The recent interim nuclear agreement between Iran and the so-called P5-plus-1 countries, led by the United States, has provoked unprecedented criticism of U.S. policy from two of its strongest Mideast allies: Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called on his ministers and his supporters in the U.S. to lobby Congress to oppose the agreement. Meanwhile, Saudi officials have accused the U.S. of selling out its allies for little security in return.
The apparent coincidence of Israeli and Saudi interests over Iran has fueled media reports that the two countries are coordinating strategies to confront the Islamic Republic. Some suggest that Saudi Arabia will open its air space to assist an Israeli attack. Although such coordination would undoubtedly be covert, and would not prevent Riyadh from subsequently criticizing Israel’s military action, it would serve both countries’ national interests.
It has long been an open secret that Saudi and Israeli officials talk regularly and probably share intelligence. But their concerns about Iran are far from identical, and their scope to depart from U.S. policy varies widely. Joint Israeli-Saudi diplomatic and military coordination makes for good news copy, but it is probably fiction.
Israelis are primarily concerned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Unlike Iran’s support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and other forms of terrorism, which Israel can manage, the nuclear question represents an existential threat. If diplomacy had succeeded in ending Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, Iran would no longer be the main focus of Israel’s foreign policy.
Saudi anxieties about Iran, however, go deeper and are more complex. At their heart is Iran’s interference in internal Arab affairs, particularly in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Bahrain. Although Iranian-Saudi enmity dates back many decades, it became acute after the 1979 Islamic Revolution when Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, began to spread his revolutionary brand of Shiite Islam across the region.
The impact was not immediately evident. Iran’s war with Iraq in the 1980s, and the low price of oil throughout the 1990s, kept the Islamic Republic weak. This changed during the following decade, as Iran supported Hezbollah’s rise in Lebanon and came to dominate Iraqi politics after the Shiite majority there came to power in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion.
In 2006, Iran managed to draw the Palestinian movement Hamas away from the Saudi sphere of influence and into the embrace of its ally, Syria. Hezbollah’s successful resistance during a month-long war with Israel that year invigorated Iran’s “axis of resistance.” At the same time, high oil prices boosted Iran’s ability to bankroll its new proxies. This reconfiguration of the regional balance of power has been particularly worrying for the gulf states.
As well as their differing concerns about Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia also have profoundly different relationships with the U.S., which define their scope to act in the short and long term. Israel’s political, cultural, and religious connections with the U.S. are strong, and America is the country’s only reliable and constant ally. But Israel has long been able to act independently on critical security issues, without seriously damaging the bilateral relationship. Indeed, the relationship would almost certainly survive even if Israel, contrary to U.S. advice, were to attack Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the U.S. is more superficial. The kingdom relies on the U.S. military for protection, without which it would be unable to resist an attack by Iran. In return, the Saudis use their massive oil reserves and spare capacity to ensure world oil supplies and stable prices.
Unlike Israel, Saudi Arabia has little influence in U.S. domestic politics, beyond the support of a few oilmen and arms manufacturers. The Saudi royals do not even enjoy the warm personal relationship with President Barack Obama that they once had with Presidents George Bush (both father and son) and Bill Clinton, who managed bilateral relations directly.
Perhaps the most significant factor limiting the prospects for Saudi-Israeli cooperation is the general attitude of the Arab world, including the kingdom itself, to the Jewish state in its midst. Israeli use of Saudi air space, for example, would not remain a secret for long, forcing Saudi rulers to contend with a massive, popular anti-Zionist backlash at home and across the Arab world. While Israel might countenance some official Saudi criticism as the price of its support, Arab public opinion might not be so easily mollified, especially in the absence of progress on the Palestinian issue. Ultimately, the Saudis would be seen as collaborating with the more hated adversary against a Muslim state (albeit also an enemy).
Just as neither Saudis nor Israelis are likely to downgrade their relations with the U.S., they are even less likely to embrace each other. But this should not make the U.S. complacent about the deep disaffection of either ally. Their disagreements — not only on Iran, but also on Syria and the Palestinian question — seriously diminish American influence in the region.
Bernard Haykel is a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, is a visiting professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. © 2013 Project Syndicate