TEL AVIV - Following the example of President Shimon Peres, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Defense Minister Ehud Barak did not bide their time in congratulating Barack Obama on his electoral victory November 6. They declared that the two countries "will continue to work together" and that their strategic alliance is "stronger than ever."
These greetings, however, say a lot more about the worries of the Israeli government, especially as Netanyahu was betting on Mitt Romney to win the election. He had enthusiastically welcomed the Republican candidate when he visited Jerusalem earlier this year. Some members of Netanyahu's Likud Party even helped campaign for Romney.
Maybe that was an error that has to be quickly patched up, given the circumstances: "No, Benjamin Netanyahu did not intervene in the American electoral process. He merely showed a more active interest in it than others," said the Transport Minister Israel Katz.
However, the Prime Minister has gone out of his way to embarrass the White House, notably by declaring that he was drawing a "red line" to halt Iran's capability to develop its nuclear projects. And while Obama has refused to be drawn into such games, their differences have become so obvious over the past few months that the pair's respective entourages felt the need to publicize "a friendly phone conversation" just to show the world that they were still in fact speaking to each other.
Israel's government expects the Obama administration to settle the score before the upcoming Israeli elections on January 22. But how? Through a revival of peace agreements with the Palestinians?
In Ramallah, in the West Bank, nobody believes this hypothesis, as the United States has other pressing matters in the region and its own problems at home. Saeb Erakat, the chief advisor to Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, thinks that Washington will soon decide whether or not it will support Palestine obtaining observer status in the UN. This is a step that Israel has promised to counter. Washington would likely curb these acts, however, if it decided to take a greater role in the Middle East.
Differing opinions on Iran
But In Jerusalem, political commentators think that the issue of Iran will actually help ease the strained tensions between Israel and the U.S. "The collaboration between the two countries is the best it's been since Obama entered the White House; they both agree that Tehran must not obtain nuclear arms," explains one political columnist Amit Segal. "However, their evaluations differ on the extent of Iran's nuclear development and on the manner in which they should clip its wings. This is the cause of tension, and it is likely to continue over the next few months."
Israel is not hiding its intentions to act alone against Iran, if it sees fit. On the eve of election day, Israeli TV's main investigative program, Uvda ("Fact"), revealed that at the beginning of 2010, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak gave the order to the Chief of Israel Defense Forces Gabi Ashkenazi to put the army on "P-Plus" alert -- used only before the start of war. With support from Meir Dagan, then director of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, the General refused to execute this order, judging it a suicide mission. This ultimately cost him his job.
Interviewed by the program's directors, Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed that his opinion in regards to Iran has not changed despite American opposition: "I hope that I never have to do it, but if there is no other option, I will press the button."
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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