One momentous development today. And another curious one clearly is related in some way. Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to restore relations, which had been severed for nearly a decade, after scores of Iranians were killed in a hajj stampede. The Saudi response to the tragedy was defensive and non-responsive, which enraged Iranians. Later, the Saudis executed a Shiite cleric who advocated for Shia rights within the kingdom. Iranians went on a rampage and burned down the Saudi embassy in Tehran. After which, both countries broke off relations.
Severing relations was the least of the issues between them: the Saudis were, and are mired in a quicksand war with the Houthis in Yemen. It has killed nearly 400,000 Yemenis over a decade and starved tens of thousands of others, with nothing to show for it. Its allies have not succeeded in scoring any victories, and the Saudi intervention is bogged down. Iran has supported the Houthis (who are Shia) and no doubt this has angered Saudi Arabia.
Iran has supported Bashar al-Assad along with its Hezbollah and Russian allies. There too Iran has succeeded in protecting fellow Shia (Hezbollah and Syrian Alawites), while the Saudis have spent billions arming and supplying Sunni allies, with little to show for it.
The Saudis are also one of the leading patrons of the MeK, the Iranian dissident-terror cult. The group doles out millions to buy prominent US and foreign government officials and other VIPs to appear at their rallies. During the Obama administration, it lobbied fiercely to be removed from the US terrorist blacklist, and succeeded.
Saudi Arabia disenchanted with Israel’s “maximum pressure” campaign
The one area in which Iran is locked into a stalemate is with Israel, which is engaged in an ongoing war regarding its nuclear program. The Saudis have provided billions to support the sabotage of Iranian nuclear facilities by the US and Israel. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears disenchanted with the Israeli approach. Despite years of sanctions and attempts to sabotage and disrupt the Iranian nuclear program, there is precious little to show for it. MBS may have chosen to pivot toward Tehran after determining that Israel’s approach was a failure.
Because they believe Iran plans on developing nuclear weapons–or at least the capability of building them–Saudi Arabia is also clamoring for US technical support to commence its own nuclear program. We have been reluctant to do so because it would fuel a regional nuclear arms race, which could easily spiral out of control. No one wants to be the country which has to explain to the world why it helped another country develop a nuclear weapon which it used against an enemy state.
The Iran-Saudi Arabia deal will lessen regional tensions considerably. It could lead to the end–or easing–of the wars in Yemen and Syria. It could also have some stabilizing impact on Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq, where Iran has developed a strong presence.
China played a major role in brokering the agreement. This is an indication of the robustness of Xi Jing Pin’s foreign policy, which projects his country’s power and interests around the globe. Until recently, the Middle East was a US and Russian playground. Now China has come to play in a major way. It has also agreed to a $400-million dead to exchange oil and other products, including weapons.
Israel, Biden and US are the losers
The deal also downgrades US influence in the region. The Biden administration has furthered the Asia pivot begun under Pres. Obama. Pres. Biden has not invested serious political capital in resolving any of the brewing Middle East conflicts, viewing it as a zero-sum game. Additionally, our relations with Saudi Arabia have stagnated since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman murdered US-based journalist and Saudi dissident, Jamal Khashoggi.
Israel and the US have only themselves to blame for this new development. They imposed punitive sanctions on Iran. They shut down international trade and access to global financial institutions. This in turn caused immense suffering to the Iranian people. Not to mention instability inside the country. It would be natural for a country facing such an existential crisis to turn to any party which would relieve such pressure: enter China and Russia. Our failed policy virtually dropped Iran into their laps. And they, especially China have played their hand expertly. Aside from the major trade deal, China has now scored this new coup. It will offer China access to Iranian and Saudi oil and other natural resources.
The mutual recognition deal seriously downgrades the Gulf-Israel alliance against Iran. Israel is in danger of being left out of the cold if one of its major allies normalizes relations and reduces malign activities which block Iranian interests.
This hits the Israeli prime minister hard, as he faces fierce opposition at home to his domestic agenda. The Iranian threat and the prospect of mutual recognition with Saudi Arabia were key elements of his foreign policy agenda. Now the latter has virtually disappeared, which leaves the former considerably weakened. Netanyahu may have had dreams of a joint US-Saudi-Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Now that prospect has evaporated.
Israel’s NY Times Leak
This may explain today’s other big news. The NY Times published a blockbuster story regarding Israel-Saudi relations. It is no accident that both these stories came on the same day. Undoubtedly, they were coordinated either by the Saudis themselves, Israel or the US. The Times says that Saudi Arabia has laid out conditions for its recognition of Israel. Strangely most of the conditions fall on the US–very few on Israel:
Saudi Arabia is seeking security guarantees from the United States, help with developing a civilian nuclear program and fewer restrictions on U.S. arms sales as its price for normalizing relations with Israel, people familiar with the exchanges say.
If sealed, the deal could set up a major political realignment of the Middle East.
In other words, MBS wants Biden to say “Uncle,” all is forgiven, and now you’ll play nice with us. Why not give the Saudis our most advanced nuclear technology? After all, he’s only going to use it to power his futuristic linear city, Neom, right? If MBS tells Biden he won’t use it to produce a nuclear weapon, we have to take him at his word.
And enough of that human rights s*t. Khashoggi is dead. Let’s move on into a new era of cooperation.
What does MBS offer the US and what are Israel’s red lines?
What does MBS offer in return? A deal with Israel, diplomatic relations, arms deals, technology deals. A political coup for Biden, and for Bibi too. That man is in a world of trouble at home. What could distract the protestors who want his head more than a deal for the most important state in the Arab world to recognize Israel? This is something Netanyahu, and the state itself, has striven for for decades.
But there are red lines for Bibi. He has to retain his hard-right electorate. He cannot offer the Saudis what they claim they want: a Palestinian state. It’s not even clear what they want; whether they do support Palestinian rights. Maybe this is an opening gambit in a negotiation: you make your maximum ask and the other side responds with theirs. Then you end up somewhere in the middle. But the middle may exclude the Palestinians completely. If Bibi can’t offer a Palestinian state, then the Saudis have to decide whether what they get is worth abandoning the Palestinians.
Frankly, I don’t think MBS gives a damn about Palestine. I think he’d betray it in a heartbeat as long as the cost wasn’t too high. Given the decades of violence and lack of progress, along with a major Saudi peace initiative spurning by Ariel Sharon, the Crown Prince may think the world will forgive him if moves on from it; and charts a new path.
The Israelis believe this seriously weakens the Palestinian cause. To lose its financier. To lose the state whose holy places are at the center of the Muslim world. But once again, Israel is displaying its hand. If the Saudis abandon them, they will survive. The cause will survive. Such causes don’t require monarchs, billions, or armies. They only require will and commitment. Those the Palestinians have.
Who leaked the story?
One final question: who could the source of this story be? Could be the Saudis. But this doesn’t seem their MO. Spreading stories in major US papers about what they want and expect from Biden. No, this one has Israel written all over it. But Israel directly. Much more likely a US conduit for the Israelis to leak what they (and the Saudis) want. That would be Aipac’s think-tank, the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Affairs WINEP. Its fingerprints are all over this story:
After making their wishes known to U.S. and Israeli officials, senior Saudis began communicating them late last year to policy experts in the United States, including members of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank, who visited Riyadh in October.
Its executive, Robert Satloff is even quoted along with another old WINEP hand, Martin Indyk. Satloff even led a delegation to the Kingdom and met with its leaders. No doubt the delegation was approved and even arranged by the Israelis themselves. This is all pure orchestration:
Saudi officials have said they cannot forge normal relations with Israel — a step that would include formal diplomatic interactions and likely also trade and travel agreements — before a Palestinian state is established. But some people familiar with the discussions said they believe the Saudis, who have been building closer unofficial ties to Israel, would settle for less than that.
Who do you think these anonymous people familiar with the discussions might be, hmm? And which party would want to put forward the message that the Saudis would betray the Palestinians in a heartbeat? Even a fool knows the answer to that question. What isn’t clear is whether the Israelis and their Lobby mouthpieces are putting forward what they want, or whether they already know the Saudis will abandon their fellow Arabs.
Also, mark that phrase, “would settle for less than that.” What is “less” than a Palestinian state? What is more than the little they have now? And is that something any Palestinian would accept, no matter how many zeros there are after the dollar sign? In fact, MBS already tried that stratagem. He essentially kidnapped Abbas and held him hostage trying to buy him with billions in return for Palestinian acquiescence in a deal similar to this one. Abbas wouldn’t go along and that plan died. So now both Israel and MBS are reviving it. They feel circumstances are now more favorable. We’ll have to see.
The Times story adds in some obsequious flattery toward MBS, no doubt offered to the reporters by WINEP:
Prince Mohammed, whose country is home to the two holiest sites in Islam, has emerged as more of a pragmatist than an ideologue, willing to break with traditions to pursue what he considers his country’s interests.
For years, the Kingdom’s cheerleaders in western media have peddled this bogus image of him as someone willing to break with the hidebound traditions of fundamentalist Islam; someone modern and open to western ideas. This myth was shattered by the Khashoggi execution. Now, WINEP and the Times are attempting to revive the same sycophantic lies they peddled earlier.
Israel dares Biden not to take the deal
From Israel’s point of view, it is laying out a deal before Biden and daring him not to take it: give the Saudis weapons and nuclear technology and it gives you a gift in a gold wrapper: Israel-Saudi relations for the first time ever. Not to mention free-flowing oil to check US inflation, one of the cudgels Republicans are using to beat him over the head. Israel and the Saudis are daring him to reject this historic deal and be the one to blame that it never happened.
There is another credible theory for this Israeli leak: given that Israel may now be losing its strongest Arab ally against Iran, Netanyahu is pressuring Biden to provide compensation in the form of Saudi-Israel deal. With warming of relations between these two major regional states, Israel is entering uncharted waters, which could become exceedingly choppy. If Israel and the Saudis normalize their own relations it could offset the Riyadh-Tehran deal.
What will Biden do? Clearly, he’s in the pocket of the Israel Lobby. His first political inclination will be to take the deal. But my hope is that he will take a step back and take a look at what he loses: the revulsion many Americans will feel about hopping into bed with a fundamentalist, kleptocratic murderous regime which has killed nearly 400,000 Yemenis. Is that a legacy Biden wants?
Remember Bill Clinton’s legacy? He stood by while 800,000 Rwandan Tutsi were slaughtered in the worst genocide Africa has ever seen. It remains one of the largest stains on his presidency. There are of course political up-sides to doing this deal. So he must weigh them. Will he choose to cut a dirty deal with two dirty countries? Or choose to maintain his policy of keeping all of the mess of the Middle East at arm’s length diplomatically.
Biden knows that he cannot pursue a constructive policy there because he is hemmed in by Republican opposition, Israeli intransigence and the Israel Lobby. So he’s opted not to engage in any substantive way. Though it is a tragic lost opportunity, and I have criticized US policy here regularly, there may be little he can do short of “managing” matters.