Israel’s options in a changing Mideast: Don't overlook rapprochement with Iran
The national security of Israel rests on its own formidable military and the support of the U.S., but it also rests on arrangements with regional powers. These arrangements have shifted over the last few decades, and the dynamics of the Arab Spring make another shift possible – perhaps a momentous and even initially implausible shift.
Egypt is no longer the acquiescent neighbor to the west that it became after the Camp David Accords, and Syria may not be the intimidated neighbor to the east it has long been.
In recent years, against many expectations, Israel and Saudi Arabia have aligned, at least temporarily, against Iran, which they fear is becoming too powerful and perhaps determined to build nuclear weapons. The long-term viability of Israel’s cooperation with Saudi Arabia is unlikely, as it is being reshaped by Arab Spring developments and events inside Iran.
Two scenarios will be considered: weakness inside Saudi Arabia that makes it a less than useful partner; and new priorities inside Saudi Arabia that bode ill for Israel. Future governments of the Jewish state, if not the present one, will do well to find a new partner in the region. That partner may be an emerging Kurdish state. But for many years it was Iran – and it may be again one day.
Saudi Arabia has thus far not been wracked by popular uprisings like those that erupted in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria.
This is in large part because of subsidies the House of Saud bestows on its subjects. These subsidies, however, may not be sustainable as the population is growing faster than oil revenue, leading to the possibility of widespread disappointment, reappraisal, and unrest. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia is entering a protracted succession period as power shifts from the sons of Abdul Aziz bin Saud (1876-1953) into the hands of a heterogenous and unwieldy generation of grandsons and grandnephews – perhaps even a large number of granddaughters and grandnieces.
Finally, Saudi Arabia will face increasing unrest from its Shia population – about fifteen percent of the population.
The problems of revenue, succession, and sectarianism may come to the fore simultaneously in the next few years. Instability inside Saudi Arabia will diminish its usefulness in the opposition to Iran’s nuclear program and end its role as a leader of the Sunni world, including in the Gulf Cooperation Council. The region would become even less stable, leaving Israel without a regional security partner.
A second and perhaps more likely scenario is continued stability inside Saudi Arabia combined with a quest to influence the Arab Spring in an unwelcome direction from Israel’s perspective.
The Saudis may use their considerable financial and cultural resources to oppose democracy in the new polities and bring them into a Sunni league, which they will of course direct. Moreover, this league will be arranged to defend Saudi Arabia and build its hegemony over the Middle East through coalescing new armies out of the weakened ones in Egypt, post-Assad Syria, and the resentful Sunni regions of Iraq. All these countries have fielded disciplined militaries, all of which have served authoritarian rule, were weakened by democratic-secular forces, and have fought wars with Israel. The House of Saud, despite lavish arms purchases, has never built an effective army, as its lackadaisical performance in the First Gulf War demonstrated. It may seek to build a strong, reliable, semi-mercenary one with the help of disgruntled foreign generals.
The disposition of the generals and their troops toward Israel needs no elaboration, nor does that of the House of Saud or most of its subjects for that matter. Such a military league would pose a considerable danger to Israel. The Wahhabi sect is as hostile to Israel as any creed, including Al Qaida’s, and its doctrines are part of every Saudi’s education. The Palestinian issue comes and goes in Saudi policy, but there can be little doubt of its prominence in a Saudi league of states.
Rising antagonism with Saudi Arabia can be countered by several measures. First, Israel may try to drive a wedge between Saudi Arabia and the less powerful and less militant principalities in the Gulf – Qatar, Bahrain, the Emirates, Kuwait, and Oman. However, these states are now tightly allied with Saudi Arabia, owing chiefly to a shared concern with Iran. Second, Israel can attempt to side with democratic forces in the post-authoritarian states of Egypt, Tunisia, and perhaps Syria, which are being courted by Saudi Arabia in order to stifle democracy and align the new regimes with its interests. This option also presents problems as those new regimes contain formidable Islamist elements that are opposed to Israel.
Third, Israel can encourage the development of a powerful Kurdish state. This is already underway in northern Iraq where Israel intelligence has long had ties with Kurdish groups which exerted pressure on Saddam’s army. Northern Iraq may soon ally with Kurdish parts of Syria, combining to form an oil-rich country or autonomous region.
This, however, presents two problems: the Kurds are deeply divided into several tribal networks and a unitary state isn’t in the foreseeable future; and the coalescence of any semblance of Kurdish power will greatly alarm Turkey and Iran, which will reduce the Kurds’ ability to influence events in Sunni Arab regions relevant to Israeli security.
Fourth, Israel may encourage turmoil or even fragmentation inside a menacing Saudi Arabia by encouraging dissent in the generational, tribal, and sectarian camps already mentioned. The Shia population is concentrated in the oil-producing regions in the east. There are scores of tribes that are not fond of the House of Saud and its alliances and pretenses of piety. Most tribes have separate units in the Saudi national guard, unintegrated with the regular army. This option will weaken Saudi Arabia but not add a viable security partner.
A fifth option requires looking further into future and putting aside apparently hardened positions. Depending on the extent and imminence of a Saudi danger, Israel may look into a rapprochement with a present-day adversary which once was a strong ally – Iran.
The two states are of course presently enmeshed in a contest over Iran’s nuclear program, but they once shared a concern over Sunni Arab states and ongoing events may bring back that shared concern. We need not look too far into European history to see that Britain and Russia have been enemies and allies more than once, as have France and Germany, Italy and Austria. Hardened positions do not exist in diplomatic history; they are figments of the imaginations of artless politicians. Circumstances change – and they are changing rapidly in the Middle East today.
An Israel-Iranian rapprochement could use Shia influences in most of the Sunni states (especially Saudi Arabia) to weaken any coalescing threat. Israel and Iran have the two most powerful militaries in the region. Shia Iraq, already leaning toward Tehran, would add significantly to the counterpoise. The two geopolitical bookends could bring security to both countries and a measure of stability to the region. Conflict with Hizsbullah could be contained and talks on nuclear programs could take place in a less hostile atmosphere – if indeed the issue is deemed crucial after a rapprochement. Even an easing of tensions and a modicum of cooperation would check Saudi ambitions.
Israel and Iran were not allied out of shared ideologies or religion or political affinities. Nor was cooperation ended with the rise of Khomeini in 1979; the two powers continued to cooperate, especially after Iran was invaded by a Sunni-dominated Iraq backed by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni principalities. The relationship was based on geography and interests. The geography of course hasn’t changed greatly; ongoing events, however, are bringing a return of shared interests upon which the two countries once built a stable partnership.
Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.