Could a nuclear deal with Iran accomplish more than what decades of diplomacy in the Middle East could not, and create new alliances between Israel and its Arab neighbors?
That’s a key question as we gear up for the battle on Capitol Hill over President Barack Obama’s controversial pact with Tehran to limit uranium enrichment in return for the lifting of sanctions. Critics say the agreement paves the way for a double reward for Tehran- a huge influx of cash and an eventual, unfettered path toward nuclear arms.
Neither the Saudis, the Kuwaitis, the United Arab Emirates — nor for that matter any of the other Persian Gulf states — are too excited about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran. The role of Iran in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, and the rise of Islamic State terror and the Muslim Brotherhood, have become a much bigger problem for Arab leaders than the tired conflict with Israel. Those countries have a Sunni majority, while Persian Iran is led by rival Shia Muslims.
Iran, of course, is also a major oil rival for the Gulf States and became more powerful following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
The Saudis have been publicly moderate on the deal but are said to be privately angry over it. Epitomizing the old Middle East adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, the Saudis were reported to have offered Israel the ability to use their airspace to strike Iran. This is a crucial step in keeping a military option on the table because it would save time and fuel if such a strike were necessary. “The Saudi authorities are completely coordinated with Israel on all matters related to Iran,” a European official was quoted as saying in an Israeli TV report.
Clearly, the momentum for alignment with Israel in some form is building.
“To all those who think the Persian state, and the regime of the Rule of the Imprudent… the dictatorial fascist Persian regime which controls it, is a friendly country, whereas Israel is an enemy country, I say that a prudent enemy is better than an imprudent one.”
Those words were written by Abdallah Al-Hadlaq in the official newspaper of Kuwait, Al-Watan.
It is not the first time that the author has expressed support for ties with Israel. As far back as 2009, he called on his government and other Gulf states to put aside their differences with Jerusalem and forge an alliance against Iran.
But the fact that his column was published in a government daily in a country without full press freedom speaks volumes.
“The state of Israel and its various governments have waged more than five wars with the Arabs, yet never in the course of these wars did Israel think to use its nuclear weapons against its Arab enemies,” Al-Hadlaq wrote. “Conversely, if the Persian state, with its stupid, rash and fascist regime that hides behind a religious guise, ever develops nuclear weapons, it will not hesitate to use nuclear bombs against the Arab Gulf states in the first conflict that arises.”
Were the Saudis to show leadership in rallying other Sunni-led states against Iran, it could have a significant impact on a new order in the Middle East.
Furthermore the new coalition could collectively work wonders to get rid of ISIS; Jordan’s King Abdullah recently declared in a CNN interview that the war against ISIS “is our war.” The Iranian nuclear threat and the ISIS threat can top the agenda in this new coalition.
“Iran does have enough politico-military and economic potential to counter-balance Saudi led ‘Sunni’ states in the Middle East and beyond,” wrote Salman Rafi Sheikh in an essay for the magazine Eastern Outlook last March. “It is precisely for this very reason that Saudi Arabia’s anxiety about an agreement has fueled a flurry of intense diplomacy in recent days to bolster unity among ‘Sunni’ states in the Middle East in the face of ‘shared threats,’ especially those emanating from Iran.”
Rafi Sheikh, a research-analyst on international relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, noted that “this deal is most likely to send political jolts across the entire Middle Eastern political landscape, with Saudi Arabia and Israel standing as the most sensitive areas to bear its shocks; and as such, are most likely to clutch their hands into an alliance against Iran, and by default, against the U.S. ambitions as well.”
There is great potential for Saudi Arabia’s King Salman to rally Gulf states, as well as Turkey, Egypt and Jordan, to stand up to an Iran that will only become more emboldened with the huge influx of post-sanctions billions and new political bona fides that will make Tehran bolder.
Increased security cooperation as Iran bides its time for an eventual bomb may eventually lead to more nuclear proliferation in the region.
Will that mean a nuclear pact between Israel and its former enemies? That would be a fascinating development that could never have been imagined even a decade ago.
And it will truly be a sad irony if, after nearly 70 years of a solid relationship between the United States and Israel, the Jewish state had to turn to despotic regimes with little or no human rights to solidify its security position, feeling far less than confident that Washington has its back than it has in the past.
Yet this may simply be the beginning of an Arab-Israeli accord, where both groups can begin to understand and accept each other.