In a previous article we saw how the geo-political struggle for hegemony in the Middle East resulted in a bloodshed in Yemen, where the coalition led by Saudi Arabia is still fighting the Houthis, a Shiite group allegedly supported by Iran. In that same article, I mentioned that the negotiations for a nuclear deal with Iran trouble other regional actors, first and foremost the Saudis and the Israelis.
Today’s the deadline for the nuclear deal – a deadline most likely to be missed – between the Permanent Five of the UN Security Council (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China) along with Germany (P5+1) and Iran. According to the forthcoming deal, the economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic will be lifted in exchange for a reduction in Iranian nuclear activities. Iranian President, Hassan Rohani, a cleric that has sailed the turbulent waves of the country’s politics since Khomeini’s revolution, calls himself a moderate and a reformer. In fact, he was the first Iranian leader to start a dialogue with a US President since 1979. In September 2011, newly elected, he gave a much anticipated speech in front of the UN General Assembly. He announced his country’s willingness to start negotiations over Iran’s nuclear capacity, asserting that Iran has no interest whatsoever in acquiring nuclear weapons, which – by the way – are against Iranian Islamic ethics.
Forever sceptical, both the Saudis and the Israelis never believed in Iran’s good faith and have indeed made clear their annoyance with Barack Obama’s closeness to Rohani’s Iran. An article published on March 30 on The Independent reported an Israeli official saying: «Necessity creates alliances. The necessity for us and the Saudis in particular – as well as the Gulf states, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, Jordan and Egypt – is to be on our guard against Iran, which is an aggressive expansionist power. We think the nuclear deal that the Iranians may persuade the international community to sign would make all of us vulnerable in this region, and so co-operation makes sense.»
Officially, Saudi Arabia and Israel never had diplomatic relations. However, two important personalities have recently revealed secret contacts between their countries. I’m talking about Anwar Majed Eshki, former Saudi ambassador to the United States, and Dore Gold, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and current Foreign Ministry director. The event was organised and hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington. Eshki talked about peace between the Arabs and Israel, about regime change in Iran, about greater cooperation among the Arab countries (including a regional military force) and about the creation of a Kurdish homeland to be carved out Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Gold shared with Eshki the worries about Iran but carefully avoided openly talking about regime change and remarked that, despite common goals and worries about the Islamic Republic, many issues need to be addressed between Saudi Arabia and Israel before moving to an alliance.
Hints to an approach between Saudi Arabia and Israel date back to 2010 when WikiLeaks published a document whereby an Israeli official noted common worries about Iran between the Arabs and Israel and observed that the Arabs seemed to believe that Tel Aviv could effectively lobby Washington with respect to the Islamic Republic. (In hindsight, this perception was clearly mistaken.)
However, many commentators are cautious about the perspective of a formal alliance between Tel Aviv and Riyadh. Elliot Abrams (CFR) wrote unequivocally: «There’s no Saudi-Israeli alliance or friendship today, nor will there be one tomorrow.»
Another country potentially interested in an anti-Iran alliance would be Turkey. Languishing in splendid isolation, Turkey is now looking to claw back its relevance on the regional stage. In February, Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdogan visited the newly installed Saudi king, Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud to test the waters. Unfortunately, his staunching opposition to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi‘s Egypt – an essential ally to the Saudi crown – makes it rather difficult to lure the Saudis. Al-Sisi and the al-Saud family share the hatred against the Muslim Brotherhood and both have declared them a terrorist organisation. On the other hand, Erdogan supports the Brotherhood’s reformist push in the Arab world.
Professor of international relations F. Gregory Gause III writing on the Washington Post offers an interesting analysis about the reasons why a regional alliance against Iran is nowhere to be seen.
According to the balance of power theory, the convergence of anxieties over a common enemy should sustain the birth of an axis between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Saudi Arabia and Israel certainly identify Iran as a direct threat. Turkey, perhaps less troubled, needs the region to reach a favourable equilibrium. The crux, says Gause, is that these countries and Iran represent very different socio-political models that, ultimately, are incompatible with each other. Despite being both Sunni countries, Turkey and Saudi Arabia political systems are radically different: Erdogan’s Turkey is a democratic republic that espouses a populist style and supports the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab countries; King Salman’s Saudi Arabia is an assertive monarchy that supports the other monarchies in the region and does not appreciate reformist and democratic movements. On its part, Israel is a whole different story from the point of view of religion, ethnicity and socio-political system. Furthermore, it pursues an unacceptable policy with respect to Gaza and the West Bank. At the same time, Iran appears as a tempting alternative to the Arab-Sunni order for the Shiites and it does contest this very order, largely the product of US policy in the region.
«The Middle East is not simply a multipolar region in terms of power. It is also multipolar ideologically,» writes Gause. Regional relations aren’t merely a balance of forces matter. They are part of an ideological competition. From a purely realist perspective, those countries that share a common enemy would gather to form an alliance. However, in a context of deep ideological differences, their leaders are rather wary and cautious. Above all, none of them is ready to see a former ally gain the hegemonic position in the region at its own expense. Add to this the Islamic State factor and its volatility.
In sum, Iran deeply worries its neighbours, but they fail to gather for a meaningful alliance capable of overcoming rivalries and resentment. It remains what the nuclear deal will bring, and what consequences in terms of regional stability it will have.