this time bringing about that regime’s overthrow?
Suppose Israel acts provocatively against Iran and is blamed for the instability that follows. Could the Saudis and other Gulf countries retaliate by threatening the sustainability of the Abraham Accords? It’s not likely, since the agreements with Israel are in their economic interests, and they know that Iran will never be their friend in the long run.
Israel has been acting not “provocatively,” but more exactly, pro-actively, in its many acts of sabotage of Iran’s nuclear program, beginning with the Stuxnet computer worm that caused a thousand centrifuges to speed up uncontrollably and destroy themselves, to the targeted assassinations of five of Iran’s top nuclear scientists, to the spiriting away of Iran’s entire nuclear archive, to the sabotage – twice – of the nuclear facilities at Natanz, the first attack above, and the second one below, ground. The Arab members of the Abraham Accords — the U.A.E., Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan — will remain members for as long as that membership serves their political and economic interests.
This rapprochement between the Arab world and Iran concerns short-term shared interests. The Saudis know Israel is still the only player that could threaten Iran if it reneges on its diplomatic outreach. The Saudis want the agreement with Iran to work, to extricate themselves from Yemen’s civil war and to stop future attacks against their homeland.
No matter how much Iran advances its nuclear weaponization, the Europeans are preoccupied with Ukraine. They would consider China’s diplomatic opening another opportunity to beg Iran to rejoin a nuclear agreement. They wouldn’t hesitate to sanction Israel if Israel struck Iran’s Natanz or Fordow nuclear sites, especially after what they may perceive as new diplomacy sprouting between Middle Eastern enemies.
I disagree with the author here. I don’t think the Europeans are incapable of worrying about more than one geopolitical threat at a time. Ukraine is in the limelight, but the IAEA has managed to keep a secondary searchlight on Iran’s nuclear threat. When the author says that the Europeans “wouldn’t hesitate to sanction” Israel if it struck Iran’s nuclear sites, I think the very opposite would happen: there would be great relief that Israel had rid the world of a mortal threat, not just to Israel and the Sunni Arab states of the Gulf, but to Europe itself.
So, Iran will be portrayed as a victim if Israel strikes. With no Israeli strike, Iran can progress with its nuclear program. If it had to absorb a strike, it likely would receive sympathy from much of the world, and possibly economic outreach. That means Israel indeed would be on its own. Netanyahu and other Israeli prime ministers have made it clear that an Iranian nuclear weapon is a “game-changer” and that Israel would be compelled to act.
“With no Israeli strike,” the writer insists, “Iran can progress with its nuclear program.” But there will be an Israeli strike. There is no doubt that if Iran continues its enrichment of uranium up to a level of 84%, one step away from the 90% needed to make a bomb, whatever the world thinks, Israel will strike. And I don’t think the Iranian regime, the regime that supplies weapons to the war criminal Putin, that has murdered over 600 protesters and jailed tens of thousands more, will “receive sympathy” from anyone but Putin, Bashar Assad, and Xi Jinping. Nor can Iran simply “absorb a strike” from Israel. If Israel does strike, it will not be something that can be “absorbed”; the destruction will be devastating, not just to Iran’s nuclear facilities, but to its entire military, to make sure that no response will be possible.
Overstating the longevity of any accord between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a risk. These two countries fundamentally remain adversaries, but the potential détente may create a short-term ceasefire that quiets the region. It also could be an Iranian tactical decision to make an Israeli preemptive action less likely, knowing that the international community will put pressure on Israel not to upset the apple cart.
Israel will remain unaffected by this Saudi-Iranian agreement to renew diplomatic relations. It is keeping its focus, correctly, not on diplomatic demarches and handshakes between despots, but on how Iran proceeds with its nuclear program. And if Israel determines that the Iranians are going for broke, no outside pressure will stop the Israelis from attacking. When has Israel ever entrusted its survival to what the so-called “international community” pressures it to do?