The recent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran could bring about a significant change in Arab-Iranian relations while creating obstacles to the normalization of Arab-Israeli relations.
The Saudi-Iranian agreement
Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed March 10 to resume relations after years of hostility that threatened stability and security in the Gulf region and fueled conflicts in the Middle East from Yemen to Syria. The China-brokered agreement was announced after talks between senior security officials from the two rival Middle Eastern states in Beijing. Tehran and Riyadh agreed to restore diplomatic relations and reopen embassies in the near future, Iran, Saudi Arabia and China said in a statement. The agreement includes respect for the sovereignty of states and mutual non-interference in internal affairs. A spokesman for the White House National Security Council said the Saudis had informed Washington of the developments, but the United States was not a party to the agreement. He added that it was unclear whether the agreement would have any impact on the so-called Abraham Accords. The first official Israeli reaction, delivered by an Israeli official, suggested that the resumption of diplomatic contacts between the two sides is likely to have a negative impact on the possibility of normalizing relations between Riyadh and Tel Aviv.
The position of the Israeli leadership
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Saudi leaders of the dangers of normalization with Iran, while calling on the United States to play a greater role in the Middle East. “Those who partner with Iran partner with misery. Look at Lebanon, look at Yemen, look at Syria, look at Iraq,” he said in an interview, stressing that “95% of the problems in the Middle East originate from Iran” Netanyahu said of the agreement that the real reason it was reached was to defuse or even end the long-standing conflict in Yemen. According to Netanyahu, the Saudi leadership “has no illusions about who are their adversaries, and who are their friends” In addition, the Israeli president said that “we’d like very much to have peace with Saudi Arabia. Because I think it would be another huge quantum leap for peace. In many ways it would end the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
Brief overview of the development of Iran-Israel relations
Relations between Iran and Israel were friendly during the Pahlavi dynasty, which lasted from 1953 to 1979. With the overthrow of the monarchy in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran was established under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, which severed all diplomatic and commercial ties with Israel and whose theocratic government did not recognize Israel as a legitimate state. Open hostility between the two countries began in the early 1990s and intensified during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who made inflammatory statements against Israel. Meanwhile, Israel viewed (and still views) Iran as a threat to its security and regional interests, especially after the country developed a nuclear program and expanded its influence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. The two countries have engaged in covert warfare, cyberattacks, assassinations, and proxy conflicts, but have so far avoided direct military confrontation. The Islamic Republic of Iran regularly calls for the destruction of the State of Israel, and Israel considers Iran its greatest security threat, primarily because of its nuclear and missile programs and its regional “proxies” (Lebanese Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Iraqi militias, etc.). Israel is also concerned about Iran’s hostility and its nuclear weapons and missile programs. In response to these threatening Iranian activities, Israel occasionally conducts airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria, further increasing tensions between the two sides.
Anti-Persian sentiments do not only exist in Israel
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, there has been a growing anti-Persianism in the Middle East region. This has been fueled in part by Shiite-Sunni antagonism and by fears that Iran would export Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theocratic Shiite model to neighboring Arab states. The latter led to such serious confrontations as the Iraq-Iran war between 1980 and 1988 and the later stages of the Yemeni and even Syrian civil wars. Although geographical proximity required continued trade relations with the Gulf states and other Arab countries, Arab sentiment toward Iran remained negative in most countries. This went so far as to cause mass demonstrations in one of Iran’s main proxy states, Iraq, to protest growing Iranian influence, but similar movements occurred in other Arab countries as well.
The Arab-Israeli rapprochement
Many progressive Arab countries saw the alliance with Israel as urgent for both economic and security reasons. Since Israel’s founding in 1948, the Jewish state has been recognized by only two of the 22 Arab League member states until 2020: Egypt and Jordan. This changed on August 13, 2020, when the Abraham Accords were concluded, a joint agreement between the State of Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the United States of America, to which Bahrain also acceded. Morocco followed the example of these countries a few months later and signed a similar agreement with Israel on December 22, 2020, and Sudan also became a member of the association on January 6, 2021.
Will the Abraham Accords be pushed into the background?
Iran’s nuclear weapons program threatened both the Gulf monarchies and Israel. Over time, this led to the formation of the aforementioned Israel-led anti-Iran bloc, which includes the Gulf states. In addition, the United States has exerted maximum pressure to isolate Iran, and this anti-Iranian organization has received strong international support. It is important to note that the Abraham Accords were a major diplomatic victory for Israel, but the Saudi-Iranian agreement signed in Beijing under Chinese mediation weakened the country’s anti-Iranian alliance, and its diplomatic supremacy in the region appears to be waning, hampering its attempt to normalize relations with Riyadh.
According to analysts, Iran’s rapprochement with Saudi Arabia is its “best bulwark” against the Abraham Accords, and the country now has a chance to avoid a united regional front at a time of heightened tensions with the United States and Israel. It should be noted that the initial optimism about the Abraham Accords are increasingly fading into the background, because apart from the fact that other Arab countries have not committed themselves to settling relations with Israel, the resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran could further deepen the rift between the Arab countries and Israel. Moreover, it would be a mistake to underestimate Saudi Arabia’s influence on the previous signatories to the agreement, especially those with financial and strategic interests in the kingdom. It cannot even be ruled out that countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain and Morocco will follow Saudi Arabia’s lead and work toward improving relations with Iran. Morocco and Jordan, for example, rely heavily on Saudi military aid, while Egypt’s economy is increasingly dependent on Saudi aid and aid from Gulf states.
Meanwhile, the rhetoric that underpinned the Abraham Accords and portrayed Iran as the main enemy appears to be crumbling. More Arab countries are expected to deepen their ties with Iran in the near future, which could complicate Israel’s political aspirations in the Middle East. Unless the United States provides immediate incentives, the progress made under the Abraham Accords will lose momentum. Such incentives could include increased military aid and investment packages, and policies that are more responsive to the territorial and security priorities of Arab countries so that they remain interested in developing relations with Israel.