With Saudi Arabia opening the country’s air space to all air carriers, including Israeli flights, and Israel approving the outlines of a deal recognizing Saudi sovereignty over the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir, there have been signs that U.S.-brokered negotiations between Riyadh and Tel Aviv to achieve normalization of diplomatic relations may be in the cards, as well. While some Arab Gulf countries, such as Iraq and Kuwait, have ruled out advancing diplomatic ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia has kept the normalization option on the table.
Although tectonic shifts in the normalization process are unlikely to occur in the short-term (according to both Saudi and Israeli leaders), common fears arising from threats emanating from Iran—especially its missile program, nuclear activities, and support of Shia armed militias across the Middle East—have brought the Saudis and Israelis closer together. While the two countries have already taken concrete steps in this direction by taking part in a U.S.-led, 18-day naval drill in the Red Sea in early 2022. More engagement in the security domain is expected as a U.S.-backed air defense alliance comprising Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain to counter the Iranian threat is gradually taking shape.
However, if their shared interest in containing Iranian regional ambition is clear for all to see, more subtle and nuanced differences are gradually coming to the surface. Indeed, although the two countries regard Iran with great suspicion, their threat perceptions still vary, and the two states resort to distinct strategies to counter Iran’s influence throughout the Middle East.
Israel and Iran: Enmity and Survival
Israel has long considered Iran its most bitter enemy and an existential threat to its survival. With national security at stake, Tel Aviv has recurrently conducted preventive, covert military operations against Iran as a primary instrument of its defense policy toolkit. Although Israel’s counterterrorism campaigns have predominantly focused on thwarting close-proximity threats in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, a strategic shift has occurred within Israeli security doctrine, with in-depth strikes on Iranian soil becoming more and more frequent. Indeed, the growing perception among the Israeli leadership, and especially among the Mossad, is that Iran is on the brink of developing a nuclear weapon and its regional proxies are close to securing significant breakthroughs in advanced missile technology. These underlying assumptions pressure the Israelis to “further weaken the head of the octopus” [Iran], as Israel’s former Prime Minister Naftali Bennet affirmed. Since this tactical recalibration took place in early 2022, the number of Israel-attributed sabotage activities targeting Iranian military facilities and personnel has reached unprecedented figures.
From Kermanshah to Tabriz and Parchin, many Iranian drones and missile warehouses, production sites, research laboratories, and airbases have been hit by high-precision UAV strikes. Meanwhile, targeted assassinations have inflicted severe losses during the latest months. Three mid-ranking officials of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) perished during planned killings or in unclarified circumstances over the past weeks, while the IRGC Colonel Hassan Sayad Khodayari fell victim to a drive-by shooting in late May. At the same time, two scientists believed to work for military research centers died due to interaction with poisonous substances. Although Tel Aviv tends to not comment about its direct involvement in these covert operations, the fil rouge connecting these low-intensity clandestine activities recalls Israel’s shadow war playbook.
There are no signs that Israel intends to abandon its maximalist position vis-à-vis Iran, even under the leadership of centrist Prime Minister Yair Lapid. Even though Lapid made no qualms about the need to actively contain Iran when he was at the head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the situation may still change due to domestic and external pressures on the new PM. Indeed, the imperative to navigate the intricate web of Israeli domestic politics and the need to secure the White House’s support ahead of upcoming political elections might nudge PM Lapid to slightly distance himself from his predecessor and opt for a less confrontational stance against Iran. However, even though President Biden and PM Lapid found common ground on the need to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapon capability, as mentioned in the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration signed during the U.S. President’s visit to Jerusalem on July 14, 2022, the two leaders publicly differed on the best approach to deter Iranian nuclear ambitions. While President Biden affirmed that diplomacy and cooperation will remain the principal axes of U.S. foreign policy with the Iranians with the use of force featuring as a means of last resort, PM Lapid maintained that an iron fist policy represents the only viable option to concretely stop Iran’s nuclear program.
It is still too early to tell whether the next round of Israeli elections will bring about a more conciliatory or dovish government in Tel Aviv, and how much the specter of Iran will influence the government’s agenda. In past government coalitions, regardless of their composition, the Islamic Republic was regularly featured as the most dangerous threat to the country’s survival. This consolidated pattern would hardly change over the following months. Moreover, although debates have begun to emerge within the Israeli security apparatus—with the military intelligence and the Mossad dueling over the best approach to deal with the Iranian nuclear issue—Tehran is expected to dominate Israel’s perceptions of insecurity and inform the strategic thinking of its political and military leadership for the foreseeable future.
Saudi Arabia and Iran: Competition and Coexistence
Unlike Israel, Saudi Arabia views Iran as a rival for regional dominance and a destabilizing force in Saudi domestic governance, but not as an existential threat to the kingdom. Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been at odds with each other, but their unwillingness to engage in outright war has pushed the two countries to fight their battle for regional hegemony in arenas throughout the Middle East, from Yemen, to Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain, and Iraq. Indeed, their pattern of proxy conflict has turned the region into a powder keg—an area where bilateral competition has exacerbated existing hostilities and transformed the Middle East into a tension-ridden, war-torn environment.
The Iranian-Saudi relationship hit rock bottom when, in 2016, Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran in the wake of the Saudi execution of the Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. As a result of the attack on its embassy, Riyadh cut diplomatic ties with Tehran, and tensions between the two have only continued brewing. Relations almost reached a point of no return when a wave of drone attacks, reportedly attributed to Iran, knocked out the Saudi oil facilities of Abqaiq and Khurais on September 14, 2019. However, rather than triggering an armed showdown in the Gulf, mutual vulnerability to such devastating attacks rendered a head-on conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia too costly to undertake. The growing acknowledgment from both sides that certain costs will prove too great to bear has caused the parties to seek limited gains where possible, and seek a period of lukewarm rapprochement.
Indeed, although tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have reached the precipice on many occasions during the last decade, Tehran and Riyadh have regularly practiced prudent decision-making when tensions are high. Despite cyclical setbacks and occasional periods of hostility, Saudi Arabia and Iran have taken steps in addressing their differences through negotiation and dialogue.
During an interview aired by Saudi television on April 27, 2021, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman called for a “good and distinguished relationship with Iran.” He also implicitly recognized Iran as a legitimate regional power by addressing the Islamic Republic as a “neighboring country.” The Saudi crown prince affirmed these positions almost a year later, stating that “Iran is a neighbor forever, we cannot get rid of them and they cannot get rid of us.” The growing acknowledgment that no party would be able to outlast the other in war—without suffering prohibitive costs in the process, of course—has persuaded Iran and Saudi Arabia to enter fence-mending talks. Initially held in secrecy, five rounds of talks have taken place in Baghdad since April 2021. With Iranian and Saudi representatives regularly sitting at the negotiating table engaged in tension-easing talks, a diplomatic off-ramp to manage conflicts between Tehran and Riyadh has gradually taken shape.
The Complexity of the Saudi Security Dilemma
Although Saudi Arabia appreciates Israel’s critical role in keeping Iran’s military development, apparatus, and operations in check, especially in Syria and Lebanon, the Iranian-Saudi diplomatic track has proven a cheaper and peaceful method of demonstrating Riyadh’s interests to the Iranian regime. Almost certainly, bilateral talks will not prove a silver bullet to deal with cross-Gulf tensions, as negotiations remain highly vulnerable to geopolitical developments and have suffered periodical halts in the past.
However, if talks between Tehran and Riyadh persist long enough to build sufficient trust and confidence between the two parties, the appeal of a closer Saudi relationship with Israel may diminish somewhat. Having established a direct and preferential conduit to communicate with the Iranians, partnering with the Israelis may appear too politically costly for the Saudi leadership. Undoubtedly, the stop-and-go pattern that has characterized the Iranian-Saudi talks until now has inhibited progress. But the fact that these major rivals have the political will to maintain the talks is telling of their commitment to not give up on detente.
Undoubtedly, the political makeup of the region remains highly dependent on the future of the Iranian nuclear deal, which serves as a backdrop to any bilateral talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran. However the Iran nuclear deal negotiations conclude, whether with a collapse of the JCPOA or its full implementation (or somewhere in between),the Saudis are likely to rely more on Kadhimi-mediated, backchannel diplomacy to facilitate crisis communication with the Iranians at times of unease. As long as Riyadh refuses to get caught up in an escalation trap with Tehran, it would probably continue with its damage-control and conflict-prevention policy rather than embracing an active containment posture based on sabotage and clandestine activities.
Although Saudi Arabia and Israel share a multitude of security interests, it is less easy for leaders in both countries to forge common policy based on these interests. It would be a worrying miscalculation for observers to assume that the two countries perceive the threat posed by Iran similarly, or that they envision similar policy responses to address their concerns. While Riyadh and Tel Aviv seem to have reached a general consensus on the need to contain Tehran’s regional ambitions, they seem to face different security dilemmas when dealing with Iran. Should Saudi Arabia and Israel opt for full diplomatic normalization, it is not yet clear how these differences would impact the future of Saudi bilateral ties with both Iran and Israel in a highly unpredictable and increasingly fractious region.