The Navigator from CGP

Israel and the Saudi-Iranian Geosectarian Struggle

PUBLISHED November 21, 2017

The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Israel, though typically quiet, is not new. What is new is that these two countries have decided to go public with their complex dealings, given their shared interest in countering an increasingly assertive Iran. The Saudis are dealing with Iran from a position of relative weakness, while the Israelis are in a position of relative strength. Thus, in any matters involving Tehran, the kingdom needs Israel more than the Jewish state needs Saudi Arabia.

There has been a flurry of unprecedented political and diplomatic developments involving Israel and Saudi Arabia during the past couple of weeks. On November 19, Israel’s Energy Minister, Yuval Steinitz, acknowledged that his country had covert ties to Saudi Arabia and other Arab and Muslim nations with whom Jerusalem has no formal diplomatic relations. Steinitz’s statement came on the heels of the November 16 remarks given by Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot to the Saudi news website Elaph saying that the kingdom and the Jewish state were not enemies and that in fact Israel was prepared to enter into an intelligence-sharing arrangement with Saudi Arabia. On November 13, Israel’s Communications Minister, Ayoub Kara, praised Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Alsheikh after the latter denounced the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas as a terrorist organization. The Israeli minister invited the mufti to visit Israel, where Kara said he would “be welcomed with honor.”

Though Riyadh issued an official denial, Israeli Radio reported that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman traveled to Israel for a secret visit in September 2017. While behind the scenes limited tactical engagement is to be expected, the two sides warming up to each other in such a public manner is not. After all, Saudi Arabia’s Salafist ideology is deeply hostile to not just Israel but Jews in general. What brings these two sides together is the common threat of Iran gaining strategic ground in the region.

Iran’s Advantages

The Saudis and the Israelis have long faced challenges from the Iranians in their own separate ways. Iran’s cultivation of anti-Israeli actors such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have challenged Israel since the 1980’s.  Far more significantly, since the 1979 revolution, the expansionist ideological agenda of the Iranian regime has posed a threat to Saudi national security. However, the present situation is the result of a calculated foreign policy to combine hard and soft powers in the broader region. Those powers have reached intolerable levels for both Israel and Saudi Arabia.  

It is not a coincidence that Iran is the major beneficiary in the region. Iran gained geopolitical capital from its involvement in the Lebanese civil war, and the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. This process was underway well before the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011, but it has intensified in recent years. The emergence of Daesh along with the unraveling of several Arab states led to the proliferation of the jihadist threat across the region. This intensified the internal threat to Sunni Arab states while allowing Iran to enhance its footprint across the region as well.

The regional threat of Daesh and its acquisition of large swathes of Iraqi and Syrian territory created a tactical convergence between American and Iranian interests. First, the threat that Daesh would fill the power vacuum in Syria in the event of regime collapse in Damascus led Washington to pull back its support of the Syrian rebels.  This greatly enhanced Tehran’s hold on Syria and, with the help of its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah (with key Russian support), Iran’s ability to enhance its influence in the country under the Assad regime. Likewise, the move to degrade Daesh in Iraq has strengthened the pro-Iranian, Shia-dominated Iraqi central government. Put differently, the cost of degrading Daesh has been the empowerment of Iran. The Islamic Republic has come very close to realizing its dream of a contiguous sphere of influence on its western flank extending to the Mediterranean Sea.

From Israel’s perspective, this unfolding reality has brought Iran to its strategic northern doorstep. Here it is important to bear in mind that Israel is threatened by both Shiite and Sunni radicalisms. However, Sunni radicalism at present does not represent a coherent regional force. The survival of the Assad regime enhanced the position of Hezbollah and affiliated Shiite insurgent groups that threaten both Israel and Saudi Arabia’s security.

Israel and Saudi Arabia: A Complex Alignment of Interests

Israel’s own military strength, along with U.S. assistance, allows the Jewish state to cope with the threat posed by these Shiite state and non-state actors. However, Israel stands to benefit from the Saudi-Iranian geosectarian struggle because the conflict limits Iranian capabilities. An Iran focused on Saudi Arabia is less likely to expend resources to make aggressive moves against Israel. Furthermore, alignment with Saudi Arabia provides Israel with better relations with Arab/Muslim countries and potentially a more effective way to manage the Palestinian issue.

Saudi Arabia has fewer benefits than Israel does from their relationship; in fact, the alignment creates greater risks for the Saudis than for the Israelis. For starters, Israel is not going to attack Iran’s premier proxy Hezbollah on behalf of Saudi Arabia. The next Israeli-Hezbollah war will happen based on Israel’s own security calculation and not the Saudis’. That may not happen for years – which is not good for Riyadh, which needs to counter Iran now but lacks the military capability to do so.

To complicate matters further, the Saudis cannot politically align with Israel while the Palestinian conflict continues to brew. At the very least, the kingdom will need to use its leverage with Jordan and Egypt to ensure that there is visible progress towards a lasting peace accord. For this reason, we are hearing about a new peace initiative sponsored by the Trump administration and involving the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. However, the Palestinian issue is not only rife with divisions among the Palestinian leaders, but also Iran’s economic and political influence over Hamas has not waned. Even if the Palestinians were to somehow achieve internal cohesion, any peace negotiations will be challenged by an Israeli need for strategic depth in the West Bank. This situation makes the Saudi move to align with Israel all the more risky.

At a time when the kingdom’s efforts to fight Iran and its Shiite allies have empowered jihadists, aligning with Israel will be a tool in the hands of both Tehran and Daesh that they will use to further undermine the Saudi kingdom. As it is, the internal transformation and the associated power struggle triggered by a weakened economy, along with various external challenges, has Riyadh under increasing stress. Saudi Arabia is thus unlikely to move much beyond flirting with Israel. Meanwhile, the Israelis are under no illusion of the limits to which a weakening Saudi Arabia can benefit them.
The Saudis lack good options against Iran. Here is where the situation in Lebanon triggered by the Hariri resignation is highly significant. The Saudis have an interest in plunging the small Levantine country into internal conflict. At this point a “civil war” in Lebanon works to the advantage of the Saudis. Such a conflict would force Hezbollah and Iran to go on the defensive.
Instability in Lebanon also has the potential to draw in Israel, though the Israelis are not interested in getting involved in Lebanon at this time. Operating from a deep sense of vulnerability, the Saudis need something to drag out diversions that will keep the Iranians and their allies occupied, and they needed it yesterday. In contrast, the Israelis are quite secure and do not have to act just yet. Though Israel and Saudi Arabia have a common need to counter Iran, they are unlikely to be able to cooperate much on this shared objective.
U.S. policymakers must understand these intricate complexities as they devise a strategy to address the imbalance of power in the region created by growing Iranian influence. The Trump Administration must be cognizant of the limits of a Saudi-Israeli alignment as a counter-weight against the clerical regime in Tehran. Saudi Arabia represents the main line of defense against an expansionist Iran and the kingdom is weakening. It cannot be an effective coalition partner if it remains internally weak. Helping Saudi Arabia stabilize its political economy is the most effective way of countering Iran’s efforts to alter the regional security architecture.

Kamran Bokhari is the Director of Strategy and Programs at the Center for Global Policy. He also is a senior analyst with the intelligence firm Geopolitical Futures, and a Fellow with the Program on Extremism at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP. 

Image: Dore Gold, Director-General of Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs shakes hands with strategic advisor to the Saudi govt, Maj-Gen (Retd) Anwar Eshki as former senior U.S. diplomat and Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Elliott Abrams, looks on. Courtesy 


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