Last Friday it was announced that Saudi Arabia and Iran had reached an agreement on the renewal of relations between the two countries. The deal came after China organized secret talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Iraq over the past two years, and after four days of intense negotiations in China’s capital Beijing.
News of the deal was first announced by the Iranian government’s mouthpiece IRNA. The news agency stated that Iran and Saudi Arabia had decided to “exchange ambassadors within two months and to reopen diplomatic missions in the two countries.”
Saudi conditions for normalization with Israel
The IRNA report on the deal between the two Middle East rivals came on the same day that The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times reported that Saudi Arabia was setting conditions for normalizing relations with Israel.
These conditions from the government in Riyadh had nothing to do with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but everything to do with the relationship with President Joe Biden’s administration in the United States, the reports revealed.
Saudi Arabia wants the US to lift an embargo on certain advanced weaponry and for American experts to help the country further develop a peaceful nuclear program.
Since news of the Saudi Arabia deal broke analysts and other pundits have speculated on what this now means for Israel, particularly in regards to its attempt to build a regional coalition against Iran.
In Israel, former Prime Ministers Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid were quick to point the finger of blame at Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.
Consequences for Israel
Netanyahu would be guilty of neglecting hitherto largely secret contacts with Saudi Arabia.
The agreement would also deal a critical blow to Israel’s efforts to build a regional alliance against Iran, Bennett claimed on Twitter. Opposition leader Lapid went one step further, writing on his Twitter account that the deal “marked the collapse of the regional defense wall we built.”
Lapid, who was Israel’s Prime Minister for just over half a year, once again grossly exaggerated his own contribution to Israel’s foreign and security policy.
He also showed with his comments that he misinterpreted the meaning of the agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The “regional defense wall” he says was established under the Bennett/Lapid government is in reality a loose alliance between the Gulf states and Israel that was established well before the two Israeli politicians came to power.
This was the work of Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, two Middle East envoys to the Donald J. Trump administration.
These two US officials brokered the so-called Abraham Accords with the tacit approval of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia.
It was also thanks to Netanyahu’s efforts that there were increasing contacts with the government of Saudi Arabia.
In November 2020, Netanyahu flew to Saudi Arabia along with Yossi Cohen, the then-chief of Mossad, Israel’s secret service, where the two met with MBS.
The meeting between the two leaders in the new city of NEOM was also attended by then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Lapid also pointed in his Twitter post to opening Saudi airspace to Israeli aircraft during his premiership.
However, this too was a result of the Abraham Accords that Netanyahu concluded with the Gulf states and the outcome of ongoing negotiations that started during the Likud leader’s previous tenure.
Relationship between the USA and Saudi Arabia
When we now look at the background that led to the normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, we will see that this is not related to Israel, but to Saudi relations with the United States.
First, the fact that China, the America’s arch-rival, successfully brokered the agreement, says a lot about relations between Washington and Riyadh.
Biden changed politics towards Saudi Arabia early in his presidency and wanted to treat MBS and Saudi Arabia as a pariah due to the prince’s role in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,who was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
The US President later changed his policy due to the fuel crisis in the United States, but relations with MBS remained on the back burner.
This together with a general decrease in US engagement in the Middle East, contributed to the fact that China stepped into the vacuum and initiated the talks between Iran, a very important trade partner and oil supplier of Beijing, and Saudi Arabia that saw imports and exports from China exceeding combined trade with the US and Europe as early as 2020.
Strong criticism of Biden
Commentators in the United States harshly criticized Biden after the announcement of the Iran-Saudi Arabia deal.
One of them was Omri Ceren, the former CEO of The Israel Project in Washington.
Ceren wrote on Twitter:
“During the Trump administration, Arab countries normalized relations with Israel under an American-led order. Under the Biden administration, Arab countries are working to normalize their relations with Iran with the mediation of China.”
Ceren further pointed to the fact that Biden administration officials responded positively to the Iran-Saudi Arabia deal and “welcomed” it.
To make things worse Biden indicated that he has no idea what is going on with relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Asked for comment on the deal, Biden said better relations between Arab neighbors and Israel were better for everyone….
In reality, the deal between the two former arch-rivals is unlikely to affect efforts to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The same cannot be said, however, about the American position regarding Iran and the Kingdom, as we shall see.
First, it remains to be seen whether the normalization between Iran and Saudi Arabia will actually materialize.
Insiders within Saudi Arabia point to the two months that were agreed upon as a period in which the agreement must take shape.
Iran will have to prove during that period that it will actually change course in its relationship with Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, according to these Saudi pundits.
Given the regime’s past, it is questionable whether this will happen and the litmus test is Iranian support for the Ansar Allah, or Houthi militia in Yemen.
Iran continues to supply arms to this militia, which has regularly attacked Saudi Arabia with ballistic missiles and remote-controlled combat aircraft (UAVs).
If this does not change, normalization could soon prove to be dead in its tracks.
Even if there is a change in Iran’s attitude, this does not mean that Saudi Arabia will stop the process of normalization of relations with Israel.
The Kingdom is currently undergoing an unprecedented modernization process and needs Israel for technological reasons.
The Israeli deterrent against Iran is, furthermore, also important for Saudi Arabia, which always worked to curb Iranian influence in the Middle East.
In addition, it appeared last year that the Gulf states see the normalization of relations with Israel separately from restoring relations with Iran.
In August 2022, the United Arab Emirates restored relations with Iran and this coincided with an unprecedented boom in relations with Israel following the signing of the Abraham Accords.
China and the US
Then there is the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia, and China’s position in it. Saudi Arabia has always been a key US ally in the Middle East, but, as mentioned, since Biden came to power there has been an evident change that caused a deterioration in the relationship between the two countries.
As a direct result of this deterioration, China took over the role of the US and used the situation to become MBS’s benefactor.
This was also evident from the tribute that Chinese President Xi Jinping received when he visited Saudi Arabia at the end of last year.
The Chinese leader’s plane was accompanied in Saudi Arabian airspace by four warplanes from the Saudi Air Force.
This show of honor was in stark contrast to the cool welcome Biden received when he visited Saudi Arabia in July 2022.
MBS later again showed his frustration with Biden when he refused to increase Saudi Arabia’s oil output to help the administration contain the domestic fuel crisis.
China’s aspirations in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world were recently clearly articulated by Xi Jinping.
“China must actively participate in the reform and construction of the global governance system,” the Chinese President said at the end of the annual session of the legislature in China on Monday last week.
From here it is easy to understand that the Iran-Saudi Arabia deal has little to do with Israel but much to do with the struggle for global hegemony between China and the US.
Nuclear weapons program
The deal will also do little to change Israel’s position in the fight against Iran and its nuclear weapons program.
Saudi Arabia never took part in the joint exercises that Israel and some of the Jewish state’s allies held in preparation for any military action against Iran.
Even if the Israel Air Force cannot use Saudi airspace in the event of such military action, there are plenty of alternatives.
This was also evident from a new drill that the IAF and the US Air Force are currently holding in California, where Israeli F15I planes were refueled in the air by American K-47 tanker planes.
Israel has, furthermore, realized a long time ago that it can rely only on itself when it comes to dealing with the Iranian nuclear program, and doesn’t need Saudi Arabia to put an end to the existential threat emanating from the Islamic Republic.
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