For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s domestic opponents, it was just more fodder to label his new government a failure. The Israeli left was chortling about the news of China brokering a resumption of direct relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That’s because they thought it spoiled the premier’s meeting with Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni on a recent visit to Rome.
In the cutthroat zero-sum game of Israeli politics, the shocking development was seen primarily through the prism of the anti-Netanyahu resistance’s ongoing campaign to topple the coalition that won a majority in the November Knesset election. If this meant taking a short break from demonizing the government’s plans for judicial reform to snark about a development that seemingly thwarted one of the prime minister’s top foreign-policy goals – getting the Saudis to join the Abraham Accords and normalize relations with Israel – then they were happy to do it.
But the development was nothing to laugh about. And far from being something for which Netanyahu could be assigned even partial blame or reflecting poorly on his priorities, this had little to do with Israel or even with any of the issues that have long held up Saudi Arabia’s joining the accords.
The real culprit is the Biden administration.
President Joe Biden’s foreign policy has been highlighted by the disaster in Afghanistan and its embrace of Ukraine, whose security it seems to value more than that of America’s own borders. But one consistent theme has been the attempt on the part of the Obama administration alumni back at work in Washington to revive their old boss’s pivot in the Middle East away from longtime allies Israel and Saudi Arabia to a new alignment based on a rapprochement with Iran.
That’s the context for the Iran-Saudi pact.
The two longtime foes will re-establish diplomatic relations and the Saudis have received promises – in theory, guaranteed by China – that Iran will cease trying to overthrow the monarchy via the use of its terrorist auxiliaries in the region.
That’s a coup for Beijing that further reinforces its effort to establish itself as a global superpower rival to the United States. But it’s also a sign that the Saudis understand its alliance with the Americans, which dates back to the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, is predicated on trading oil for security. And that was meaningless with a president like Biden. His combination of weakness and prejudice against their country left them vulnerable to the Iranians.
The Saudis, like the rest of the Middle East, know that the U.S. is no longer, in the parlance of the region, the “strong horse” feared by its enemies.
By contrast, Iran has shown its contempt for the U.S.
It thumbed its nose at Biden by coming to the aid of Russia after its illegal invasion of Ukraine. More importantly, it thwarted Biden’s quest for a new nuclear deal that would, like its 2015 predecessor from which former President Donald Trump rightly withdrew, more or less guarantee that Tehran would eventually get a weapon rather than prevent it. The Iranian regime realized that it could achieve its nuclear ambition without the West’s official acquiescence and that it need not fear any repercussions from Biden.
Iran’s rebuff would have caused a more sensible White House to understand that rebooting the alliance with the Saudis was a necessity.
Following up on the Trump administration’s success with the Abraham Accords would have been even smarter. Helping the Saudis to normalize relations with Israel – with whom it already had a tacit alliance against Iran – would have constrained Tehran’s efforts to foment unrest throughout the region via its terrorist auxiliaries and made it easier for Washington to turn to Riyadh for more oil during an energy crunch.
Instead, Biden’s open contempt for the Saudi de facto ruler, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, prevailed. The willingness of Democrats to treat his autocratic regime as a unique threat to human rights, while seeking to enrich and empower a far more barbarous Islamist tyranny in Tehran, sent a clear message to MBS that doing the Americans’ bidding when the war in Ukraine led to just such an energy shortage was not in his country’s interests.
MBS has come to the not-unreasonable conclusion that rather than depend on an administration that is uninterested in the survival of the House of Saud, he’d be better off hedging his bets by trying to cool down the conflict with the Iranians.
Still, it would be a mistake to conclude that the Saudis have irrevocably linked their fate with Iran and China, or that there is no way for Washington to retrieve the situation. MBS understands how worthless Tehran’s promises are. The prince isn’t so foolish as to think the Iranians aren’t still bent on toppling his family sooner or later.
That’s why the day before the deal with China and Iran was announced, The Wall Street Journal broke the news about the Saudis making clear to the U.S. the terms under which they would normalize relations with Israel.
Some believe the pact with Iran renders those discussions moot. But while the obstacles to changing the ties between the Saudis and Israel from an under-the-table relationship to one of formal recognition are still formidable, they are by no means insuperable. Or at least they don’t have to be, provided that Washington was interested in making it happen.
The price for normalization with Israel that the Saudis made public was steep. They want the U.S. to formally commit to guarantee their security. In addition to more arms sales, they want help in building a civilian nuclear program. That is really the beginning of a Saudi quest for a bomb with which they can deter Iran, which, thanks to Obama’s appeasement, is already a threshold nuclear power for all intents and purposes.
The U.S. has no interest in fomenting a Mideast nuclear race. The Saudi request, however, has more to do with their impatience with America’s unwillingness to keep Iran in line.
What was most conspicuous by its absence from the list of Saudi demands was any assurances from the U.S. or Israel about creating an independent Palestinian state, which is, at least according to foreign-policy establishment, the real obstacle to normalization.
Like other Gulf State governments, the Saudis have no interest in continuing to sacrifice their interests on the altar of Palestinian intransigence. They also rightly fear that any such state would be merely one more failed government vulnerable to overthrow by Islamists and provide Iran with more opportunities to create instability.
The real problem is not the Palestinians or even the Saudi nuclear wish list. It’s that the Biden administration has no desire to do something that would annoy Iran or help Netanyahu, who the Obama alumni hate as much as MBS.
But if Biden is serious about wanting to contain Iran, fend off China or even promote peace in the Middle East, then he needs to strengthen ties with Riyadh.
Guaranteeing the Saudis’ security will stick in the craw of Democrats, who inexplicably consider the murder of Jamal Khashoggi – an exiled Saudi ally of Iran who wrote for The Washington Post – to be a crime that is worse than any of those committed by Tehran. Yet the deal with Iran is a sign not so much of Saudi betrayal as it is that the U.S. has abandoned its friends.
By stepping up to formally assure the Saudis of American support, Biden can advance stability in the Middle East with a sequel to the Abraham Accords. It would also send a message to Iran and the Russians that the U.S. can still be a “strong horse” that can’t be slighted or ignored.
That would seem to be the most sensible course of action for the president. Should he fail to do so, it will be one more sign that he and his advisors prefer to focus on quarrels with MBS and Netanyahu, and ignore the threat from China rather than advance American interests or Middle East peace.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS – Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at @jonathans_tobin.