Riyadh’s economic, political and military capabilities mean that its entry into a normalization agreement with Israel would be a regional game-changer.
By Yaakov Lappin, JNS.org
In its annual strategic survey released in recent days, the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies pointed to a central understanding that has rippled through the region.
The United States is focusing its attention and resources on dealing with China (and, more recently, Russia), and is unwilling to be significantly involved in further conflicts in the Middle East.
Washington’s enthusiasm for reviving the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran is one such signal of this intention to detangle from the Middle East.
The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August was another. The INSS’s survey called that withdrawal “winning proof for the countries of the Middle East” that Washington was no longer prepared to commit resources and major attention to the region.
Middle Eastern leaders began to understand that even if they still rely on the United States, they must begin to prepare to deal by themselves with challenges.
With this in mind, the coming year forms a golden opportunity for Saudi Arabia to join the Abraham Accords.
Under the agreement so far, Israel has normalized relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan—all with quiet Saudi support.
Bringing Saudi Arabia into the accords forms one of the most important strategic goals of the coming year, due to the economic, political and military weight that the Kingdom brings with it to the table.
The result of bringing such a dominant Sunni power into the fold could be a strategic game-changer.
Combined threat of nuclear, regional activities
The modern Middle East can basically be divided into two opposing camps, or “blue” and “red” colors.
The red zones represent Iran’s area of radical influence—stretching from Iran itself and encompassing Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and the Gaza Strip. The blue zones represent the moderate regional states.
In the past 20 years, the Iranian red zone has expanded dramatically. This means that when Israeli strategic planners looked at a map in the year 2002, Iran’s nuclear program—a severe strategic threat—was located more than 1,000 kilometers from Israel’s borders.
Now, in addition to the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program itself, Iranian-backed terror armies and Iranian weapons produced by capable Iranian military industries are on Israel’s borders.
The radical Iranian-Shi’ite axis injects weapons and destabilization wherever it expands to. It sends funds and capabilities to radical actors through a range of supply lines
The axis threatens Gulf states and Israel alike; the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen fire Iranian-made drones and missiles at Riyadh and Abu Dhabi; while the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and Gaza’s terror factions point a large arsenal of projectiles at Israeli cities.
The Iranian axis is ideologically committed to destroying the State of Israel. Those who doubt Iran’s penchant to pay prices for its ideology should consider Tehran’s willingness to drag its 83 million people through economic crises lasting many years to fulfill a nuclear vision.
Facing this combined threat of nuclear and regional malign activities is the moderate camp in the Middle East.
As the Abraham Accords develop and its members learn about one another’s comparative advantage, cooperation between Israel and Gulf states could extend considerably to include capability-sharing, air-force overflights, deploying Israeli air-defense systems in the Gulf and intelligence-sharing.
Israel leads the way in gray-zone military warfighting in the region against Iranian entrenchment efforts.
Top objective for 2022
A reported Israeli airstrike overnight between Sunday and Monday near Damascus is the latest apparent indication of Jerusalem’s total commitment to continue to enforce its policy of not allowing Iran to entrench itself or its proxies militarily in Syria, and not allowing a “Hezbollah 2” scenario to unfold unchallenged.
Those countries in the moderate camp have managed to safeguard their sovereignty, unlike nations infiltrated and dominated by the Iranian axis. The moderate members remain deeply disturbed by Iranian aggression.
Such concern has created a new readiness to cooperate with Israel to varying degrees. Some of the moderate Sunni countries have been prepared to come openly to the table with Israel, forming the basis for the Abraham Accords, and boosting the moderate architecture of the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia has yet to cross this threshold officially. Enabling it to do so should form a top objective for 2022.
What unites these members of the moderate camp is a desire to see stability and prosperity in the Middle East.
While in the past, members of this camp had been held back by the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict—waiting for progress on the matter—these days, the threat posed by Iran to their security has become more important than their wish to patiently wait for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to come to an end.
The resulting Abraham Accords mean that Egypt and Jordan—the first moderate states to establish ties with Israel—no longer feel isolated.
The accords provide them with more confidence and support to move forward with Israel towards cooperation in civilian, economic and defense sectors, as the recent Memoranda of Understanding signed between Jordan and Israel on energy and water agreements (with UAE support) demonstrate.
The Israeli government’s push to enhance relations with Egypt and Jordan is welcome news since those countries represent Israel’s strategic depth.
Iran is a major threat to all of this, as are the jihadist and Islamist movements of the Middle East.
Expanding the blue zone
This does not mean that the moderate camp will cooperate in offensive military operations against Iran. Still, the growing cohesion of the moderate camp is unmistakably bad news for Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Khamenei wants to turn as many countries on the map as possible to “red,” building more and more proxy threats and moving the friction away from Iran’s borders to maintain his regime’s stability and his ability to threaten Israel and Sunni states alike.
The blue camp—and its potential to grow in size and influence—is the antidote to this vision.
And while the United States is disengaging from direct military operations in the region, the blue camp’s potential for growth and power still very much depends on American policy and the motivation of Washington to bring additional countries to the diplomatic roundtable.
When Sunni states like Saudi Arabia hold de-escalation conversations with Iran, it’s a signal of their lack of confidence in future ironclad backing by the United States. It is therefore imperative for Washington to issue credible assurances of American support for their security.
The truth is that no amount of diplomatic de-escalation talks between Tehran and Riyadh will alter the fundamental animosity that defines Saudi-Iranian relations
The Saudis don’t want to get dragged into an all-out war with Iran, but they haven’t changed their hostile orientation regarding it either, based on the tangible threat that the Islamic Republic poses to the Kingdom.
China has become a key Mideast player
Meanwhile, even though the United States wishes to pivot to the Far East, it may find that the Far East itself leads back to the Middle East. China is investing heavily in the Middle East through its long-term Belt and Road Initiative, purchasing ports and investing in a range of infrastructure.
Iran and China signed a 25-year, $400 billion agreement in March 2021, which ultimately presents financial backing for Iran and enables it to avoid the worst results of American sanctions against it.
This means that China has become a key aspect of the Iranian story in the Middle East.
Under these conditions, the Abraham Accords, together with the shift of Israel into the U.S. Military Central Command’s (CENTCOM) area of responsibility (the Middle East), creates increasing daily tools for joint operations and stability.
Israel can offer many capabilities to boost the moderate camp’s shared vision, and so can Saudi Arabia. A normalization agreement that includes Saudi Arabia in it would represent a body blow to Iran’s dangerous ambitions.