A new cold war on the horizon

Officially, Israel and Saudi Arabia have no diplomatic relations since the Israeli State foundation. Unofficially, since the rise of Daesh and the Iranian nuclear deal, the two governments have approached and identify the Iranian threat as a common enemy. Many US analysts see the Israeli belief as something intangible, a feeling that grows as fast as Iran’s hegemonic ambitions strengthen through nuclear blackmailing. As well as a feeling, this perception is proving increasingly to be a hope. A hope to (re)establish a new kind of bipolarism in the Middle East where, unlike within the old rivalry “Israel-Arab States”, could take the Gulf monarchies and Israel to collide against the growing Iranian power.

The image of a new cold war in the Middle East is based again on nuclear deterrence. Israel is the third military power in the region and the only country in the Middle East to possess a nuclear arsenal. In addition, it is also Iran’s number one enemy.  Iran and Saudi Arabia share a historic rivalry based on political and religious assumptions (rooted in the conflict between Shiites and Sunnis) and ingrained in their culture for a very long time. Nowadays Iran is increasing the chances of having a nuclear arsenal: the prestige of the nation, the continuous threats to Israel, financial aid to Hezbollah, everything is pushing toward a direct confrontation, but such a clash could be avoided only because of these arsenals.

The Saudis’ main concern is that the nuclear agreement will increase instability in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.  And certainly, Saudi Arabia does not intend to stand idly while Iran increases its power by taking their place as leader of the Arab world. The Vienna-Lausanne nuclear deal  has created the political conditions for a rapprochement between Israel and the Saudi state. Teheran’s oil trade will grow, pushing towards lower prices and weaker Saudi influence. The main Israel-Saudi argument is hidden inside the unstable equilibrium in the Middle East turmoil. As a matter of fact, Iran is seen as the disturber of Arab-Israeli balances that exist since the agreements with Egypt in the Seventies, and the subsequent agreements with Jordan. It is easy to understand why the Gulf Cooperation Council’s leader, which aims to maintain stability within its borders, cannot afford a revolutionary and reformist rival. A key element in the analysis of this fear (a fear shared by Tel Aviv) is the connection that these two actors share about the lift of the sanctions and the Iranian expansion.

Why do both have such an exaggerated, apocalyptic, “Iranofobic” view about the years to come? Iran’s system is essentially a mixture of democracy and theocracy. All powers had been endowed in the hands of the Supreme Leader. To reach its goals, it has employed a policy of destabilization in the Gulf and the Middle East and of building a nuclear bomb. Tehran has guaranteed future inspections, but Israel and Saudi Arabia perceive this course of events as a tangible threat.

US attitude towards the issue is controversial. Certainly, there are economic interests in both parties, and the US has never regretted playing the role of mediator and peacemaker in international crises. But this is much more than a crisis, it is a very delicate diplomatic action that is threatening the old regional equilibrium, creating a new one, among nations that feel abandoned by American protection. In February 2010 Dennis C. Blair, former US Director of National Intelligence, wrote on “the Annual Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence” that ‘Battle lines are increasingly drawn not just between Israel and Arab countries but also between secular Arab nationalists and ascendant Islamic nationalist movements inside moderate Arab states. Iran’s influence in Iraq, its enduring strategic ties to Syria, pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, and the success of Tehran’s allies—Hamas and Hezbollah—are fueling Iran’s aspirations for regional preeminence. Arab Sunni leaders are struggling to limit Iran’s gains; Saudi Arabia’s more activist regional diplomacy falls short of significantly constraining Iran’s freedom of maneuver. Iran’s ambitions combined with unresolved conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories represent the principal flashpoints for intensified conflict in the region. Iran’s longstanding foreign policy goals are to preserve the Islamic regime, safeguard Iran’s sovereignty, defend its nuclear ambitions, and expand its influence in the region and the Islamic world’.  But we are referring to a dossier written six years ago. Today, in United States’ view, Iran represents a key player to face Daesh.

Changing the historical alliances

The relationship between Iran and Hezbollah was built slowly since the birth of Shiite Lebanese party in order to fight Israel alongside the PLO. Any attempt at peace between Israel and Palestine has been boycotted by Iran, precisely because the international community might have started asking for the disarmament of the terrorist militia (failing the reason of the dispute) and Iran itself would lose a good part of the revenues coming in from the sale of its own weapons in the axis Lebanon-Syria. However, Hamas (or Fatah or any Palestinian leadership) has no strategic role in the region: this is a conclusion to which Saudi Arabia came first.  Riyadh realized that Iran seems to be a more dangerous actor than Israel because it is improving day after day its relations with the West.

Will apprehensions about Iran be transformed into a strategically significant coalition?  According to Steven Simon, former United States National Security Council senior director for the Middle East and North Africa, and Dana Allin, Professorial Lecturer at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University in Washington D.C.: ‘Tehran is happy enough to be seen as a defender of coreligionists against an oppressive government and Wahhabi aggression. The reality, however, is less than the rhetoric of both sides would suggest. The Iranian regime is not well positioned to pick a fight with Riyadh, given Tehran’s domestic difficulties and the possibility of stiffening international economic sanctions. The balance of incentives, resources, and capabilities favors Saudi Arabia’.

According to Global Firepower, the Iranian military strength far exceeded the Saudi one in recent years. There are 47,000 soldiers to fight for the Shiite republic and only 15,300 to defend the Sunni monarchy. Riyadh, on the other hand has a more technologically advanced air force and air combat units. Tehran has at least a hundred airports; more than Riyadh. A clash in the Persian Gulf certainly would encourage Tehran, which has a fleet nearly seven times more numerous than Saudi Arabia. Of course, economically and in terms of oil production, Saudi surpasses Iran by far, but without sanctions, the Iranian economy has taken a huge leap forward.

Signs of rapprochement

The first faint sign of rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia was in 2013, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared to the UN General Assembly that ‘The dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran and the emergence of other threats in our region have led many of our Arab neighbors to recognize, finally recognize, that Israel is not their enemy. And this affords us the opportunity to overcome the historic animosities and build new relationships, new friendships, new hopes’. Another signal comes from Anwar Mahed Eshki’s statements, Chairman of the Jeddah-based Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies and former consultant of the Saudi prince and ambassador in the US: he declared that Saudi Arabia would open an embassy in Tel Aviv if Israel accepted a Saudi initiative to end the Middle East conflict.

In recent months, the Israeli left wing has begun to disseminate memorandum contents about a series of joint military operations between the two countries. There is something clearer that the possibility of a military alliance, and it is the rift within the Israeli political forces about the legitimacy to cooperate (or not) with the Saudis. It seems clear that the Meretz party does not have the Likud line, which also has never expressed directly and publicly the will to approach the Saudi monarchy. The rumors do not stop there. Israel is one of the leading manufacturers of military technology, especially drones, and some Arab analysts are convinced that the Saudi construction of a fleet of drones in co-operation with South Africa involves a collaboration with Israel, too: Drones are probably of Israeli production, imported by South Africa, historical ally of Israel and military partner on many occasions.  Analyzing those rumors, we cannot forget Egypt’s role.

There are positive relations between Israel and Egypt. Economic exchanges and military cooperation, especially in fighting the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis militia on the Sinai border with Israel. In recent months, many Arab countries were surprised by the transfer of two Red Sea strategic islands, Tiran and Sanafir, from Egypt to Arabia: located at the southern entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba, the islands were covered by the Israeli-Egyptian agreement permitting the free movement of Israeli ships, also due to its proximity to the port of Eilat. The passage of the Islands from El Cairo to Riyadh does not affect the Agreement due to the Saudis’ declarations, and Jerusalem gave his blessing to this change. It is hard to go beyond the usual rumors about numerous meetings among the leaders of their respective intelligence agencies, and even to go further the declarations of the most important Arab Media, such as Muslim press and Al Monitor, who often write about a common agenda and a series of economic agreements between Israel and Saudi Arabia.  In recent weeks, Isaac Herzog, member of the Knesset and Chairman of the Israeli Labor party, revealed that Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz financed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu election campaign. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. The evidence of this economic aid is hidden inside the Panama Papers, and still nothing official has come to the surface. Of course the news has caused a scandal, and could undermine the political consensus of the Likud.

The Saudi brake is almost exclusively the country’s stability, a theocracy where a lot of support for the royal dynasty passes for common religious sentiment, a sentiment that could be lost at a time when Saudi decided to formalize relations with Israel no longer supporting the Palestinian cause. In conclusion, probably an official approach between these two powers will never see the light. Truth is, the political cost of formalizing relations with Israel is too high for Riyadh.

Rebecca Mieli

Master’s degree in International Relations (Roma Tre University)


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