Iran is worried about US-Israel-Saudi talks ahead of Biden's trip - analysis

At the end of the day, the reason for Biden’s trip is probably more complex than this report makes it out to be. It’s not all about Israel or oil. It is about managing the ties with Riyadh.

 Flags of Saudi Arabia and Israel stand together in a kitchen staging area as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken holds meetings at the State Department in Washington, US, October 14, 2021.  (photo credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST/POOL)
Flags of Saudi Arabia and Israel stand together in a kitchen staging area as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken holds meetings at the State Department in Washington, US, October 14, 2021.
(photo credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST/POOL)

Iran is concerned about the pace of reports regarding potential Israeli-Saudi relations. This is clearly the case, given that Iranian media are discussing it, and Tehran is pursuing better ties with Riyadh via Iraq.

Iran hosted Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on Sunday after he visited the Saudis on Saturday night. In addition, Iran is trying to work with Turkey after watching Israel’s foreign minister meet with his Turkish counterpart.

Furthermore, Iran has watched as Saudi Arabia’s crown prince also went to Turkey. For Iran, it could be the beginning of tough diplomatic times.

According to Iran’s Tasnim News Agency, which reflects Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps views, Israel has “increased the preparations for US President Joe Biden’s expected visit to [Israel] on July 13. The final planning of this trip is expected to be completed in the coming days, and the American preliminary team will arrive in Israel at the beginning of next month to finalize the details and plans of this trip.”

Iran's game plan

 Flags are seen ahead of ''The Negev Summit'', hosted by Israel's Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and attended by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and the foreign ministers of the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt, in Sde Boker, Israel, March 27, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN) Flags are seen ahead of ''The Negev Summit'', hosted by Israel's Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and attended by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and the foreign ministers of the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt, in Sde Boker, Israel, March 27, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)

Iran relies on Israeli and foreign media to report that it believes there is new outreach between Israel and Saudi Arabia. This is part of a US-backed approach, according to reports.

The Wall Street Journal is generally the newspaper that has had the strongest stories on various reports about Israel and the Saudis, as well as Israel-Iran tensions and US-Israel ties.

Recent reports indicate that the US has worked toward defense discussions with Israel and several Arab countries in the Gulf, regarding the Iranian drone and missile threat, as well as other regional issues.

“Do signs point to Israel-Saud normalization?” Yediot Aharonot asked this week. 

The Journal reported on talks with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other states with which Israel does not have relations. Axios has written that the US is “working on a normalization road map for Saudi Arabia and Israel.”

Israel and Saudi Arabia also have security arrangements regarding the Straits of Tiran, The Jerusalem Post reported.

Riyadh was moving toward eventual ties with Israel, the Journal reported three weeks ago. Israelis are doing deals in Saudi Arabia, Al-Monitor reported.

“Efforts are being made to reach an agreement to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia, [the time frame is] aimed at resolving the issue of normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia before Biden enters the region,” Tasnim reported.

Furthermore, according to an Iranian media report, “Efforts to improve relations with Saudi Arabia include the activities of all institutions of the regime, including the army, Mossad, the [Israel] Security Council and the Foreign Affairs Ministry.”

What is Iranian media doing?

In a sense, Iranian media are merely laundering what is already known via the Journal and other media outlets. The Iranian reports say the “road map” has been created to normalize relations, and it was timed for the Biden visit.

“According to Zionist sources, US officials have stated that no agreement will be reached on the normalization of Israeli-Saudi relations until Biden’s visit to the region,” Tasnim reported. “But Biden will raise the issue with officials on both sides, and work is ongoing.”

WHAT IRAN cares about are some of the issues discussed in US media over the past three weeks. They include Saudi Arabia publicly opening its airspace, reports that Israelis are doing business in Saudi Arabia, and that Israel has agreed to security issues relating to the Red Sea and Straits of Tiran, and an agreement that has been reached between Egypt and Saudi Arabia on the transfer of ownership of some islands. Much of this has been previously reported, so the question for Iran is: so what?

Iran's eyes are on the USA

Iran is interested in Biden’s trip to the region. Tehran knows the US needs Saudi support for energy markets, particularly oil prices, as the US is in the middle of considering a gas-tax holiday.

Iran believes the second main reason for the Biden trip is “to normalize relations [of Israel] with Saudi Arabia.” Toward that end, an Iranian media report said: “According to news sources, Joe Biden’s representatives are holding secret talks with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Zionist regime with the aim of normalizing relations between Riyadh and Tel Aviv [Jerusalem].”

Ultimately, the reason for Biden’s trip is probably more complex than that report. It’s not all about Israel or oil. It’s about managing the ties with Riyadh.

US-Saudi ties used to be a key pillar of US partnerships in the region going back many decades and were a key to US policy in the Cold War. After the Baghdad Pact partnership, countries fell apart after 1979, the US relied on Saudi Arabia, and arms deals and support flowed to Riyadh. This was cemented with the Gulf War, but it also raised alarms due to the threats from Osama bin Laden, who was from Saudi Arabia.

A shift came later with voices in Washington who believed the US should distance itself from Riyadh. This policy was in part embodied by the Obama administration’s embrace of the Iran deal. A brief shift back under Trump and the Khashoggi controversy rocked US-Saudi ties.

In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Steven Cook and Martin Indyk say the US should “go big” in Saudi ties, and that Biden should strike a “new strategic compact with the Kingdom.” That would indicate a push for a much broader policy than just Israel ties or oil. Billions of dollars in defense deals matter as well.

France and the UAE also have made defense deals, with the UAE buying French warplanes as part of an $18 billion pact in December. And France wants to support the UAE’s air-defense needs. The UAE land forces commander was at the recent Eurosatory defense expo, and reports said Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are looking for drone deals and other systems. There is thus a much wider context regarding US-Riyadh ties.

For Iran, the talks via Iraq with the Saudis matter. Iran is capitalizing on outmaneuvering Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq and potentially winning some ground there. But Tehran is also continuing to threaten Erbil with attacks by proxies.

Iran wants to talk to Turkey, but it also uses proxies to attack the Turkish base at Bashiqa in Iraq. This means everything is in flux. Iran is paying close attention to potential Israeli-Saudi ties as part of this regional shift.