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.