Whether one likes the recent nuclear deal between Iran and the US or not (technically the P5+1, but primarily driven by the US of course), it is clear that it has the potential to turn the geopolitics of the Middle East upside down. Not surprisingly, the disruptive potential of the US-Iran deal has produced a good deal of angst in the region, particularly for close US allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The fear from Israel’s side is clear and understandable. The Iranian regime has frequently expressed the need to “wipe Israel from the map.” While Israel is frequently assured that this is just rhetoric from the Mullahs in Tehran, a country in Israel’s position and with the history of its people has to consider the actual capabilities – as opposed to merely intentions – of an implacable opponent such as the Iranian regime. Sure, the Iranian regime is probably not going to ensure the destruction of its own nation by lobbing nukes at Tel Aviv, but given Israel’s history (and the history of its people) it’s simple enough to understand why the Netanyahu Government is anxious about “probably”.
The Saudis, meanwhile, have their own fears. As the leading Sunni power in the region, the Saudis are engaged in what they see as an existential struggle against the Shiite regime in Iran. The Saudi leadership is worried that the US will essentially end up “blessing” Iranian domination of the region, particularly in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Indeed, in their nightmare, worst case scenario, the Saudis can even envision the US tilting towards Iran as a Middle East ally, essentially recreating the relationship the US had with that country under the Shah.
Given the fact that both the Saudis and Israelis are a) worried about the effects of the nuclear deal the US has cut with Iran; and b) see the Iranian regime as their greatest adversary, does this mean that there is scope for an alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia?
The short answer is that it depends on what is meant by “alliance”. If we are talking about a formal treaty – with Bibi and King Fahd exchanging cheek kisses – than the answer is no. Alliances like that between the US and the UK or the US and Israel are built not just on shifting definitions of national interests, but on a deep and enduring sense of shared values and history. Needless to say, this is not the type of relationship Israel and the Saudis share.
What Israel and Saudi Arabia do share, however, is a strong convergence of interests at this moment in time around each country’s core national security issue. An often overlooked fact is that the Saudi leadership is generally pragmatic, and the Kingdom is essentially what could be called a “status quo power”. Yes, the Saudi Arabia is dominated by the fundamentalist Wahabi strain of Islam, but the overriding objective of the ruling House of Saud is the preservation of the House of Saud. And while the Saudis would never acknowledge this publicly, right now they perceive the Israelis and themselves as as sharing very similar concerns when it comes to Iran.
Another way to look at things is to recall the old proverb that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”; and while this might not be the basis for an enduring Israeli-Saudi relationship, it really is at least a temporary “alliance” of sorts – and certainly presents its own interesting potential for affecting the geopolitical order of the Middle East down the road.