Saturday, April 19, 2014
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Middle East Frenemies

PRINCETON – The recent interim nuclear agreement between Iran and the so-called P5+1 countries, led by the United States, has provoked unprecedented criticism of US policy from two of its strongest Middle East allies: Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has called on his ministers and his supporters in the US to lobby Congress to oppose the agreement. Meanwhile, Saudi officials have accused the US of selling out its allies for little security in return.

The apparent coincidence of Israeli and Saudi interests over Iran has fueled media reports that the two countries are coordinating strategies to confront the Islamic Republic. Some suggest that Saudi Arabia will open its air space to assist an Israeli attack. Although such coordination would undoubtedly be covert, and would not prevent Riyadh from subsequently criticizing Israel’s military action, it would serve both countries’ national interests.

It has long been an open secret that Saudi and Israeli officials talk regularly and probably share intelligence. But their concerns about Iran are far from identical, and their scope to depart from US policy varies widely. Joint Israeli-Saudi diplomatic and military coordination makes for good news copy, but it is probably fiction.

Israelis are primarily concerned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Unlike Iran’s support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and other forms of terrorism, which Israel can manage, the nuclear question represents an existential threat. If diplomacy had succeeded in ending Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, Iran would no longer be the main focus of Israel’s foreign policy.

Saudi anxieties about Iran, however, go deeper and are more complex. At their heart is Iran’s interference in internal Arab affairs, particularly in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Bahrain. Although Iranian-Saudi enmity dates back many decades, it became acute after the 1979 Islamic Revolution when Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, began to spread his revolutionary brand of Shia Islam across the region.

The impact was not immediately evident. Iran’s war with Iraq in the 1980’s, and the low price of oil throughout the 1990’s, kept the Islamic Republic weak. This changed during the following decade, as Iran supported Hezbollah’s rise in Lebanon and came to dominate Iraqi politics after the Shia majority there came to power in the wake of the US-led invasion.

In 2006, Iran managed to draw the Palestinian movement Hamas away from the Saudi sphere of influence and into the embrace of its ally, Syria. Hezbollah’s successful resistance during a month-long war with Israel that year invigorated Iran’s so-called “axis of resistance.” At the same time, high oil prices boosted Iran’s ability to bankroll its new proxies. This dramatic reconfiguration of the regional balance of power has been particularly worrying for the Gulf states.

As well as their differing concerns about Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia also have profoundly different relationships with the US, which define their scope to act in the short and long term. Israel’s political, cultural, and religious connections with the US are strong, and America is the country’s only reliable and constant ally. But Israel has long been able to act independently on critical security issues, without seriously damaging the bilateral relationship. Indeed, the relationship would almost certainly survive even if Israel, contrary to US advice, were to attack Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the US is more superficial. The Kingdom relies on the US military for protection, without which it would be unable to resist an attack by Iran. In return, the Saudis use their massive oil reserves and spare capacity to ensure world oil supplies and stable prices.

Unlike Israel, Saudi Arabia has little influence in US domestic politics, beyond the support of a few oilmen and arms manufacturers. The Saudi royals do not even enjoy the warm personal relationship with President Barack Obama that they once had with Presidents George Bush (both father and son) and Bill Clinton, who managed bilateral relations directly.

Perhaps the most significant factor limiting the prospects for Saudi-Israeli cooperation is the general attitude of the Arab world, including the Kingdom itself, to the Jewish state in its midst. Israeli use of Saudi air space, for example, would not remain a secret for long, forcing Saudi rulers to contend with a massive, popular anti-Zionist backlash at home and across the Arab world. While Israel might countenance some official Saudi criticism as the price of its support, Arab public opinion might not be so easily mollified, especially in the absence of progress on the Palestinian issue. Ultimately, the Saudis would be seen as collaborating with the more hated adversary against a Muslim state (albeit also an enemy).

Just as neither Saudis nor Israelis are likely to downgrade their relations with the US, they are even less likely to embrace each other. But this should not make the US complacent about the deep disaffection of either ally. Their disagreements – not only on Iran, but also on Syria and the Palestinian question – seriously diminish American influence in the region.

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  1. Commentedhari naidu

    I suspect these guys need to be educated - a bit more - about the political reality in Arab-Israeli relations. Out of more than 50 Arab states some 50 or so still don't recognize state of Israel, including Saudi Arabia.



    Secondly, P5+1 Geneva Interim Agreement has more or less changed the strategic and diplomatic relations scales in the region. After 34 years of political isolation, Iran is now finally on the global political stage - to the anxiety of Israel and its unholy alliance with Saudi Kingdom.



    Third, current American strategy is to finalize final Iranian - P5+1 Agreement within a short time.



    May be, if successful, bilateral US-Iranian relations will finally be re-established after more than three decades - to the dismay of Bibi and Saudi Kingdom.

  2. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    I think the word "frenemies" is a very precise expression describing relationships in between nation, individuals not only in the Middle East but through the whole world.
    And this "oxymoron" has become very acute lately.
    As humanity evolved into a totally interconnected and interdependent global world we simply cannot disconnect, we simply cannot ignore each other, since even for our daily necessities we rely on others.
    On the other hand our inherent, historical or "genetic" hatred, rejection is strongest than ever as a result of the fully matured egoistic human nature, when all the gloves, make-up is coming off at multiple flash-points.
    This tension in between unbreakable interconnections and intolerable hatred, rejection is paralysing our whole world.
    As the examples with the Syrian chemical weapons, or with the Israeli-Saudi relations above, or even the recently signed environmental agreement in between Jordan, the Palestinians and Israel regarding the Dead Sea show, there are points, areas, platforms where even mortal enemies can meet, find a common purpose and start building on it.
    In the case of the Israeli-Saudi relationship this common point is still against someone else, against a common enemy, but hopefully we will be able to find more and more points of mutual connection where the common point, the "eye of the needle" is a positive interest for all parties, and not only concerning 2-3 participants but concerning wider circles.
    This is why it is crucial that all conflicts, crisis situations, regarding any issue we are facing, are negotiated and solved by round table discussions inviting all directly and indirectly affected parties in an equal manner, where these parties can gradually rise above their animosities, hatred, differences and find that common point which they can agree on and build on.
    In a world which is ravaged by deepening global crisis, depleted resources, increasing social tensions, threatening military clashes, everybody has a lack only the others can fulfil.
    This way gradually we can learn how to operate in a globally mutual, complementing manner achieving a quality and level of existence we never even dreamed about.
    It is not a utopia where previous enemies, haters hug and kiss each other, putting flowers into the barrels of each other's guns.
    No it is a wise mutual existence understanding that when we all sit on the same boat we have no other option but to live and work out our problems together.

  3. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    I think the word "frenemies" is a very precise expression describing relationships in between nation, individuals not only in the Middle East but through the whole world.
    And this "oxymoron" has become very acute lately.
    As humanity evolved into a totally interconnected and interdependent global world we simply cannot disconnect, we simply cannot ignore each other, since even for our daily necessities we rely on others.
    On the other hand our inherent, historical or "genetic" hatred, rejection is strongest than ever as a result of the fully matured egoistic human nature, when all the gloves, make-up is coming off at multiple flash-points.
    This tension in between unbreakable interconnections and intolerable hatred, rejection is paralysing our whole world.
    As the examples with the Syrian chemical weapons, or with the Israeli-Saudi relations above, or even the recently signed environmental agreement in between Jordan, the Palestinians and Israel regarding the Dead Sea show, there are points, areas, platforms where even mortal enemies can meet, find a common purpose and start building on it.
    In the case of the Israeli-Saudi relationship this common point is still against someone else, against a common enemy, but hopefully we will be able to find more and more points of mutual connection where the common point, the "eye of the needle" is a positive interest for all parties, and not only concerning 2-3 participants but concerning wider circles.
    This is why it is crucial that all conflicts, crisis situations, regarding any issue we are facing, are negotiated and solved by round table discussions inviting all directly and indirectly affected parties in an equal manner, where these parties can gradually rise above their animosities, hatred, differences and find that common point which they can agree on and build on.
    In a world which is ravaged by deepening global crisis, depleted resources, increasing social tensions, threatening military clashes, everybody has a lack only the others can fulfil.
    This way gradually we can learn how to operate in a globally mutual, complementing manner achieving a quality and level of existence we never even dreamed about.
    It is not a utopia where previous enemies, haters hug and kiss each other, putting flowers into the barrels of each other's guns.
    No it is a wise mutual existence understanding that when we all sit on the same boat we have no other option but to live and work out our problems together.
    On this boat it does not matter where we drill the hole on the hull, where we create conflicts for others, how far away we harm others, the whole boat would sink drowning everybody.

  4. Commentedtemesgen abate

    an endearing croon.the US is best served in its interests as offshore balancer in a G-0 world,if every nation has to fend for itself.what about stalling Iran as a hedge against the two frenemies?both Saudi and Israel mus be weaned of a free -ride on the behemoth`s geopolitical weight.

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