With the announcement of the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it appeared that the strategic direction of the Middle East had reversed course.
What seemed to many as a one-way drive down the Abraham Accords freeway towards normalization and peace suddenly plunged over the political guardrail into oncoming traffic. An embrace of Iran appears, prima facie, to be a shunning of Israel.
While that reading is a possible interpretation, it is an unlikely one. Instead, we will argue that the Saudi Arabia of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is committed both to depriving Iran of nuclear weapons and, at the same time, gradually normalizing relations with Israel.
A nuclear Iran is not an option for Saudi Arabia
The suggestion that Saudi Arabia has embarked on a rapprochement with Iran must contend with the simple question: Do the Saudis suddenly feel less threatened by a nuclear Iran? There is absolutely no reason to assume they do.
Discussion about the Iranian nuclear threat often neglects or avoids the full parameters of the problem. The threat should not be measured only in binary terms of whether Iran will or won’t use the bomb. That is clearly a concern, as the theory of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) does not apply to the apocalyptic clerics in Tehran as it did to the politburo in Moscow.
The severity of the danger, though, begins not with the actual detonation of the bomb, but with the threats that extend from its existence in Iranian hands. Iran and Saudi Arabia are in a cold war in which military confrontation is carried out by proxy in the failed and weaker states of the region.
Iran is conducting proxy wars with all of Saudi Arabia’s immediate neighbors. A victory for the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen would mean a belligerent entity along the Saudis’ southern border and control of waterways such as the Gulf of Aden, Bab el-Mandeb, and the Aden Sea, which are lifelines for shipping and travel.
In Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, Iran has provoked protracted civil wars that threaten Saudi Arabia, its neighbors, allies and interests. In Jordan, Egypt and Turkey, Iran supports terror organizations. It has fomented unrest among the Shi’ite population of Bahrain and stirred the pot in Sudan’s civil war. According to a 2021 U.N. report on terrorism, sub-Saharan Africa has become the epicenter of terrorism expansion, mainly orchestrated by Iran. It is Iran that funds and trains the Hamas and Hezbollah terror organizations.
If we imagine for a moment that Iran shielded these proxy wars under the protection of a nuclear umbrella, it is not hard to understand the level of devastation and destruction that would ensue. The levels of chaos and instability would go unchecked and grow exponentially, leading to increased ethnic strife, civil wars, food scarcity and human suffering on a massive scale.
Contending with a state sponsor of terrorism is one thing. Contending with a state sponsor of terrorism with nuclear weapons is something else entirely.
One example: The media has been full of reports, unsubstantiated for the most part, that Saudi-Iran rapprochement will lead to an end to the civil war in Yemen. Imagine for a moment that a truce is ironed out and the fighting is put on hold. Are the chances lesser or greater that the fighting will resume once Iran’s enrichment program has “broken out” and weaponized?
The Saudis are shrewd and accomplished diplomats, masters at unraveling the mysteries of Middle East intrigue, and there are no better experts at identifying the duplicitous nature of the ayatollah regime. If the Saudis thought rapprochement would enable Iran to move closer to achieving its nuclear ambitions, they would obviously not pursue such a deal. The conclusion must be drawn, then, that this is a move intended to stop or at least stymie their menacing neighbor.
From Rapprochement to Reversal
Popular unrest among the Iranian people has not toppled the regime. Not yet. Since the killing of Mahsa Amini in police custody on September 16, 2022, demonstrations have been strong and consistent. Since the protests started, at least 600 people have been killed by security forces and a further 22,000 arrested.
The authorities have not lost control, but the anger is palpable and spreading. Hundreds of thousands of labor union members have gone on strike, and reports from inside the country to Iranian exiles indicate that dissatisfaction with the regime is reaching levels never experienced before.
It is little wonder that this is the case, as Iranian economy is imploding, inflation is soaring and people are hungry. In a private conversation, one noted exiled Iranian economist compared the situation to Indian economist Amartya Sen’s revelation on the Bengal famine: There was plenty of food, but nobody had the “capability” or purchasing power to buy it. Over the past 44 years since the Khomeini revolution, the Iranian population has nearly tripled, while the economy has less than doubled, meaning everyone has a lot less money in their pockets. Add to that the country’s runaway inflation and you have human suffering on a massive scale.
There has been no development of capital in Iran. Hence, in order to keep up with current expenditures, funds are consistently taken from the national budget—or at least part of the budget. A full 60% of the budget, from the outset, is not scrutinized by the parliament and used instead as a discretionary fund for the ayatollahs. It is no wonder that ayatollah loyalists live like royalty, while over 70% of the country subsists below the poverty line. Iran’s policy of uneven distribution of wealth is on steroids. The government distributes the most minimal of stipends to keep people alive with basic foodstuffs. These stipends aren’t enough to prevent thousands of poor Iranians from selling their organs in order to feed their families.
The remaining 40% of the budget is for government expenditures and falls under the scrutiny of parliament, which has to make its own payoffs to those close to the economic food chain. The result is 86,000 development projects, 6,000 nationwide projects under the auspices of the federal government and 80,000 projects belonging to the provinces that have not even been initiated. These neglected projects run the entire gamut of basic development, from water and waste treatment to roads and bridges, hospitals and schools.
A massive influx of Saudi cash into these projects will not only create jobs and inject capital into Iran’s economic system, it will create an economic and societal dependency that Saudi Arabia can leverage to effect change.
This won’t be money from Western powers trying to “buy off” the ayatollahs, but rather Iran’s most significant neighbor, a competitor for supremacy in the Arab world, investing in the people of Iran. This won’t be lost on the Iranian people, who have suffered for so long under the clerical boot. A Saudi threat to halt projects that have begun would thrust society and the economy back to the status quo ante, and could turn the current anti-government activity into a promo of what will come. It can turn civil unrest into revolution.
Because the Chinese are politically and economically in need of a quiet Gulf region, were the Saudis to halt or withdraw their financial involvement in a direct confrontation with Tehran, Chinese investments would be compromised as well, increasing leverage over Tehran and forcing change.
The China Angle
The talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia were ongoing for years under Omani mediation but went nowhere. Fundamentally, there is little the two countries can agree on. What has changed is not any newfound bilateral understandings, but rather “small cold war” (Iran-Saudi) interests that have been moved into the “larger cold war” (U.S.-China) realm.
First, China’s interest in brokering a rapprochement between the Middle East’s two opposing behemoths needs little explanation. In the new “superpower Cold War” that is already underway and threatens to intensify, replacing the U.S. as the indispensable power in mediating the Middle East’s regional cold war is a treasure in global power politics.
The U.S. has reduced its military posture dramatically, with the number of troops in the Central Command (CENTCOM) down 85% from its peak in 2008. With the exception of a few hundred American advisors in Iraq, a small contingent of special forces in Syria and some administrative staff in Bahrain, the United States has left the Middle East for the Far East. A U.S. Navy aircraft carrier has not operated in the Middle Eastern waters of the American 5th Fleet since U.S. forces pulled out of Afghanistan in August 2021 and regional supply lines have been left unpatrolled. This U.S. pivot to the east is in keeping with the U.S. national security strategy to focus on the threat to its allies—Korea, Japan and Taiwan—from an expansionist China. The U.S. exits the Middle East and China enters, claiming the mantle of indispensability and strengthening its standing internationally.
Second, China does $130 billion in trade in the Gulf and does not want to have to choose between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the two countries at loggerheads. It also receives 36% of its energy needs from the two countries. So, from a purely economic perspective, lowering tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a Chinese national interest. If the conflict boils over into Ukraine-Russia proportions, the price of oil could hit levels never experienced before, with all the attendant effects involved. This is also a main reason why the West, including the U.S., voiced satisfaction with the China-brokered agreement.
Saudi Arabia also largely benefits financially from China’s mediation. Not only is China the largest buyer of Saudi crude, but as a result of the deal, the Saudis will be able to store enormous amounts of crude oil in China, which will facilitate a much faster supply chain to Asian countries. The continued Saudi-China cooperation in the development of ballistic missiles will also be joined by dozens of investment projects in green energy, technology, cloud services, transport and more.
Third, by donning the mantle of peacemaker, especially between the leaders of Sunni and Shi’ite Islam, China deflects troubling Western criticism of its abysmal human rights record, particularly as it relates to the over one million Muslim Uyghurs in “reeducation” camps.
The Unenviable Saudi Alternatives.
Saudi Arabia’s return to diplomatic relations with Iran was not the Saudi leadership’s first choice. It would have preferred to rely exclusively on the U.S. to ensure that Iran does not get the bomb, but in Saudi eyes, that is a course fraught with doubt, indeed with danger.
There are strong political, ideological, and academic currents in the United States advocating for moderation and tolerance regarding the prospect of a nuclear Iran. When that is taken into account, together with the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal, which the Saudis believe threw them under the bus (with the approval of then Vice President Joe Biden); the disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan; the orderly U.S. downsizing in the Gulf; and the ignoring of missile attacks on Saudi territory and Saudi oil tankers by Iranian and Houthi missiles, American promises that Iran will not be allowed to go nuclear ring hollow to Saudi ears, and with justification. They are not alone.
Saudi leadership believes that President Biden has removed some sanctions against Iran absent any quid pro quo, and views the Iranian nuclear issue as binary: Either use military means to stop them from getting the bomb or allow them to have the bomb and then rely on deterrence. Understanding this, the Iranians have consistently upped the ante in negotiations and in the conditions they set for negotiations. The Saudis, for their part, watch in amazement and conclude that, similar to other American allies in the recent past, they will be left to fend for themselves.
The Saudi conclusion: Create the conditions for Iran to collapse from the inside rather than rely on an attack from the outside. Bring the Chinese along because 1) only they can bring the Iranians to the table and 2) only their involvement as a “replacement” for the U.S. could lure the Americans back into the equation and restore the initial and preferred option of stopping Iran militarily.
Normalization with Israel
Good intentions aside, Israelis are mistaken when they put peace with Saudi Arabia in the context of the Abraham Accords. The Kingdom is not just another Muslim country normalizing relations with Israel; it is on an entirely different plane.
Based on conversation and correspondence with Saudis, it is evident to this author that this is how the Saudis see themselves and expect it to be understood. Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam, the custodian of Islam’s holy places and a principal leader of the Islamic world economically, spiritually, politically and even militarily. Peace between it and Israel has an almost pervasive sense about it, in time, theology and global politics. It would be a historical rapprochement between the Muslim world and the Jewish nation.
Robert Satloff, a doyen of Middle East analysts, sets things right when he writes: “Will Saudi Arabia normalize with Israel soon” is the wrong question to ask. “That is because it considers normalization with Israel as a binary issue—yes, no; now, not now; soon, not soon. In practice, normalization is not an act, it is a process. And normalization does not exist in a vacuum but as part of a larger set of policy choices defined by a government’s assessment of its strategic priorities.”
Saudi Arabia has not kept its strategic priorities secret. They are 1) a commitment to Saudi security that parallels a NATO alliance and defense pacts, 2) a no-strings-attached commitment to sell the kingdom high-grade weaponry and 3) a U.S.-Saudi partnership in developing full civilian nuclear fuel cycle infrastructure.
To what degree these Saudi priorities would have to be accepted, whether in full or in part, for normalization with Israel to follow is what is playing out in negotiations.
Conspicuously absent from the list of Saudi priorities is a demand for acceptance of its 20-year-old Arab Peace Initiative, which moves Israel back to its pre-1967 borders and creates a full-fledged Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. The linkage that does exist is carefully and moderately worded, calling for “positive movement” towards peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
This is not as surprising as it first appears. The social and cultural reforms that MBS has initiated are predicated on the basis of a young generation of Saudis who are pining for change.
The tens of thousands who cross the bridge to Bahrain every weekend to party are as uninterested in the Palestinian issue as they are interested in understanding and benefiting from the start-up nation in their neighborhood. Many express enervation and exasperation over the Palestinian issue, feeling that dogmatic commitments to the issues of yesterday are preventing them from enjoying a more promising future.
Many others, still concerned about the Palestinians, have come to understand that normalization with Israel will advance their humanitarian needs more than the continued entrenchment in complicated political claims and historical issues whose time has long passed.
Reasons for Optimism
Saudi Arabia is not about to acquiesce to a nuclear Iran. Like any other country, it is acting in its own best interest and pursuing the modus operandi that will prevent its malevolent neighbor from attaining a weapon of mass destruction.
It is working to bring the full power of the United States back into the region, and if the requisite tactic for doing so is a diplomatic romp with China, then so be it. The recent arrival of the USS Florida, a nuclear-class submarine loaded with 154 Tomahawk missiles and a squadron of A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft (“Warthogs”) that have been saddled with structure-penetrating payload (bunker-buster bombs) may be a good indication that the Saudis are succeeding in their entreaties.
Another strong indication may be found in remarks on May 4 by U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in a speech to the Washington Institute: “We have made clear to Iran that it can never be permitted to obtain a nuclear weapon. As President Biden has repeatedly reaffirmed, he will take the actions that are necessary to stand by this statement, including by recognizing Israel’s freedom of action.”
Lastly, in an act of confident self-reliance, Saudi Arabia is committing to using its economic power within Iran to force a change of policy or government or both.
Conflict resolution needs to look at the functionality of normalization, not peace-signing ceremonies. The declared rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia should be judiciously monitored, as it is what happens on the ground in the coming months that will determine its effects on the region.
It should be remembered, though, that a functional rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia has been in place for a number of years, and is progressing, qualitatively and quantitatively, at an impressive rate. From joint business ventures to meetings of intellectuals and policy researchers at international conferences, from Saudi Arabia opening its airspace to Israeli overflights and Israeli participants at sports events on Saudi soil, to the Kingdom’s blessing of the Abraham Accords, the rapprochement with Israel is practical, while the rapprochement with Iran is, as yet, declarative.
As I have argued, Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement with Iran might actually be the cleverest aspect of the ongoing Saudi rapprochement with Israel.
Originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.