High anxiety over Saudi-Iran rapprochement is unwarranted, says former CIA Middle East hand
by Douglas London
The restoration of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia has garnered curious allusions of doom and gloom, if not outright shock and awe, over Israel’s back channel security dialogue with the Kingdom, not to mention damage to U.S. interests in the region. The New York Times captured it as “the topsiest and turviest of developments anyone could have imagined, a shift that left heads spinning in capitals around the globe.” And in a separate piece, it quoted Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the arguably hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies that “Renewed Iran-Saudi ties as a result of Chinese mediation is a lose, lose, lose for American interests.”
But the Times wasn’t alone. Twitter was replete with nightmarish scenarios for U.S. influence and prestige in the Middle East and concern in Tel Aviv even as the Biden administration outwardly welcomed the development. John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, expressed skepticism that Iran would honor its commitments to abstain from violence or interference in the Kingdom’s internal affairs, but acknowledged how the development could serve in defusing regional tensions and possibly ending the war in Yemen. Friction between Iran and its neighbors across the Gulf account for Yemen’s horrendous humanitarian crisis, energy-market rattling missile strikes against the Kingdom and United Arab Emirates, and Tehran’s meddling among Saudi’s Arabia’s disenfranchised Shia community. Reducing that is in Washington and Tel Aviv’s interest, regardless who gets the credit.
The reality is that Iran and Saudi Arabia have been walking back their mutual escalation of provocative words and deeds for quite some time.
Representatives, generally from the nation’s respective intelligence services, have conducted meetings brokered respectively by the Iraqis and Omanis for at least the last two years. And while the Saudis certainly don’t tell the U.S. everything, my direct experience in this dialogue is consistent with Washington’s assertion that it was kept in the loop and Israel was likewise hardly taken by surprise.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began his de facto rule of the Kingdom flexing his military muscles in Yemen while making saber-rattling boasts concerning Iran. He even boldly suggested Riyadh would pursue its own nuclear program should the Iranians weaponize theirs. But reality set in after Saudi military failings in Yemen and Houthi attacks inside the Kingdom undermined Prince Mohammed’s superpower narrative.
The crown prince’s confidence in U.S. security guarantees wavered further following the September 2019 missile and drone attacks on Saudi Aramco facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais, which the U.S. acknowledged to have been Iranian facilitated. And Prince Mohammad did not take kindly to incoming President-elect Biden referring to him and the Kingdom as pariahs owing to persistent evidence of human rights violations and an intelligence community assessment the White House released holding him personally responsible for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.
Ropes of Sand
Prince Mohammad’s political fortunes are largely dependent on whether Vision 2030 can deliver on the promise to diversify the country’s petrochemical-dependent economy and bring greater employment and increased housing. Neom, the high tech, futuristic $500 billion dollar city under construction in Saudi Arabia’s northwest is the centerpiece on which much else depends. Despite the influx of petrodollars owing to the war in Ukraine, Neom has struggled to meet its projected 2024 opening which, along with other setbacks, have shaped Prince Mohammad’s greater pragmatism. The opening to Iran, Yemen ceasefire and reversal of the Qatari boycott reflect such necessary pragmatism.
Nevertheless, the crown prince is demonstrating independence from what he sees as America’s unreliable protective blanket and looking for alternative security partners. Making the Biden White House look bad is just an added benefit-but that does not make for an existential threat to U.S. interests. Despite the Times’ hyperbole (and the Wall Street Journal’s earlier claim that “the relationship had hit the breaking point.”, there’s no evidence Prince Mohammad is prepared to sustain the enormous costs of converting the Kingdom’s well integrated and U.S.-dependent military infrastructure to Chinese or Russian weapons systems.
Moreover, in the most catastrophic scenario, China will not threaten to boycott Iranian oil on which it depends or project force in the Kingdom’s defense were Tehran to attack. But the Crown Prince is betting the U.S. wouldn’t stand by under such circumstances regardless of Riyadh’s friction with Washington, thereby providing him freedom to play the international field to serve his own political narrative.
The Saudi ruler also likes the prestige associated with American technology and its advanced battlefield-tested systems like those the Ukrainians are using to great effect against Russia-as does Prince Mohammed’s one-time ally and increasingly rival UAE’s President Mohamed Bin Zayed, who likewise endeavors to chart his own course. Were Prince Mohammed ever to petulantly jump off that ledge, as he’s certainly capable of impulsive, poorly calculated decisions, doing so could not possibly occur overnight and would leave the Kingdom’s American-centric infrastructure vulnerable.
The fact is that Riyadh has in recent years been scaling back defense spending to finance the crown prince’s grand economic programs. His aim appears to achieve a social contract of sorts cribbed from China to offset his people’s aspirations for political freedom in exchange for social reforms and comfortable lives.
That’s not to totally dismiss the China card. Prince Mohammed has for some time been looking to China for support in developing Saudi Arabia’s own ballistic missile capability, as well as a pilot nuclear program, and Beijing is only too happy to help. The Intercept reported that part of DCIA Burns’ April 2022 travel to the Kingdom was to dissuade the Crown Prince from procuring fully assembled Chinese ballistic missiles as a deterrent against, or response to, Iran.
Mind the Gap
But beyond the smiles and handshakes recently choreographed in Beijing, the Crown Prince appears interested in addressing defense gaps relative to Iran whose threat is not going away. China is likely to accommodate capabilities the U.S. would rather withhold making it likely Prince Mohammed will pursue a broad range of military and economic opportunities with Beijing, but avoid an either-or choice with the U.S.
China, for its part, will eagerly work to erode and replace U.S. regional influence in a region which accounts for much of its energy supplies. As reflected by news that Beijing is working to host a summit among Iran and its Gulf Cooperation Council neighbors, Chinese leaders hope to reap the lucrative economic opportunities and likewise solidify its image as the preeminent and most reliable world power. Money talks, and face is critical in this region where rulers all strive to appear strong and independent of foreign influence, but no Gulf ruler is going to stake their Kingdoms on Chinese security guarantees-or weapons.
As for Israel, the development similarly falls short of a doomsday event. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would surely value the political gains at home and abroad of securing normalization with Saudi Arabia, coming as it would at both Iran’s and the Palestinians’ expense. But the truth is that Israel’s security back channel with Saudi Arabia has been ongoing for years and across far more challenging political climates. Benny Gantz, while the Israeli army’s chief of staff, then Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, and former directors of the National Security Council Yossi Cohen and Meir Ben-Shabbat have all travelled to the Kingdom in recent years.
Moreover, a November 2020 Washington Post story quoting Israeli media and claiming confirmation from an anonymous Israeli intelligence official reported that Netanyahu himself, traveling with then Mossad Chief Cohen, met Prince Mohammed personally. The gathering occurred in Neom, the same Saudi futuristic city under development, along with then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Israeli-Saudi cooperation concerning Iran is not going to end, but rather remain in the shadows, for the time being. After all, Iran remains a far more likely military threat. Tehran’s hardline leaders will not order the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to abandon the Kingdom’s Shi’a, whose unrest could undermine Prince Mohammed’s veneer of strength, and threaten the nation’s Northeastern oil epicenter.
It has been vintage Prince Mohammed to quickly follow-up any acts of defiance with the White House, as was the case with last year’s oil production cut, with messaging and appeals to the American public. This appears the case with the Kingdom’s sudden revelation of its willingness to establish ties with Israel. Riyadh went on an info spree in the U.S. following the October cuts to justify the measure, during which it issued statements and used proxies to highlight its good deeds and philanthropic efforts, including gifts to American universities.
More practically, however, Prince Mohammed is unlikely to normalize relations with Israel absent the creation of a Palestinian state while his father lives. Palestinian statehood is dear to King Salman’s heart, assuming health has not incapacitated him, the King having played a major role in developing the thrice Arab League endorsed 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. The plan offers Arab states’ recognition and normalization of ties with Israel in exchange for its withdrawal from occupied territories, a just settlement, and a Palestinian state. A frail King Salman reassured Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his own public while still seen conducting meetings in May 2021, as he had after the U.S. pushed Riyadh throughout 2020 to join the Abraham Peace Accords, that Saudi Arabia remained committed to the 2002 framework and would not forsake the Palestinians.
Douglas London is author of “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.” He served 34 years with the CIA in the Middle East, South and Central Asia and Africa, including three assignments as a Chief of Station. He is a frequent contributor to SpyTalk