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Saudi Arabia and Israel are not really that scared of Iran
Leaders talk about the Iranian menace, but behave as if Iran is a side issue that someone else can handle.
Update: An hour or so after this article was published, Saudi Arabia and Iran announced that they were going to restore diplomatic relations in a Chinese-backed deal. The news underscores the arguments that this article makes.
Saudi Arabia has named its price for normalizing with Israel, according to reports on Thursday by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Riyadh wants U.S. security guarantees — in other words, a commitment for Americans to go war on its behalf — and help with its nuclear energy program.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin warned Israel against actions that would “trigger more insecurity,” such as “violence by settlers against Palestinians.” The Israeli-Palestinian conflict “detracts from our ability to focus on what the strategic threat is right now and that is Iran's dangerous nuclear advances and continuing regional and global aggression,” a U.S. official told Reuters.
Austin also warned that Israeli leaders should not make “fundamental changes” without “consensus” from society. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been pushing through a law to neuter the Israeli supreme court, which has provoked discontent in the officer corps and serious unrest in the streets.
It sounds like Saudi Arabia and Israel don’t really fear Iran as much as they would like Americans to think. If they really believed that Iran was an existential threat, then these two countries would not need so much U.S. prodding to straighten out their priorities or ally with each other.
The U.S. prodding may be the point. The Iranian menace helps get the United States to offer its Middle Eastern partners more support, without threatening these partners to the point where they might have to act by themselves.
Iran is now approaching the ability to build nuclear weapons undetected, the nightmare scenario that U.S.-Israeli-Saudi policy was supposed to stop. In theory, Saudi Arabia should be rushing to finalize a defensive alliance with Israel, and both countries should be marshaling all their strength for the coming confrontation. They are, in fact, doing the opposite.
While arguing that the West underestimates the Iranian threat, Saudi princes have tied their own response to whatever price Americans are willing to pay. A government facing a real, urgent danger does not haggle with outsiders over the size of the bribe the country needs to act. And if the leadership really believe that those outsiders are unreliable, then it will not value their promises of protection so highly.
Israel is not acting all that concerned either. Netanyahu’s campaign against the court has provoked the threat of a strike by reservists in the Israeli air force and military intelligence, exactly the people Israel would need to fight a war against Iran. Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s coalition partners have egged on anti-Palestinian riots and mocked attempts to de-escalate the situation.
These are not the actions of a society fearing existential danger. They are luxuries that only a state feeling confident in its security could afford.
Saudi Arabia and Israel do feel some level of threat from Iran; they spend money trying to counter Iranian missiles, and they welcome opportunities to weaken Iran’s position. But their actions show that the Iranian threat is neither a life-or-death issue nor their highest priority. Instead, they treat Iran as a manageable problem and constantly try to pass the responsibility for dealing with it onto others.
Similarly, the United Arab Emirates sends diplomats to Washington and funds American think tanks calling for more U.S. sanctions on Iran. After adopting those sanctions, the U.S. government now has to pressure Emirati companies to stop trading with Iran. If the UAE really believed that the Iranian oil trade was a piggy bank for terrorism, then it would be more proactive in keeping Iranian oil smugglers out of its own economy.
Washington finds itself in a very strange position. After years of Saudi and Israeli and Emirati pressure to take a harder line on Iran, the United States is forced to drag those three countries into treating war with Iran as a serious threat.
The most revealing moment might have been the aftermath of Qassem Soleimani’s assassination, which was the closest the United States and Iran ever came to a full-on war. Israeli leaders celebrated the attack but quickly denied any involvement. The Saudi foreign ministry started issuing statements about restraint and de-escalation. In other words, they were asking Iran not to retaliate against them for U.S. actions.
These are not the behaviors of a real wartime alliance, a British lawyer friend pointed out. However much the Allies fought over burdens and spoils during World War I and World War II, everyone understood that they would have to actually fight. Britain saw Germany as enough of a threat in 1914 and 1939 that it was willing to send millions of troops to defend foreign lands. London was not lobbying Paris to bomb Berlin while doing business with Germans under the table.
The real issue for Israel and Saudi Arabia is not whether Iran threatens their way of life, but whether the United States continues to uphold it. The Abraham Accords promise a high-tech utopia in a region filled with poverty and violence. American guns and money have to keep flowing to the right places, and U.S. military presence has to keep the wrong sort of people from getting any ideas.
As much as Iranian propagandists like to fantasize about Iranian flags over Mecca and Jerusalem, that prospect doesn’t keep anyone up at night. The real fear is something like Barack Obama’s 2015 statement that “our friends” have to learn to “share the neighborhood,” rather than “using our military power to settle scores.”
A lot of money and political energy went into ensuring that a U.S. president would never again express that sentiment. Now everyone is on the same page. Iran is a terrible threat that cannot be reasoned with, there must be a regionwide anti-Iranian containment campaign — and someone else has to take the lead.
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Image: U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrive to give a statement after their meeting at the Premier's office in Jerusalem, 12 April 2021. EPA-EFE/MENAHEM KAHANA / POOL