Diplomacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran could isolate and constrain Israel
Suppose the Israeli defense establishment, the prime minister, and the inner security cabinet decide that Iran’s uranium enrichment at 84 percent, close to what’s needed for a nuclear weapon, and its progress in weaponizing a warhead is making a nuclear breakout imminent. They share the information with their ally, the United States, which has promised never to allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon. What next?
Although America is unhappy that China appears to be the new kingmaker in the Middle East, having brokered a deal for Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore diplomatic ties, it may conclude the region is more stable, at least for the short term, with the adversaries talking and less saber-rattling. Perhaps the Biden administration thinks this diplomacy has created an opportunity to convince Iran to rejoin the nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Negotiations regarding the JCPOA have been suspended, but President Biden’s Iran envoy, Robert Malley, has not given up his attempts at diplomacy.
With the agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, however, Israel may feel more isolated than ever — especially with its hoped-for diplomatic relations with Riyadh leapfrogged by its archenemy, Tehran. In addition, China’s diplomatic coup further marginalizes the influence of the United States, Israel’s chief ally. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hope for a coalition of nations against a nuclear Iran seems to be weakened.
Even if the U.S. were convinced that Iran is crossing Israel’s nuclear “red line,” would the Biden administration still support an Israeli strike that could cause it new headaches by destabilizing the region? Not likely. A red light from Washington to Jerusalem will be hard to overcome, despite a long-stated plan for Israel to go it alone if necessary. America’s precedent of allowing its “line in the sand” to be crossed in 2012, when President Obama chose not to act against Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people, indicates that other U.S. “red lines” also may be ignored. So, the pressure on Israel not to strike Iran will be enormous.
Israel’s partners in the Abraham Accords, such as Bahrain, may follow Saudi Arabia’s lead and restore normalcy with Iran. Bahrain may act to get Iranian secret forces to stop inciting its 80 percent-Shiite citizenry.
Meanwhile, Israel’s enemies close to its borders, whom Iran supports — Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad — may believe Israel is now more vulnerable, especially with Israeli domestic discord reaching a fever pitch and challenging its national cohesion. Also, knowing that Israel’s most important ally — the United States — is diminished in the eyes of the Middle East because of China’s influence increases the risks they will take, with potential for miscalculations and violence. The perception of Israel as weakened is never good for America or the West.
China would also pressure Israel not to destabilize the region with any pre-emptive actions on Iranian territory, now that their oil shipments from Saudi Arabia and Iran — the lifeblood of their economy — are more secure. As Mark Dubowitz of The Foundation for Defense of Democracies put it, “This is a brilliant stroke by China and Iran to undercut Saudi-American and Saudi-Israeli normalization. It helps bring Tehran in from the cold and undermines American and Israeli efforts to build a regional coalition to confront Iran as it is on the cusp of developing nuclear weapons.”
Suppose Israel acts provocatively against Iran and is blamed for the instability that follows. Could the Saudis and other Gulf countries retaliate by threatening the sustainability of the Abraham Accords? It’s not likely, since the agreements are in their economic interests, and they know that Iran will never be their friend in the long run.
This rapprochement between the Arab world and Iran concerns short-term shared interests. The Saudis know Israel is still the only player that could threaten Iran if it reneges on its diplomatic outreach. The Saudis want the agreement with Iran to work, to extricate themselves from Yemen’s civil war and to stop future attacks against their homeland.
No matter how much Iran advances its nuclear weaponization, the Europeans are preoccupied with Ukraine. They would consider China’s diplomatic opening another opportunity to beg Iran to rejoin a nuclear agreement. They wouldn’t hesitate to sanction Israel if Israel struck Iran’s Natanz or Fordow nuclear sites, especially after what they may perceive as new diplomacy sprouting between Middle Eastern enemies.
So, Iran will be portrayed as a victim if Israel strikes. With no Israeli strike, Iran can progress with its nuclear program. If it had to absorb a strike, it likely would receive sympathy from much of the world, and possibly economic outreach. That means Israel indeed would be on its own. Netanyahu and other Israeli prime ministers have made it clear that an Iranian nuclear weapon is a “game-changer” and that Israel would be compelled to act.
Overstating the longevity of any accord between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a risk. These two countries fundamentally remain adversaries, but the potential détente may create a short-term ceasefire that quiets the region. It also could be an Iranian tactical decision to make an Israeli preemptive action less likely, knowing that the international community will put pressure on Israel not to upset the apple cart.
Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides. He is the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report. Follow him on Twitter @MepinOrg.
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