One of many misleading lines in President Obama’s address earlier this month heralding the Iran nuclear deal came when the statecraft salesman declared that “because this is such a strong deal, every nation in the world that has commented publicly, with the exception of the Israeli government, has expressed support.”
The clear implication is that Israel stands alone and isolated in the international community in opposing détente and rapprochement with Iran. The American president speaks as though his nuclear diplomacy were not wholly antithetical to the interests of the entire Sunni Arab world, with the Saudis most immediately threatened by Iran’s growing strength as a regional power, and billions in international deals now flooding Tehran’s economy as a result of the accord. Sunni Arabs, of course, fear an Iranian nuclear umbrella for its radical, theocratic regime and terrorist proxies across the region.
Saudi Arabia regards Iran as its primary competition for leadership in the Muslim world, and it fears that the recent US-Iranian kinship could lead America to replace the Saudis with Tehran as its primary Persian Gulf ally. Possibly in corroboration of that, a search of the president’s text finds not even a scant mention of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan or the United Arab Emirates, while Israel was singled out 24 times during the 56-minute address.
A major escalation in the Shiite-Sunni battle for regional hegemony came in June, while the deal was being negotiated, when the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels fighting for control of Yemen brazenly fired a Scud missile at neighboring Saudi Arabia which the kingdom said it shot down. The missile was launched into the southwestern Saudi town of Khamees Mushait, which houses the largest air force base in southern Saudi Arabia. It surely sent chills up the spines of the Saudi monarchy, sparking fears of future launches at the country's oilfields.
Forces allied with the Saudi-led coalition have taken the strategic southern port city of Aden; however, the Iranian-backed rebels still have their sights set on the Bab al-Mandab gateway off Yemen’s coast, the waterway that connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and is the transit point for about 3 million barrels of oil shipped daily to Europe, the United States and Asia. Houthi gains in the arena could change the power balance at the critical strait.
In the oil and gas market, the Saudis and UAE are quickly losing major ground to Iran amid reports that Saudi Arabia is taking huge hits and could face an existential financial crisis by the end of the decade as a result of other emerging markets as well as its own, risky, and largely-failed attempt to flood the market to drive out rivals.
Iran’s energy sector, by contrast, is on the rise. One day before the nuclear deal was signed, Iran’s biggest oil-shipping company, which boasts the world’s largest fleet of supertankers, was already preparing to return to European and international markets in the wake of any agreement in Vienna. At the same time, clearly anticipating massive sanctions relief, Iranian companies last month signed a $2.3 billion agreement to construct 800 miles of pipelines, which Iran has identified as its most critical conduit for future gas exports to the West. The Iran Gas Trunkline-6 will transit Iraq and Turkey to ultimately deliver gas to Europe from the country’s massive South Pars field.
In their desperation, the Saudis have increased their behind-the-scenes cooperation with Israel to unprecedented levels. My information is that this extends to major joint security cooperation in the event of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, including Israeli technical aid to defend against a second wave of retaliation against Saudi targets.
The Iran nuclear deal has dramatically shifted Middle Eastern geopolitical tectonic plates, and has heralded a new reality in which Sunni Arabs need Israel more than ever to solidify their front against Iran. The Jewish state has been leading the diplomatic opposition to the Iran agreement and as a result has been absorbing the brunt of Obama’s wrath.
Israel and the Sunni axis are also united in a fight against the Islamic State and Salafi jihadist groups seeking to impose an extremist Sharia state on the entire region, while harboring larger designs to conquer Europe and the United States.
Despite these critical common interests, the Saudis are treating Israel like a cheap mistress, being too embarrassed publicly to acknowledge the extent of the relationship even though everybody in the neighborhood sees them driving around together. It is true that at a Council on Foreign Relations roundtable in Washington last month, the two countries revealed that they had held five secret meetings since the start of 2014 to discuss the rise of Iran. “Our standing today on this stage does not mean we have resolved all the differences that our countries have shared over the years," said Dore Gold, Israeli Foreign Ministry Director-General, who participating in the roundtable with retired Saudi General Anwar Eshki. "But our hope is we will be able to address them fully in the years ahead," Gold added.
One difference that should be immediately resolved is Riyadh’s ridiculous refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist even as it and all Sunni Arabs reap the benefits of Israel’s activism against the nuclear deal. The Saudi excuse for this outdated nonsense is that they are waiting for the creation of a Palestinian state. But the lack of progress on the Palestinian front didn’t stop Egypt and Jordan from opening bilateral ties with Israel when common interests trumped political expediency.
Far from upending the Palestinians, open Saudi-Israel relations would pressure the Palestinians to come to the bargaining table with hopes of enjoying the benefits of the New Middle East. It would also position Sunni Arabs to play a more constructive role in brokering an eventual Israeli-Palestinian accord if a truly moderate leadership is elected to the Palestinian Authority.
The Saudis must amend their much-publicized peace initiative to delete even passing references implying a so-called right of return, which Israel sees as code for flooding the country with many millions of foreign-born Arabs and thus diluting the nation's Jewish character while basically destroying Israel by population genocide; that is, the demographic flood used by Stalin and Brezhnev to overwhelm non-Russian ethnic groups, and by Mao and subsequent Chinese tyrants to render Tibetans and Uyghur small minorities in their own lands.
The Saudi initiative must not seek a withdrawal to the entire pre-1967 borders and must take Israel’s pressing security concerns into consideration, especially since a strong Israel is now in Saudi interests.
For the time being, Sunni Arabs can be instrumental in encouraging the replacement of the government of Mahmoud Abbas, which is six year past its expiration date, with a Palestinian leadership interested in being on the right side of history. If he is willing, perhaps Mahmoud Dahlan can be brought back from the EAU to help clean things up in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. The Saudis seem already to be using their financial largesse to press Hamas into a long-term truce with the Jewish state while keeping the Gaza rulers away from the tempting Iran axis.
Besides advancing mutual security interests, Israeli and Saudis have much to gain from the prospect of economic cooperation, including in the energy and high-tech sectors.
Shabtai Shavit, who served as Mossad director from 1989 to 1996, posited on my radio show last month that the nuclear deal presents Israel a “window of opportunity… to try and pursue a new order in the Middle East.”
That New Order can start with Israel and Saudi Arabia opening formal diplomatic ties. It's true that nothing brings together old foes like a common enemy. By now, one hopes that Israel and Saudi Arabia have realized that they're not really foes at all. It’s past time for the Sunni Gulf nations to take the spirited and welcome step of extending formal ties to Israel. And it’s time for Israel to stop acting like a bashful schoolgirl, and, as any relationship expert would council, put its needs on the table by requesting normalization.