On the Road to a Nuclear Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia Are on Diverging Paths

Saudi Arabia and Israel are equally threatened by a nuclear deal with Iran. Which of their approaches to influencing U.S. decision makers is more likely to work?

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U.S. President Barack Obama with Saudi Arabian King Salman, January 27, 2015. The Saudis prefer to do their talking in private, not in the U.S. Congress.
U.S. President Barack Obama with Saudi Arabian King Salman, January 27, 2015. The Saudis prefer to do their talking in private, not in the U.S. Congress.Credit: AP

When Iran was caught developing a clandestine nuclear capability, alarm bells rang around the world; probably loudest in Israel and Saudi Arabia. With nuclear weapons, Iran would be a much more aggressive foe, expanding its zone of influence in the Middle East and bolstering itself and its proxies in the region – mainly Hezbollah. And all of this without even using the capability; just by possessing it.

In the early days of the campaign against a nuclear Iran, both Israel and Saudi Arabia took a similar, yet uncoordinated, approach: pinning the responsibility for preventing a nuclear Iran on the United States. The campaign, the two countries believed, should not be seen as their own but that of their strongest ally.

The strategy worked. The United States joined five other world powers (Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) to form an amazingly disciplined international coalition against Iran. Tough international sanctions are forcing Iran to negotiate and, we predict, it will soon agree to a deal that limits its nuclear capability.

Though Saudi Arabia and Israel have been briefed on the progress of the negotiations, they were not perceived as dictating their positions to the P5+1, influencing them instead behind the scenes. That has been important, because public intervention could have made Iran even more difficult to negotiate with than it already is.

Yet, recently, the diplomatic approaches of Jerusalem and Riyadh diverged.

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly went head to head with U.S. President Barack Obama with his highly politicized plan to address the U.S. Congress on March 3, he invited all the negative consequences Israel wishes to avoid. Instead of putting the dangers of a nuclear Iran at the center of international discourse, he shone the spotlight on his personal relationship with Obama.

Instead of limiting America’s willingness to make concessions to Iran in its desire to reach an agreement, he buried his direct line of communication to one of the two people on the planet on whom an agreement depends (the other being Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei). Furthermore, it stands to reason that the U.S. negotiators with Iran have indicated to their Iranian interlocutors the difficulties Obama is facing at home, urging them to reach the very agreement that Netanyahu opposes.

The decision by Netanyahu to go all out against Obama is obviously motivated by a deep concern for Israel’s long-term security, even if is tainted by the slight perception that electoral calculus played a role in his decision.

But it is a decision wrought with major problems. The Iranian nuclear issue will not fade away once there is an agreement. There will be arguments about interpretations of the various clauses of the agreement; there will be violations of the agreement; and the agreement will not compel Iran to become a peace-loving nation, turning the rockets and missiles it spreads across the Middle East into water pipelines for the millions of refugees made by its other proxy, Syrian President Bashar Assad. Israel will continue to need the United States to lead the efforts to make Iran adhere to an agreement, even if the prime minister deems it a bad one.

Sitting quietly, but no less concerned about a “bad deal,” is Saudi Arabia.

In the last few years there has been a marked shift in Saudi thinking on nuclear issues. Saudi princes have explicitly and publicly stated that the Kingdom will be obliged to examine its own nuclear military option if Tehran is not stopped in its march toward nuclear weapons. Some of the most senior Saudi princes have said that if Tehran is granted the “right” to enrich uranium, Riyadh should explore obtaining its own nuclear capability. It is highly probable that a U.S.-Iran deal will prompt Saudi Arabia to demand a similar agreement.

Saudi Arabia is concerned that a deal will strengthen Iran at its expense. Thus, the Saudis might challenge any diplomatic breakthrough the United States achieves with Iran. Riyadh fears Washington might make concessions to Tehran, or, alternatively, reward it for making concessions by giving it a free hand in the region, to the Saudis’ detriment. The Saudis fear that no matter what terms are agreed, Iran will emerge victorious, and that any agreement will recognize the Islamic Republic as a nuclear threshold state.

Even if no final agreement is signed, the Saudis fear the negotiations themselves have placed its regional rival on a par with the world’s leading superpowers.

King Abdullah’s death last month and the ascension of his half-brother, Salman, will not alter the core strategic interest of Saudi Arabia. “We will continue adhering to the correct policies which Saudi Arabia has followed since its establishment,” said Salman, in a speech broadcast on state television hours after he became king. The following week, in a private meeting, he reportedly urged Obama not to allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon.

Israel and Saudi Arabia share the threat of a deal being reached that they both view as bad. They also share the threat of Iran becoming a nuclear power. Yet their different political cultures, behavior and style result in markedly varied approaches to fending off those threats.

Given the White House’s loud and clear response to Netanyahu’s impending speech, it is clear the Obama administration prefers the quiet, behind-the-scenes approach of the Saudis. Perhaps, then, Israel could be more effective if it adopted a similar, quiet diplomacy.

Oded Eran is Israel’s former ambassador to Jordan and the European Union, and is currently a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. Yoel Guzansky is a senior research fellow in the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv University and former Iran Coordinator in Israel’s National Security Council.



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