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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Saudi Arabia and Israel Are in the Same Predicament

Filed under: Iran, Israeli Security, Saudi Arabia, The Middle East

In the wake of the nuclear agreement between Iran and the world powers, Israel’s and Saudi Arabia’s respective situations have certain features in common.

That much is evident from the phone calls President Obama chose to make immediately after the agreement was signed. He opted to call Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, seeking to allay their concerns and promise them that the United States would ensure the their countries’ security.

The "Persian Gulf" or the "Arabian Gulf" between them
The “Persian Gulf” or the “Arabian Gulf” between them

For the Gulf States, the agreement evoked great apprehension. True, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates praised the deal, calling it a “historic agreement that could mean opening a new chapter in regional relations.” What truly reflects the sentiments of the Gulf States, however, is Saudi Arabia’s deafening silence.

A senior Saudi source, responding to the agreement in a briefing to CNN, used exactly the same language as Netanyahu:  “The Obama administration has made a historic mistake.”

Worth noting is an article that Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz published on the Elaph website on July 15. Prince Bandar served as head of Saudi intelligence and as the Saudi ambassador in Washington from 1981 to 2005.

In the article, Prince Bandar rejects the comparison between the nuclear agreement with Iran and the one that President Clinton reached with North Korea. “The facts,” he writes, “are bitter and cannot be ignored.” He quotes former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s remark that “America’s enemies should fear America, but America’s friends should fear America more.”

Yesterday, Saudis quoted statements from Iranian sources about the mood that prevailed among the top Iranian leadership during the nuclear talks – and about the squandering of a great opportunity by the U.S.-led world powers.

The Iranian sources said that the world powers could have achieved a much better agreement than they did; the Iranian leadership was even prepared to give up the nuclear program altogether because of the severe economic hardships that were paralyzing the economy and endangering the regime’s stability. The Western representatives, however, blinked first and lost the chance to get a good agreement.

The Policeman’s Role

Saudi Arabia, which currently serves in the role of “policeman of the Gulf,  has spearheaded the effort to counter Iranian expansion, notably in the military campaign it is conducting against the (Shiite) Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Saudi’s main concern is that the nuclear agreement will abet Iran’s efforts to bolster its influence in the Middle East and sow further instability in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.

Saudi Arabia is already preparing for eventualities. It has purchased 18 nuclear reactors from Russia, and this year it will increase its weapons purchases worldwide by over 50 percent. It is also reportedly considering purchasing a ready-made nuclear bomb from Pakistan and, thereby, become a nuclear state immediately.

During the ten-year period of the agreement with Iran, the Saudi leadership, with King Salman at the helm, does not rule out pursuing nuclear projects along with other Gulf States. These would create a new reality of deterrence toward Iran akin to the nuclear balance of terror that now exists between India and Pakistan.

Saudi Arabia is keenly disappointed with the way the Obama administration conducted the talks with Iran. This was particularly evident two months ago when King Salman shunned President Obama’s summit meeting with Gulf State leaders at Camp David.

The Saudis’ conclusion is that the country cannot rely on the United States to fight its battles. It stands alone against Iran, and will now have to formulate a new strategy toward the Iranian danger.

Saudi Arabia is the leader of the Sunni axis, and Shiite Iran’s hatred of Saudi Arabia is no less than the Shiite state’s visceral hatred of Israel. However, Israel is much stronger than Saudi Arabia and can successfully face the Iranian threats.

Iran’s intentions after the signing of the agreement will quickly become clear. The first litmus test will be its behavior toward the crisis in Yemen. If Iran prods the Houthi rebels to reach a political settlement with the “legal” government of the country, it will indicate that Iran is on the way to reconciling with its Saudi-led neighbors in the Gulf.

However, one should not have high hopes; will the leopard change its spots?