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The Last Frenemies: Israel and Saudi Arabia

On stage we are witnessing the realization of Iranian precise and detailed plan of reintegrating themselves into the international community while continuing on with their much-discussed nuclear program. After an alienated period during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Iran is returning step by step to the international system with the new President Hassan Rouhani. His campaign slogan was moderation and wisdom. Working to ease the sanctions and bringing back dignity to the Iranian nation was his promise. 'Is he moderate or not?' was the main topic of discussion for Rouhani till the beginning of his term. But one thing is for sure, he managed to improve the image of Iran in the eyes of the international community. That has been enough to persuade the world powers to ease some sanctions and continue with the nuclear negotiations.

As a result, the isolation of Iran is coming to an end. It is also important to note that Tehran’s return is not by accepting the conditions of great powers’ but forcing their own. Today its nuclear program is an accepted fact. The negotiations serve just to control the process, not to halt all the nuclear activities as was intended initially. Iran is returning to the game as a major regional power.
Off stage we can easily notice two countries that are following all the developments with high interest and big disappointment at the same time. Israel and Saudi Arabia, the strongest American allies in the Middle East, are raising an eyebrow to the new Iranian-American love affair. They are not shy to show their disapproval and to campaign against it. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had many statements regarding the danger of Tehran’s empowerment and how a nuclear Iran is an existential threat to Israel and to the world in every possible meeting and speech. Saudi Arabia on the other hand criticized the U.S. harshly of hiding the truth over Iranian nuclear deal and threatened Washington to pursue an independent foreign policy.
During the presidency of Ahmedinejad, Israel had evidence and an audience that shared its concerns. Ahmedinejad was known by his Holocaust denial and the threat to wipe off Israel from the map. But with the presidency of Rouhani the image of Iran has changed. He was a president that spoke comme il faut to Western ears. He talked about personal freedoms, guaranteeing civil rights, freeing political prisoners, he wished all Jews a blessed Rosh Hashanah greeting over twitter, he recently opened a memorial for fallen Iranian Jewish soldiers during Iran-Iraqi war, he exchanged letters with the American President Barack Obama and coordinated with Russia for the 2013 agreement with Bashar al Assad over the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons. The image of Iran was changing in a very positive way and the U.S. jumped to the opportunity of diplomacy instead of another endless intervention in the Middle East.
Israel is left alone in its struggle against the Iranian nuclear threat. Iran still claims that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only and stresses that it has the right to nuclear energy while the so-called P5+1 (The U.S., U.K., France, China, Russia plus Germany) have doubts about their honesty, as Tehran had hid their nuclear program from the world until the National Council of Resistance of Iran revealed the existence of the nuclear activity at Natanz in 2002. Despite significant progress being made according to P5+1, both sides agreed to postpone the deadline for a comprehensive solution to 1 July 2015.
For Israel Iran is the number one threat with its nuclear program. For Saudi Arabia Iran is its major rival in the struggle over the regional influence. The Iran-Iraq Shiite axis has always been a threat for Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies. The known historical dream of Persian hegemony in the region and the nuclear program of Iran is keeping these fears alive.
A ghost alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia seems to be formed against Iran as they share the same concerns. A fear of losing the advantages Saudi Arabia and Israel gained since the 1979 Iranian Revolution when Iran completely changed its pro-American and pro-Western stand is one of the reasons, while a change in the Middle Eastern balance of power being the major worry.
Israel and Saudi Arabia are deeply frustrated with the recent regional policies of their main Western ally America. President Obama stated that he wanted to be known as the president that ended all wars and he succeeded to bring back home every American soldier from the Middle East. He made it clear that he did not want American boots on the soil in the Middle East again.
Both countries share the same concern; the U.S. may be a reliable ally who would come to their aid in case of an imminent Iranian threat but it will not be able to prevent the nuclear threat itself. And when Iran possesses a nuclear weapon or gain the know-how to produce a nuclear bomb, it will easily expand in Middle East, spread its influence all over the region and at the end may win the historical Sunni-Shiite rivalry. An Iranian attempt to close the Straits of Hormuz is another nightmare scenario for Saudi Arabia and also for the Western world. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia defend the political status quo in the region as much as they can.
At this point Israel is seen as a countervailing power. Even though Jerusalem has never admitted to it, Israel is considered as the only nuclear power in the Middle East, a deterrent power to stop Iran’s plans. Saudi Arabia is also well aware of Israel’s economic and political strength as well as its military power and advanced technological abilities in the middle of an ocean of instability called the Middle East.
Iranian threat may be the main catalyst in Israeli-Saudi Arabian rapprochement but they also have many shared interests. Muslim Brotherhood movement and its affiliate Hamas being one of them. Both support the al-Sisi regime in Egypt which is a God’s gift to Israel throughout its struggle with Hamas. Egypt sides with Israel when the issue is Hamas. Recently it declared Hamas as a terror group and destroyed many tunnels connecting the Sinai Peninsula to the Gaza Strip to counter the rising insurgency. Cairo also accuses Hamas of being involved in military attacks inside Egypt. The rise of Al Qaeda and ISIS are major concerns that both countries share. Standing against Hezbollah and the Assad regime are other shared interests.
Even though Iran and all these concerns develop pragmatic ties between these two countries, the major obstacle between Israel and Saudi Arabia is the Palestinian issue and the Arab streets which are the biggest advocates of Palestinian rights.
In 2002, Saudi Arabia on behalf of the Arab League made a peace proposal to Israel known as the Saudi Peace Initiative. The proposal offers recognition of the Jewish state and normalization of relations in exchange of full withdrawal from the territories captured in the 1967 War, an acceptable solution to Palestinian refugee problem and the establishment of a Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital. This is a historical moment as the Arab League realized that Israel’s existence is a fact that they have to get use to living with it, instead of trying to destroy it.

Iran continues to moderate its foreign policy with its new president and continues to integrate into the international system. Tehran has been successful at easing the sanctions that hit its economy very hard in the past. With these developments, the balance of power in the region is changing while the historical Arab-Persian rivalry and Sunni-Shiite divide is escalating. The war against Islamic extremism and the return of Iran to its long held position as a major regional power with added nuclear capabilities is the major concern that unites Israel and Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, the Palestinian issue is the main obstacle in bilateral relations. Starting an open relation between the two countries is not very easy as the Arab streets will reject the idea and this can cost Saudi Arabia a lot more than its benefits. For Israel a nuclear Iran is an existential danger, while for Saudi Arabia it is an ideological threat. Especially the security threat that Tehran poses to both of these countries is what made them the frenemies of the Middle East.

Karel Valansi Diplomatic Observer February 2015 issue

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