Iran is engaged in a concerted military expansion of its military assets in the Middle East, including missiles and drones. The State of Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are the two most important pillars in the emerging new regional security architecture in the Middle East in particular and in Islamdom at large. Yet, Saudi Arabia is deferring its normalization with Israel because of concessions it expects to get from the next Trump administration in return for normalizing with Israel, and which the Biden administration inexplicably refuses to provide. While this Saudi consideration is profoundly understandable as the American-Saudi relationship is critical to Saudi national security, it does not make sense in terms of countering the Iranian regional threat.
Contrary to what most observers seem to expect is an agreement in Vienna with Tehran highly unlikely for the simple reason that Iran is pretending to negotiate and is playing for time while racing towards the bomb. It is however possible that faux negotiations will continue even after the formal demise of the JCPOA as indeed envisioned by US Iran envoy Rob Malley whose not so secret goal since the Obama era is full alignment between the United States of America and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The JCPOA succeeded in breaking up the great power consensus on Iran and ending UN economic sanctions against Tehran. These Iranian achievements will no doubt remain in place. Rob Malley’s ambitions are however disconnected from the harsh realities of how the Khomeinist regime views the world at large and America in particular.
Saudi Arabia would be particularly well-advised to change its wait-and-see approach and opt for early normalization with Israel irrespective of American policy. The American political system has become so unstable that the United States can no longer be completely relied on by its Arab allies. This is an unfortunate reality, yet Arab nations have no alternative to aligning with Israel since China and Russia are already aligned with Iran. The Saudi game is based on an empty threat, realignment with China which no one believes will happen. The Saudi-Israeli-American triangular relationship is thus the best hope for reinvigorating the alliance between Riyadh and Washington.
It is quite urgent to build a new regional security architecture in the Middle East in particular and in Islamdom at large and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an indispensable part of that. Regional powers are most likely miscalculating when assuming that there will be an agreement in Vienna. What we may see is rather an early military confrontation between Iran and its foes in the Middle East. It would be extremely unfortunate if the anti-Khomeinist side would not be properly prepared and integrated because of simple miscalcalculations since this would give Iran and its satellites a distinct advantage in such a conflict.
Iran plans a regional and global apocalyptic terror war in order to prompt the Hidden Imam to reappear and there is no doubt that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is on the Iranian list of target nations. Rather than myopically waiting to pocket American concessions while Iran prepares for war, the KSA needs to act as an independent nation and fully attach itself to the emerging Israel-led axis in the wider region. This is the best strategy for rehabilitating the image of the KSA in Congress and in Washington at large. It is sad and very strange that as the KSA has increasingly disassociated itself from Islamism has the American-Saudi relationship been increasingly undermined. One should of course have expected the reverse. By fully joining the Israel-led axis will it become possible for major American Jewish organizations to credibly engage in a concerted effort to restore the American-Saudi relationship, including explaining the liberalizing agenda of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Most Westerners just do not understand that liberalization in Saudi Arabia (including the ongoing enfranchisement of women) can only be done with an iron fist considering the overwhelmingly Islamist sentiment of its citizens. Once Saudi Arabia is firmly in the pro-Israel camp will it however be quite easy to rebrand KSA and MBS in Washington.
Now that MBS is powerful enough to make the decision, he would be particularly well advised to prioritize Saudi national security. To send the signal that Riyadh keeps its Chinese option open is a mistake. Obviously like Israel, KSA needs to keep its Russian and Chinese strategic options open were it to be abandoned by Washington. However, to wield this threat in the face of American decision makers is a severe tactical mistake which makes the KSA look unreliable as an ally in American eyes. Rather, by aligning with the Israel-led axis, Riyadh is buying itself political insurance from being abandoned by Washington.
No one knows how much time remains of the negotiations in Vienna despite them having been supposed to have ended in early February. Rob Malley is on the record as planning another process of negotiations beyond the JCPOA and it remains unclear whether Iran will agree to participate. Irrespective, MBS must not allow his kingdom to be held hostage to the whims of Rob Malley. To defer normalization with Israel for three years until Donald Trump and Jared Kushner return to the White House would be the height of irresponsibility considering the severity of the immediate threat posed by the Iranian axis to Saudi national security. Furthermore, Iranian threats to Saudi national security can no longer reasonably be separated from Iranian threats to others in the region. No one knows when the war between Iran and Israel will happen but if there is no agreement in Vienna, a war may break out as early as in the fall of 2022 after Israel and America destroy the Iranian nuclear weapons program. What is clear however is that many nations are on Iran’s target list as perceived “enemies of Islam” (i.e. enemies of Khomeinism) and the KSA is no doubt one of them.
What conclusions can be drawn so far from MBS’ years in power? He has proven to be a highly adept political operator in domestic politics in navigating his nation towards ever greater liberalization. MBS’ foreign and defense policy however, with all due respect (and I am writing this as a friend of the kingdom and an admirer of MBS) has not been particularly successful to put things mildly. While MBS undoubtedly is highly skilled at domestic politics, he remains a political novice in foreign and defense policy and needs to bring in a broader range of advisors. Furthermore, he would be particularly well-advised to consult with and coordinate with his friends in Jerusalem who no doubt will be happy to help out. MBS will quickly discover that Jews – contrary to Anti-Semitic defamation – are the most loyal people in the world. Jews in having experience from living in Diaspora for thousands of years have developed the pattern of being simultaneously loyal to their own nation and to other nations that are friendly towards the Jewish nation. This clear pattern remains in Israeli foreign policy and in the policies of major American Jewish Organizations such as the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the “State Department” of the American Jewish community. Israel is clearly more loyal to its friends among the nations than those nations are loyal to Israel and one reason for this is that Israel is so loyal to its friends among the nations that Israel is virtually taken for granted.
There is tremendous potential to explore in the Saudi-Israeli-American triangular relationship. Once Saudi Arabia has followed in the path of Bahrain, UAE and Morocco will it be substantially easier for major American Jewish organizations to rehabilitate and rebrand the KSA in Washington. It is not that the willingness to do so does not exist already now, but rather that the task practically speaking will become extremely easier once MBS has made the strategic decision to no longer defer normalization with Israel and thus fully align KSA with the Israel-led axis in the broader Middle East.