What is the deeper significance for Israel of the new peace deal brokered last month between Iran and Saudi Arabia by China?
The peace accord recast alliances and rivalries that have governed the region for decades, promising to alter the political landscape in multiple ways.
Foreign policy experts believe Iran, with help from China and Russia, will use the accord as a launching pad for a new anti-Western order that marginalizes the United States as a regional power, while magnifying Teheran’s threat to Israel.
History of Bloody Strife
The normalizing of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two regimes who were bitter enemies as far back as the 1979 Iranian revolution, sent shock waves across the Middle East, prompting political pundits of every stripe to weigh in with their predictions.
Iran follows the Shia Muslim faith, Saudi Arabia is predominantly Sunni. Shiites and Sunnis represent two Islamic sects and two different interpretations of the Koran—with both regimes vying to be the dominant Islamic power. The hatred and rivalry between them has sparked disastrous wars of attrition over the past 7 years, killing more than 370,000 people.
Diplomatic relations between the two Islamic powers broke off in 2016, after Iranians ransacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran in retaliation for the execution of a prominent Shia religious figure. Since then, the two countries have been at each other’s throats, fighting bloody proxy wars in adjacent countries.
Both Riyadh and Teheran finance militias and terrorist groups who are pitted against each other in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Iran’s militias in Iraq and Yemen have attacked Saudi oil facilities and civilian infrastructure with drones and ballistic missiles.
Iran also launched a drone and cruise missile attack on Saudi oil facilities in 2019 that temporarily shut down roughly 5 percent of global oil production, notes an article in Foreign Policy.
The murder and mayhem perpetrated during these wars have driven hostilities deep into the psyche of both nations. Anti-Saudi doctrines that portray the Saudi royal family as “infidels with Jewish origins” are deeply embedded in Iranian culture, the article says.
With such a blood-soaked history of hatred and violence, the fact that the two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding came as a shock to Middle East watchers. Saudi Arabia had sought a suspension of hostilities with Iran for years, but earlier talks went nowhere.
“The new peace accord does not mean that the Sunnis of Riyadh and the Shiites of Tehran have put aside all of their deep and visceral differences,” notes the NY times, adding that it’s conceivable that this new agreement may not even get to stage one—“the exchange of ambassadors.”
Given the deeply ingrained rancor between the parties, the agreement was put on a cautious two-month timetable to work out details. It calls for little more than restoring diplomatic relations, opening up embassies and each government allowing the other to use their airspace for civilian flight.
How Washington Was Left on the Sidelines
The manner in which Washington, once the dominant power broker in the Middle East, was left on the sidelines while the peace accord confirmed China’s rising influence in the region, fed right into Iran’s playbook.
After the deal was signed, Maj. Gen. Yahya Safavi, the top military adviser to Iran’s Ayatollah Khameini, said that the Iran-Saudi agreement was “an earthquake” to herald “the post-American era” in the Middle East, according to Time Magazine.
International coverage of the Iran-Saudi deal has echoed this perception, focusing as much on waning American influence as on Chinese success.
“The accord cements China’s new role as a diplomatic player in the Middle East and causes uneasiness to Washington, which sees Beijing’s economic power and diplomatic clout increasing, while its own influence diminishes in this region of the world,” commented Business Insider India.
“There is no way around it — this is a big deal,” said Amy Hawthorne, deputy director for research at the Project on Middle East Democracy, quoted in the NY Times. “Yes, the United States could not have brokered such a deal right now with Iran, since we have no relations. But China’s prestigious accomplishment vaults it into a new league diplomatically and outshines anything the U.S. has been able to achieve in the region since Biden came to office.”
China has slowly increased its presence in the region in the past two decades, with trade hitting more than $300 billion, the Times article said. Major engagements include its oil imports and export of a wide array of Chinese goods to the region, as well as humanitarian aid following the devastating earthquake in February.
Saudis Choose Security Over American Friendship
The Chinese exploited a vacuum of power created by multiple mistakes by the Biden administration, writes the Heritage Foundation, a foreign policy think tank. “Biden’s bumbling, disastrous 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan considerably lowered America’s stock in the region.”
In addition, the Administration made a bad situation worse by making vain efforts to appease Iran with another illusory nuclear agreement. This left the Saudis feeling endangered.
The Saudis regarded Biden’s drive to revive the Iran nuclear deal—which President Trump withdrew from in 2018—as a major threat to their own security. The feared that another weak and permissive nuclear deal would open the door to Iran’s escalating military and terrorist threats against its neighbors.
In addition, the Biden administration’s down-sizing of the U.S. military presence in the region and Biden’s cold-shoulder policies against Saudi Arabia after the 2018 assassination of a Saudi dissident living in America, prompted the Saudis to seek better protection against aggression by Iran.
Saudi Arabia has now moved to bolster its security by cultivating relations with Russia, China, and—most ironically—even arch enemy Iran. From this vantage point, President Biden’s disastrous foreign policy missteps may have been the catalyst that pushed Riyadh into China’s arms.
A Gift For The Ayatollah
Despite the accord’s low-key provisions, Iran stands to significantly benefit from it.
“For Khamenei, restoring ties with Saudi Arabia is the least important aspect of the deal,” the Foreign Policy article notes. “What’s most important is that it’s one more milestone toward achieving the regime’s grand ambitions—restoring an Islamic world civilization, with Iran’s Shiite Islamists at the helm.”
In this sense, the article notes, the accord is a gift to Khamenei with almost no strings attached.
Viewed by Iran as the “Great Satan” and the “Little Satan”—the United States and Israel respectively have always been hated for posing what Iran believes are the key obstacles blocking the realization of its Islamic goals.
With the new peace accord, Iran will likely put its aggression against Saudi Arabia on hold in favor of dedicating more attention to expelling its greater enemy—the United States—from Middle East politics.
But the most disturbing consequence of the China-brokered accord, experts say, is that it enables Tehran to buy more time for advancing its nuclear program without global interference.
Instead of facing mounting international isolation over its march toward weapons grade uranium, the regime is improving its relations with a formerly bitter rival and basking in the approval of new powerful friends, China and Russia.
Iran Going Nuclear
The U.N. “watchdog” agency says Iran now has enough highly enriched uranium to build several nuclear weapons if it chooses to, although according to the agency, it has not perfected a warhead yet.
Independent experts monitoring Iran’s nuclear program, however, say it is just a matter of weeks before a warhead is produced.
British columnist Con Coughlin, defense editor for The Telegraph who has written several books on the Middle East, says Iran is gearing up for an imminent attack on Great Britain and the West.
Coughlin wrote an opinion column recently in which he called on Britain and its allies to understand Iran’s intent and do “a major rethink of how we deal” with Tehran.
“With experts warning that Iran could have enough material for a nuclear warhead within weeks, it also means Britain and its allies need to give serious consideration to how they deal with the emerging threat to their security,” Coughlin wrote in the Telegraph.
“Indeed, apart from its nuclear aspirations, Iran has been working hard to develop an arsenal of ballistic weapons capable of hitting targets in the heart of Europe.”
Western Leaders Were Duped
The British commentator said the Iranians have deceived Western leaders who were duped into believing that maintaining a dialogue with Tehran is the key to peace.
“For far too long, the predominant view in Whitehall [British government] has been that the best way to contain the Iranian threat is to maintain a dialogue with the so-called ‘moderates’ there, in the hope that it will result in improved ties with the West,” the author wrote.
That was a grave mistake, he said, as it enabled Iran to make significant advances in developing nuclear ability, from acquiring weapons-grade uranium to building ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
The success of these developments appears to have given the regime the confidence to adopt a more aggressive stance towards the West, he said.
A recent assessment by nuclear inspectors revealed that uranium particles enriched to 83.7% purity have been discovered at Iran’s Fordow plant, which was constructed deep beneath a mountain so that it cannot be targeted by air strikes.
The traces of uranium found at Fordow are just short of the 90% enrichment level required to make nuclear weapons, Coughlin attested.
The author also said Iran’s belligerence toward the United States, Britain and Western allies is evident from the support it has given Russia in the Ukraine conflict. Security sources have already reported that “Tehran is supplying large quantities of bullets, rockets, and mortar shells to sustain the Russian war effort.”
A Blow To The Abraham Accords
Observers predict the Iranian-Saudi deal will set back U.S.-Israeli attempts to expand the Abraham Accords between Israel and Arab states, which would have received a major push forward had Saudi Arabia been induced to join.
In 2020, in the final months of former President Trump’s term in office, his administration pulled off an extraordinary diplomatic coup, the negotiation of the Abraham Accords, which normalized diplomatic relations between Israel and the Gulf states of the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco.
This pact also strengthened and expanded an anti-Iran alliance in the region. The Accords have remained a staple of U.S Middle East policy under the Biden administration, including as a vehicle to help contain Iran.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said in his inauguration speech three months ago that his main foreign policy objective is to broaden the Abraham Accords and reach a peace agreement with Saudi Arabia. Such a move might have gradually ended generations of isolation in a hostile Arab world.
With the new peace détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Israel’s hopes of softening hostilities with Riyadh have dimmed, at least for now.
The Iranian regime in turn has spent the past two years pressuring Arab states not to normalize ties with Israel, writes Foreign Policy. For the ayatollahs, the China-brokered deal has delivered multiple dividends: delaying more Arab states from joining the Abraham Accords and undermining America’s sphere of influence in the Middle East.
New Axis of Malice?
The most immediate and pressing concern connected to the new peace accord, experts say, should be over the expansion of military cooperation between Beijing, Moscow and Tehran—which is geared toward undercutting the U.S.-led world order.
Less than a week after the China-brokered deal was announced, China, Iran and Russia undertook joint naval drills across the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Oman. This strikes an ominous note because the military cooperation between these regimes is believed to forecast a new axis of adversaries, presenting a major security challenge to the West.
“If Khamenei believes a new world order is emerging, his regime will be intent on speeding up the collapse of the U.S.-led one,” the Foreign Policy article said. “This may increase terrorist exploits, escalation of violence, recklessness, and strategic errors on their part, including on the nuclear and terrorism fronts.
Teheran’s and Beijing’s military support for Putin suggests this escalation is already underway. In the coming months and years, we will likely see closer on-the-ground cooperation between Tehran and Moscow beyond the subject of Ukraine, the article predicted.
Although the China-brokered Iran-Saudi deal may at first glance seem like a positive step for regional stability, a closer look at the Iranian regime’s motivations reveals a different reality, security sources say.
“They are using their alliance to inflict harm on the West, Arab-Israeli peace efforts, and the U.S.-led liberal international order,” the article predicts. “The deal confirms that a U.S. withdrawal from the region will create a vacuum that will be gradually filled by the anti-Western axis.
Israel’s enemies poised on its borders–Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad —all supported by Iran, may believe Israel is now more vulnerable, especially with Israeli domestic discord over judicial reform reaching a fever pitch, writes The Hill.
Also, knowing that Israel’s most important ally — the United States — has a diminished role in the Middle East because of China’s rising influence, increases the risks of aggression Israel’s enemies will take, with potentially dire consequences.
“The perception of Israel as weakened is never good for America or the West,” the article concludes.
Iran May Be Plotting Attacks Against Israel
Iran watchers see signs that the regime potentially plans to launch an attack on Israel in the foreseeable future that will include all the forces at its disposal in several Arab countries. These arsenals are huge, notes foreign policy expert Mordecai Kedar in an op-ed in JNS.
In Lebanon, home to Hezbollah and Hamas, the weapons arsenal includes many thousands of missiles, some of them precision-guided, and UAVs (aircraft piloted by remote control). In Syria, seventeen armed combat units are training for combat.
Iran in turn has transferred a very large number of missiles and UAVs to Syria, and these are ready to be launched. In Iraq, dozens of militias, armed with missiles and UAVs, await marching orders, Kedar attests.
“In Yemen, the Houthis have Iranian long-range missiles and UAVs capable of reaching Israel. And in Gaza, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad are equipped with missiles capable of disabling the Israel Defense Forces and Israeli Air Force bases,” he writes.
“Iran will likely not launch anything directly from its own territory, so as not to trigger retaliation and incur casualties,” the JNS op-ed said.
The critical question in such a scenario will be whether the American and European governments will intervene militarily. Some theorize these governments will content themselves with official pronouncements and lip service because given the situation in Ukraine, no one in the West is looking for another war zone.
The Russian-Ukrainian conflict, which is depleting NATO’s ammunition depots, is also eroding governments’ desire to intervene in other nations’ wars.
Despite these discouraging realities, “the Israeli public needs to prepare itself—mentally and physically—for war with the Iranian octopus that has managed to establish its grip on Gaza, and the failed countries adjacent to Israel—Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen,” the author writes.
“These countries have almost nothing to lose by aligning with Iran” in a multi-pronged attack on Israel.
“It’s time to wake up. This dangerous scenario may be realistic.”