Why the Israelis and Saudis Are Quickly Falling in Love
When you look at a map of these Iranian-backed countries and territories, they all surround Saudi Arabia and Israel.
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It has become common knowledge that the pace of Saudi-Israeli normalization which U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration pursued, before October 7th, 2023, was a key part of Hamas’ calculations to invade, massacre, and kidnap on that fatal day.
Since then, the Saudis have made it clear, both in actions and words, that they are still very much interested in a formal peace treaty with Israel, even as rumors have swirled over the years that the Saudis and Israelis have been covertly collaborating.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone, since the two share a common enemy in the Islamic Republic of Iran. And as they say: The enemy of your enemy is your friend.
Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been engaged in an ongoing, highly lethal struggle for dominant influence in the Middle East and other areas of the Muslim world.
In what’s been described as a new cold war, the conflict is waged on multiple levels: geopolitical, economic, and sectarian to name a few. Iran believes it’s the leading Shia Muslim power, while Saudi Arabia sees itself as that of Sunni Muslims. To add insult to injury, there are also historical tensions between Arabs and Persians among the two countries.
Prior to the Iranian revolution, Saudi Arabia fashioned itself as the leader of the Muslim world, basing its legitimacy in part on its control of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. But in 1979, Saudi Arabia’s image as this de facto leader was undermined with the rise of Iran’s new theocratic government, which challenged the legitimacy of Saudi Arabia’s Al Saud dynasty and its authority as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.
Saudi King Khalid initially congratulated Iran and stated that “Islamic solidarity” could be the basis of closer relations between the two countries, but relations worsened substantially over the next decade. Since then, the two countries have been engaged in proxy wars across the Middle East, such as in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait, and even amongst the Kurds.
On November 11th, 2023, the Saudis hosted an Arab-Islamic summit against the backdrop of the Israel-Hamas war. This included Iran, represented by its president, Ebrahim Raisi, marking the first visit to Saudi Arabia by an Iranian president in 11 years.
The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the summit was being held “in response to the exceptional circumstances taking place in the Palestinian Gaza Strip as countries feel the need to unify efforts and come out with a unified collective position.”
Yet when it came time to deliver a “unified collective position” at the summit’s end, there wasn’t much unity at all. The proposal, presumably put forth by Iran or at least heavily endorsed by it, was to sever all diplomatic and economic relations with Israel, deny Arab airspace to Israeli flights, and for oil-producing Muslim countries to “threaten to use oil as a means of leverage” — all in order to achieve a ceasefire in Gaza.
Reportedly, the Saudis were among the countries that blocked this proposal. In another report at the end of October, one of the missiles fired towards Israel by Houthi rebels in Yemen was intercepted by — you guessed it — Saudi Arabia.
Then, last week, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, said on a panel at the vaunted World Economic Forum that the kingdom agreed “regional peace includes peace for Israel.” He said Saudi Arabia “certainly” would recognize Israel as part of a larger political agreement.
While it is nice to hear that the Saudis still want to normalize relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia might be doing so to send a message, loud and clear, to Iran: Your terror tentacles cannot disrupt the Middle East that we, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and others envision.
However, the Saudis are broadcasting a much different message nowadays than they were before October 7th. When Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sat down on September 20th for his first English-language television interview, he indicated that prospects for a deal to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel were on track.
While he added that “for us, the Palestinian issue is very important” and needed to be resolved, his comment on Israel reinforced a view that negotiations for the “deal of the century” were well underway.
Leaks to media outlets that outlined contours of the three-way talks related to defense, energy, and civilian nuclear power added to the sense that Saudi, Israeli, and American officials were persevering for a breakthrough that the Saudi Crown Prince asserted would be “the biggest historical deal since the end of the Cold War.”
Largely absent from the stream of material released into the public domain was any meaningful consideration of Palestinian interests, which at times appeared to be seen more as a concession in the tri-party efforts to reach an equilibrium, which would allow Saudi and Israeli officials to effectively “sell” any deal domestically and regionally.
Since October 7th, and increasingly in recent weeks, the Saudi emphasis on the Palestinians has noticeably changed: no normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia without a plan that will see the Palestinians get their own state.
“Because we need stability and only stability will come through the resolving the Palestinian issue,” said Prince Faisal bin Farhan.
What he was really saying is: Stability will only come by removing the Palestinians from Iran’s terrorizing grip. After all, the only way to continue to disrupt the stabilization of the Middle East and North Africa, if you’re Iran, is to keep your proxies intact and emboldened, including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, neither of which are interested in establishing a Palestinian state.
A two-state solution of any sort only works if Iran-backed terrorism is eliminated, or at least defanged and pushed back to a comfortable distance.
For now, Iranian destabilization is alive and kicking in the volatile Middle East. In 2011, Iranian-funded and -equipped extremists tried to mobilize the Shia Muslim community in Bahrain to overthrow the Sunni king and his political establishment. Iran has also filled the void that the UK and its allies created with the second invasion of Iraq, and now uses its connections across the border with the Shia community to try to control this country.
In addition, Iran props up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and has sent large numbers of soldiers and military equipment in support of his brutal regime, which also helps the Iranians gain easier access to Lebanon, where it funds Hezbollah, on the border with Israel, to fire rockets at the Jewish state and wait for an opportunity to attack, perhaps like Hamas did on October 7th.
In Yemen, the Iranians supply the Houthi rebels with intelligence, financial backing, and weapons, which have been fired at Saudi Arabia on many occasions; and its war with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen against the Houthis has led to a bloody civil war.
When you look at a map of these Iranian-backed countries and territories, they all surround Saudi Arabia and Israel. Therefore it seems beyond a reasonable doubt that Iran’s long-term strategy is to maintain a “noose” around the Saudis and Israelis, which the Iranians can tighten whenever they see fit.
Now, as the Middle East breaks out into mini wars between the Iranian “Axis of Resistance” and its adversaries, the last thing Iran wants is to appear weak in the eyes of Israel, the U.S. and its Arab allies, as well as domestic enemies of the Ayatollah’s regime.
Though it’s bragging about hitting Israeli targets and Sunni terrorists in recent weeks, Iran’s response shows unquestionable shortcomings. Israel has allegedly continued to assassinate senior members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, while the Iranians are striking fictitious Israeli targets far away from the Jewish state, such as “one of the main Mossad espionage headquarters” in Iraqi Kurdistan, an assertion that was promptly dismissed by Iraq.
This displays the limits of Iran’s power, and with nuclear-armed Pakistan hitting back inside Iranian territory, Tehran looks even less imposing.
However, the Iranian octopus has succeeded in one important avenue since October 7th: Tehran wants the U.S. and Europe to pressure Israel to prematurely curtail its war on Hamas, and is using the threat of regional escalation to achieve this aim.
As the U.S. repeatedly declares that it does not want to escalate against Iran, escalation and regional conflict are exactly what Iran is trying to deliver, largely through its proxies: Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria.
Tehran is betting that, if it can convince Washington and the European Union to stop supporting Israel because it risks igniting a broader blaze, Iran can force the U.S. and Europe to demand that Israel either ends its fight against Hamas and Hezbollah, or at least end American and European support for it.
Though there are also domestic reasons for growing pressure in the U.S. and across Europe to wind down Israel’s war against Hamas, anxieties that the U.S. and Europe could be drawn into a regional war have weighed heavily on American and European decision-makers.
But if the U.S. and Europe finally decide to hold Iran accountable for exponentially destabilizing the Middle East, they will find plenty of willing partners. The responses to Iranian attacks demonstrate that a regional coalition can be quickly created to put the Islamic Republic in its place. The Saudis want it, the Emiratis want it, the Bahrainis want it and, of course, the Israelis want it.