Saudi Arabia can’t rely on the United States to guarantee its security. That, put simply, is the message the Saudis sent with their decision to renew diplomatic ties with Tehran.
The Biden administration’s declining attentiveness to the Middle East, its Iran policy and the arrogance Washington has displayed toward its allies in the region have all pushed Riyadh to formulate an alternative insurance policy under China’s umbrella, while at the same time tightening relations with Moscow. This development symbolizes yet another stage in the weakening of the U.S. in the region and the strengthening of the counter-axis led by China with partial Russian support.
Even the White House’s most ardent supporters of a “diplomatic approach” will struggle to deny the extent of its failure thus far when it comes to Iran, as well as the high price the U.S. is paying as a result. Under Biden’s watch, the ayatollahs have come to feel immune. Iran is racing forward with its military nuclear efforts, continuing with subversive actions and maintaining an aggressive policy through terrorist and militia proxies operated by the IRGC.
Poking a figurative middle finger in the eyes of the Americans, Tehran is supplying suicide drones to Russia to help with its war against Ukraine and tightening military cooperation with Moscow. Iran is also preparing to spread its tentacles to other arenas such as Latin America and northwest Africa, where it hopes to stoke the conflict between Algeria and Morocco.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has contemptuously rejected the outstretched arm of Washington and its partners, who have tried to revive the “nuclear deal.” Iran’s self-confidence has been boosted and it has taken full advantage of the naivete of the West and the West’s lack of enthusiasm for grabbing the Persian bull by its horns.
The indifference displayed by the White House in the face of these developments, and the way it treated Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners, as if they were in its pocket, shortened the path between Beijing and Riyadh. Washington’s pallid response to Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s cries for help on the eve of the Russian invasion of his country didn’t help either. It was against this backdrop and with the encouragement of China, which spotted an opportunity to fill the vacuum left by the downsizing of the American footprint in the area, that a path was paved for Saudi Arabia to renew ties with Iran.
“The end of American hegemony in the region,” was how Khamenei’s military advisor termed the renewal of ties between Riyadh and Tehran. The Lebanese Al-Mayadeen TV channel, with great satisfaction, crowned the U.S. and Israel as the big losers from the move and China as the big winner. China will now be able to penetrate the Arab and Muslim world through the gates of both Iran and Saudi Arabia.
These forecasts should not be dismissed, but neither should they be seen as prophecies. The hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran is rooted in religion and ethnicity, and these factors will not disappear as a result of one agreement or the other. Moreover, the U.S. and the West can still influence the picture, especially in view of the legitimization that Iran continues to provide for them to intervene through its provocative behavior on the nuclear front and its involvement in the war in Ukraine.
From Israel’s perspective, the Iranian threat remains as it was and thus there is no room for Israel to change its approach and demands. Israel did the right thing by repeating over and again that its commitment to defend itself against a nuclear Iran is not dependent on external factors.
Given the statement by the Chinese last month regarding their support for a resumption of negotiations on the nuclear deal, the possibility that the talks could return to the international agenda either publicly or behind the scenes should be taken into account. Israel, for its part, should continue to push the U.S. to declare the “death” of the Iran deal and put a credible military option on the table.
With regard to possible normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, it would seem that the chances have declined in the wake of the Tehran-Riyadh rapprochement, but Israel should not cease its efforts on this front. It is possible that the Saudis will see progress on normalization as a means of spreading its risk and a balancing act vis-a-vis the United States and Israel. Moreover, the ties that have been built up will be maintained for any opportunity that may spring up further down the road.
Israel should discuss with the U.S. a series of immediate measures to be taken, among them the urgent need for the White House to invest resources in maintaining the Abraham Accords and ensuring the American and Israeli status in the region. This includes supporting Egypt, completing the peace deal with Sudan, recognition of Moroccan sovereignty in the western Sahara and bringing more countries into the normalization circle.
The lesson from these developments is crystal clear: There is no such thing as a diplomatic vacuum. When the U.S. is not actively present, it gives up its place to other forces.
Meir Ben Shabbat is head of the Misgav Institute for Zionist Strategy & National Security in Jerusalem. He served as Israel’s national security advisor and head of the National Security Council between 2017 and 2021. Prior to that, for 25 years he held senior positions in the Israel Security Agency (Shabak).
Originally published by Israel Hayom.