The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, popularly known as the Iran nuclear deal, had the potential to end decades of tension between that country, the United States and its EU partners. With guarantees in place to ensure that the Islamic Republic wouldn’t pursue nuclear weapons in exchange for an end to various sanctions, it seemed that this long-term threat to regional stability had been neutralized and that Iran would finally be able to take its place in the community of nations.
Left angry by these diplomatic compromises were Israel and Saudi Arabia, major regional powers with their own reasons for opposing the deal and Iran generally. Although they still don’t have official diplomatic ties, the two countries have secretly grown closer in recent years, primarily in opposition to the Persian nation.
Behind the scenes cooperation between the two first came semi-officially into public view in the summer of 2015 when representatives of both countries appeared at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington and admitted as much. As reported by Bloomberg, the two speakers at the forum claimed their governments had met in secret at least five times in previous months to discuss ways to check Iran’s growing power and influence.
While there’s some truth to claims of Iran’s growing regional prestige, this is mostly due to that country’s patience and the blunders the U.S. and its allies have committed over two administrations, especially in Iraq, Syria.and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan. The first two disasters were encouraged from the sidelines by erstwhile partners Israel and Saudi Arabia, who now bitterly complain about growing Persian influence.
While Iran’s theocratic Republic leaves much to be desired in terms of individual rights and the government’s public rhetoric is often harsh, it’s unfair to call the country “the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism” as so many Western politicians and journalists do, leading the general public to assume that this is true.
Surely this dubious distinction should go to the Saudis, who, in promoting their own austere brand of Islam, Wahhabism, by funding religious schools and mosques throughout the world, have, at the very least, contributed to the radicalization of many Sunnis. More importantly, many private individuals in the Kingdom are known to give support to terrorist groups, some of whom, like ISIS, target Shia civilians as apostates.
To explain the ongoing sectarian bloodshed, many Western commentators have put forward the idea of a centuries-long conflict between Shia and Sunni Islam comparable to the violence that plagued Europe after the Protestant Reformation. They tell us that the 7th-century dispute over succession that caused a religious schism in Islam is the source of contemporary tensions throughout the Greater Middle East, something that’s not borne out by even a cursory examination of the region’s history.
Having said this, both countries have their reasons to explain contemporary violence in religious terms; it may be the crudest, but it’s also one of the most effective forms of propaganda. This parallels the way the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has long been used by Iran and their Saudi enemies alike to distract their populations from problems at home.
Part of the reasoning put forward by some sympathetic observers for the behind the scenes warming of relations between Israel and the Saudi monarchy is that previous security guarantees from Washington and its NATO allies are unraveling, although there’s very little real evidence to support this.
While the U.S. did abstain from a recent vote to censure Israel for its continued settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank at the UN, a few weeks earlier, the same administration guaranteed the country some 38 billion in aid over the next ten years, most of it to buy American weapons.
On the Saudi side, concessions from the U.S. and other Western allies have gone even further since the Iran deal. These include multi-billion dollar arms sales as well as active assistance to the Saudis and their Gulf state allies in their savage bombardment and siege of Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East.
While most people are aware of Israel’s continuing mistreatment of the Palestinians, fewer know about the discrimination practiced by the Saudi government against the Shia minority located in the east of the country where much of the oil that sustains the Kingdom’s economy is located. The execution on charges of terrorism of Nimr al-Nimr, a popular Saudi Shia cleric who called on his followers to protest their treatment at the hands of the monarchy and Wahhabist religious authorities, deepened the sectarian divide there and resulted in riots and the burning of the Saudi embassy in Iran.
The serious danger that the Israeli-Saudi alliance represents to peace and diplomacy in the Middle East can be shown by the latter’s willingness, apparently expressed as the negotiations that led to the Iran nuclear deal were taking place, to open up their airspace for a possible Israeli attack on the Islamic Republic, something that would have been unthinkable just a few years before.
While both Israel and Saudi Arabia may have an advantage in terms of technology and advanced weaponry, Iran has a bigger army than either and a larger population to draw on in case of a prolonged conflict. It also holds the keys to the Strait of Hormuz, through which most of the region’s oil must be shipped, making an attack on the country a dangerous proposition for the world economy.
A diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks in 2009 showed growing U.S. awareness of the warming relations between Israel and the Gulf Monarchies, long before anything became known to the wider public. The cable summarizes the thinking of Israeli diplomat Yakov Hadas who saw the better relations not just as a function of the tension with Iran “but also due to the Arabs’ belief in Israeli influence in Washington”.
The ‘Lebanonization’ of Syria
Perhaps the biggest test of the Saudi-Israeli partnership to date has been in Syria where both countries have an interest in seeing Bashar Al-Assad and his government overthrown.
Israeli government thinking on Shia-Sunni tensions and how they relate to the ongoing bleeding of Syria were summed up by Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, who was quoted by Reuters in 2013 saying, “We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran.”
By removing Assad, many Israeli leaders believed that they could stop the flow of arms from Iran through the country to the Shia Hezbollah militia in southern Lebanon, while at the same time silencing a government that has been among its most strident critics, especially as regards the Palestinians, more than half a million of whom lived in Syria before the war.
On the other side of this equation, as the leader of the last remaining bastion of secular Arab nationalism in the Greater Middle East, Assad, like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi before him, was seen as setting a political example dangerous to the Gulf monarchies and his country’s long alliance with Iran only increased the enmity.
While the recent advances by the Syrian Arab Army, aided by various Shia militias from throughout the region, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and game changing Russian air and special forces support, do point to a short-term victory for this coalition, over the longer term both Israel and Saudi Arabia may see a small victory in the way the war has gone. This is because the country has been “Lebanonized” or fragmented along ethnic and sectarian lines to such a degree that reconciliation will be a difficult task.
In many ways this follows the ideas laid out by an Israeli strategist, Oded Yinon, in the 1980s, when he proposed what came to be called the Yinon Plan:
“The total disintegration of Lebanon into five regional local governments is the precedent for the entire Arab world… The dissolution of Syria and later Iraq into districts of ethnic and religious minorities following the example of Lebanon is Israel’s main long-range objective on the Eastern front… Syria will disintegrate into several states along the lines of its ethnic and religious structure… As a result, there will be a Shi’ite Alawi state, the district of Aleppo will be a Sunni state and the district of Damascus another state which is hostile to the northern one.”
Missing from this earlier analysis, besides the order being reversed between Iraq and Syria, is the subsequent rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon, who have become a far more effective fighting force than anyone could have predicted at the time.
Although not as rosy as the assessments made by militaristic intellectuals and think tanks in the West leading up to the war in Iraq and intervention in Libya, the basic truth that the results of intervention can rarely be foreseen also seems lost on those Israeli policy makers pushing a variation of the Yinon Plan in Syria today.
While less obvious than the financial support and arms given to many of the groups fighting the government in Syria by Saudi Arabia and its allies, Israel has also worked to help overthrow Assad through airstrikes on government targets and, more covertly, by providing medical assistance to the insurgents, including many who would be called terrorists in any other context.
Those helped in this way include fighters from insurgent forces like the recently rebranded Al Qaeda franchise, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat Al Nusra) and the Islamic Muthanna Movement. As reported by The National, an English-language newspaper out of the UAE in early June, a facilitator for the insurgents would put in a call to Israeli forces who would then pick up wounded fighters at an agreed upon location and take them for treatment in Israel.
“We’ve had wounded people taken across and get airlifted to specialist facilities far inside Israel, we couldn’t dream of getting that kind of treatment here, our field hospitals don’t even have proper doctors or painkillers,” a rebel commander in Deraa told the paper, earlier noting that “More than 250“ rebels had received care in Israel.
An Uncertain Future
It has been obvious from the beginning of the bloody quagmire in Syria that the Obama Administration was having its arm twisted from within by pro-intervention officials like UN Ambassador Samantha Power and by allies outside, including Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The fact that three Sunni states opposed to Assad, namely Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have a great deal of leverage over the U.S. military could help explain the U.S. government’s somewhat erratic responses to the conflict in Syria. As a former official in the administration recently told reporter Gareth Porter under condition of anonymity, the Obama administration was hamstrung diplomatically “because of the direct U.S. military interests at stake in its alliances with those three states: the Saudis effectively controlled U.S. access to the naval base in Bahrain, Turkey controlled the airbase at Incirlik and Qatar controlled land and air bases that had become central to U.S. military operations in the region.”
While the English-language Israeli press often provides a nuanced view of the war and its regional implications, American supporters of Netanyahu and the Likud Party in Israel, a clear majority of mainstream commentators on both sides of the American partisan divide, concentrate exclusively on the very real crimes of the Syrian government, ignoring the absolute savagery of most of the opposition besides ISIS, with these groups romantically referred to as ‘rebels’ rather than ‘insurgents’ or ‘terrorists’ in the press.
Judging by some of President-Elect Trump’s cabinet picks it appears that both Israel and its mostly silent partners in the Gulf have won the lottery in terms of anti-Iranian sentiment in Washington. Whether this will translate into action remains to be seen but security cooperation between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the smaller monarchies of the Gulf aimed at Iran is likely to continue, with the potential for an accidental or deliberate confrontation that would have repercussions far beyond the region growing by the day.
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