Sun Tzu’s famous proverb “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” has become a well-worn cliché in discussions of international political interactions; however, no other phrase as accurately and succinctly describes what has become a predominant, and to an extent inevitable, diplomatic trend. Such is particularly seen in the Middle East, where religious ideology, political history, competing strategic claims, and often-paradoxical economic relationships have produced an incessantly dynamic diplomatic spectrum. The most recent, and potentially most surprising illustration of this trend is the newly forged military partnership between Israel and Saudi Arabia, an alliance whose inception is largely the product of collective fears regarding the threat of an Iranian nuclear presence in the region. From the perspective of the United States government, this cooperation could have equally advantageous and detrimental effects upon regional stability and the prospects for future alleviation of inter-state tensions. Thus, Secretary Kerry must approach this potentially volatile situation cautiously, taking into account the motivating factors behind key regional players in order to formulate a solution conducive to the interests of both America and its allies in the Middle East.
The fact that Israel and Saudi Arabia are concurrently threatened by the prospect of a nuclear Iran is no revelation in itself. Israel has for decades come into ideological, economic, and on occasion, physical conflict with the Islamic Republic, while the Saudi-Iranian relationship has severely deteriorated as of late, with the religiously opposed, economically competitive bloc leaders arming warring factions in the Syrian conflict. The difference now, however, is the extent to which this shared threat has prompted previously unseen cooperation between the states. In response to a potential nuclear disarmament agreement between the United States and Iran, Israeli and Saudi military leaders are reportedly coordinating plans for a potential joint strike against Iran if they perceive such an action to be warranted by Iranian nuclear intentions. According to a London Times source, Riyadh has authorized Israeli utilization of Saudi airspace in the event of a planned attack on Iranian targets, and has offered to cooperate through the use of helicopters, refueling craft, and drones. “The Saudis are furious,” this source said, “and are willing to give Israel all the help it needs.”
The contemporary motivations behind this cooperation between former hostile nations are obvious; the evolution of Israeli-Saudi relations, however, is indicative of a larger trend that could produce more impactful long-term political ramifications. While Saudi Arabia has, as recent as seven years ago, imposed complete boycotts on Israeli products and has advocated the withdrawal of Israeli occupants from Palestinian territories seized in 1967, recent years have seen both nations come to recognize their interests as largely coinciding rather than conflicting. According to Wikileaks, Mossad and Saudi intelligence have collaborated on a number of intelligence projects, particularly regarding Iran, and in October, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu held high level talks with Saudi and other Gulf state representatives, declaring afterward, “We hope that our common interests and common challenges will help us forge a more peaceful future.”
The factor that has ultimately prompted this unusual partnership has been stability. Following the Arab Spring, which rather than ushering in Western-aligned secular democracies in areas such as Egypt and Syria, instead prompted destabilizing conflict and gave rise to previously dormant movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS, Israel perceived Saudi Arabia as, in the words of New York Times writer Nicholas Kulish, a “beacon of stability” in the turbulent region. Indeed, Israel accepted a sale of German tanks to Saudi Arabia in July 2011 following the Sunni state’s suppression of popular revolts both within its own borders and in Bahrain, illustrating the Netanyahu administration to perceive the necessity of preserving Saudi stability in all circumstances. Furthermore, claims that Iran had been supporting the uprisings may have prompted Israel to consider repression of Shia movements in Saudi Arabia an effective means of preventing the expansion of Iranian influence.
Ultimately, the recent cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel is unlikely to dissipate even if the Iranian situation is defused peacefully. The nations have realized, after years of heated rhetoric and overt animosity, that in a rapidly changing Arab World, they are two of the most stable and regionally influential players, strategically linked by a common threat but also by the prospects of future viability through mutual defense and continued military and economic ties with the United States. Secretary Kerry called Saudi Arabia the “senior player” in Arab politics, highlighting American commitment to the Saudi regime but also underscoring the fact that relations between states with common interests in the Middle East will likely only continue to strengthen in the future.
Israel and Saudi Arabia’s recent partnership may, however present diplomatic problems for the United States in the Middle East, particularly regarding President Obama’s attempts engage Iranian President Rouhani in discussions on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. Netanyahu has openly asserted plans to reject any US-Iranian agreement calling for the lessening of sanctions, declaring, “Israel is not obliged by this agreement and Israel will do everything it needs to do to defend itself and the security of its people.” Saudi leaders have echoed these sentiments, and have been openly supportive of the potentiality of a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities; indeed, according to Wikileaks, King Abdullah has for years been lobbying America to consider the use of force against Iran. Yet what is particularly frustrating for American policymakers now are the deliberate efforts of this new coalition to advocate opposition to any proposed peace agreement between Iran and the P5+1 powers. French President Francois Hollande recently visited Israel, where he reaffirmed earlier insistence upon the necessity of more stringent nuclear demands in order for an agreement with Iran to proceed, and Netanyahu met with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to urge Russian hesitancy in granting what considers the “deal of the century” for Iran.
Understandably, efforts to sabotage what has been a primarily American-driven diplomatic initiative with Iran have been met with displeasure by US officials. According to Kuwaiti newspaper Al Jarida, President Obama chose to not answer several phone calls from Netanyahu’s office on November 17, a claim that both leader’s offices have since denied. However, while Secretary Kerry has been understandably tactful in his stance toward the incensed Israeli leader, offering, “Nothing that we are doing here, in my judgment, will put Israel at any additional risk,” he also indefinitely postponed a visit to Israel that had been planned for Friday, potentially illustrating a widening ideological schism between the staunch allies regarding perceptions of a nuclear agreement.
This is where Israel’s recently strengthened strategic ties with Saudi Arabia come into play: because the Saudis have reportedly agreed to cooperate militarily with Israel in the event of direct action against Iran, including permitting utilization of Saudi airspace, Israel would no longer be relying solely on American tactical assistance in planning and executing a hypothetical military operation. Unlike in the past, when Israel faced the prospect of flying over hostile Iraq in order to reach Iranian targets, the clear path that the Saudi government is offering means that hypothetically, Israel could undertake a strike not only without American support, but without American knowledge of the plan. Israel certainly does not wish to make an enemy of its most dedicated backer America; however, as evidenced by Netanyahu’s declaration that Israel “will do everything it needs to defend itself,” the Israeli-Saudi diplomatic shift may allow Israel the option to undertake actions, if perceived to be necessary, that would previously have been impossible.
The recent developments in the Saudi-Israeli relationship have created a predicament for American foreign policy. Secretary Kerry must proceed with the present initiative to engage Iran in nuclear negotiations, an endeavor that if successful could not only prove a defining moment in President Obama’s diplomatic legacy, but could also eliminate a significant source of regional and global tensions. However, he must concurrently consider the interests of two key allies, and the fact their strategic partnership may lessen the importance of Israeli dependence upon the United States for tactical, logistical, and political support. US policymakers may choose to ignore the potential ramifications of this changing dynamic, forging ahead with nuclear negotiations in the hope that it may prove to the concerned parties that diplomacy can and will achieve its desired goals. Yet Washington must also remember that a newly emboldened Israel, with Saudi support, can and will strike Iran if it believes such an action to be necessary and justified, and the regional destabilization and potential war brought about by such an action would be the worst possible scenario for this situation.
Thus, Mr. Kerry must not scorn Israeli leadership or express frustration with the threatened Jewish state, but should instead take advantage of a new alliance in the Middle East that could potentially establish a framework for a lasting cooperation pact or peace agreement between two former adversaries. Expanding ties between Israel and Arab states can only lessen the probability of future conflict, although obviously such cannot come at the price of provoking war with Iran. Thus, America must continue to promote the burgeoning Israeli-Saudi alliance as a source of cooperation while remaining committed to what must continue to be its foremost goal in the region: peace.