Israel-Saudi-UAE alliance sends signal to Biden to tread lightly with Iran

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: Much has changed since Saudi Arabia last sent troops to help other Arab countries wage war on Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finds allies in his fight against Iran. In Abu Dhabi, Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (right) and in Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST/REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finds allies in his fight against Iran. In Abu Dhabi, Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (right) and in Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The message Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokeswoman Shir Cohen sent to journalists on Saturday night seemed innocuous enough.
“In order for minister [Ze’ev] Elkin and Izhar Shay to complete their work on digital means [to trace the spread of COVID-19], including the legal aspects connected to the matter, the coronavirus cabinet will be postponed to Monday,” it read.
Those especially familiar with the statements coming out of the Prime Minister’s Office may have noted that there was something fishy about this one, in that it gave more advance notice and was more forthcoming than usual. But it wasn’t enough to raise much suspicion beyond grumbling about coronavirus policy.
It later became apparent that the statement was a cover story for something much more dramatic.
At about 5 p.m. on Sunday, a private jet belonging to Israeli businessman Udi Angel took off from Ben-Gurion Airport and landed in Neom, Saudi Arabia, a new city on the shores of the Red Sea meant to show off the Kingdom’s hi-tech capabilities. It returned to Israel shortly after midnight.
Several hours later, the news broke: Netanyahu had met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
There was no official announcement, but between the different Israeli media outlets and their sources, plus a couple of foreign outlets citing Saudi sources, as well, a picture started to form.
Netanyahu and MBS, as the crown prince is known, met for a few hours. They discussed Iran and the possibility of normalization between their countries, but did not make any major decisions.
The Saudi Foreign Ministry denied that MBS met with any Israeli officials together with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was reportedly present, as well. But they did not deny outright that there had been any meeting with Israelis.
The fact that this meeting took place is big news. Israel and Saudi Arabia have no diplomatic relations. The Saudis twice, in 1948 and 1973, sent troops to help other Arab countries wage war on Israel, and now the heir to the Saudi throne is meeting with the prime minister of Israel.
Of course, much has changed since then, the key shift being that Israel and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are on the same side of a division in the Middle East; they’re all threatened by Iran.
That is the backdrop against which the Abraham Accords were signed, and against which there is a fair chance that normalizations between Arab states and Israel will continue.
When the US was negotiating the Iran deal, it became an open secret in Washington that Israel’s and the UAE’s ambassadors were working together to try to convince the Obama administration to get tougher on Tehran and stop its nuclear program.
At the time, Netanyahu was the most vocal opponent of the Iran deal, speaking before both houses of Congress to Obama’s dismay, while Arab leaders were more diplomatic.
Yet the warming between Israel and Gulf states in light of the events of 2015 and onward shows that those Arab leaders understood that Israel takes the Iranian threat seriously and is willing to do what it takes to stop it.
In the end, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) may have set limits on uranium stockpiling and enrichment, but it gave the mullahs an eventual path to a nuclear bomb. Critics warned that its enforcement mechanisms would be useless; those critics were proven right in September, when the US tried to “snap back” UN sanctions in response to Iranian violations of the deal, and the UN Security Council ignored its own resolution, lifting the conventional arms embargo on Iran.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said two weeks ago that Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium reached 2,442.9 kg., 12 times the amount permitted under the JCPOA, and that Iran continues to enrich to up to 4.5%, rather than the 3.67% allowed in the agreement. Weapons-grade uranium must be enriched to 90% or more, so it’s still far from doomsday, but Israel and Gulf states have been eyeing the ongoing violations warily.
Now, the cooperation between Israel and Arab states on this front is not even a secret. Israel has new diplomatic relations with the UAE and Bahrain; and its quiet, unofficial ties with Saudi Arabia, which reached new heights this week, are known.
With the transition from a Trump administration that put “maximum pressure” sanctions on Iran – and has continued to do so as recently as last week – to a Biden administration that seeks to return to the Iran deal that Israel and like-minded Gulf states view as a threat, these partnerships are key.
The Trump administration is clearly committed to continuing its policies against Iran, and maybe even doing more than that, as long as it is in office.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post last week, Pompeo said all options are still on the table to counter Iran, and that maximum pressure will go on as long as he is office.
“We’re continuing to work and stand behind the policies we have laid down for four years, and we will continue to do that for as long as the country demands it,” he said.
The New York Times reported that the day after the IAEA report, US President Donald Trump inquired about the option of attacking Iran’s nuclear program before he leaves office. His most senior advisers, including Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence, reportedly talked Trump out of the strike, saying it could escalate into a bigger conflict.
Then, last weekend, American B-52 bombers flew a “short-notice, long-range mission into the Middle East to deter aggression and reassure US partners and allies,” US Central Command said.
The heavy bomber planes were spotted on civilian air travel tracking sites heading toward Israel, until they disappeared from the maps, apparently after turning off their transponders. This was a clear signal to Iran: American planes with the capability of blowing up their nuclear sites are in the neighborhood.
Despite this show of force, Israel and other countries targeted by Iran cannot take any chances as Trump leaves office.
That’s one reason we’re seeing a flurry of activity in recent weeks. In addition to the Netanyahu-MBS meeting, the prime minister aims to visit the UAE and Bahrain at the end of December. Admittedly, these trips abroad will likely give Netanyahu political points as Israel lurches toward a fourth election in less than two years. But their significance on the diplomatic-security front are not to be underestimated.
Israel and the UAE and Saudi Arabia are telling the incoming Biden administration that they will not take a JCPOA redux sitting down. Loud opposition from Israel was to be expected, but Gulf states are standing with Israel.
And, in fact, they have not been quiet, either. Shortly after the IAEA released its latest report on Iranian violations, King Salman of Saudi Arabia called on the world to take “a decisive stance against Iran that guarantees a drastic handling of its efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction and develop its ballistic missiles program.”
Expect more of these statements and shows of unity – official or through leaks, like the Netanyahu-MBS meeting – in the coming weeks and months.