Shortly after Iranian protesters took to the streets on Dec. 28, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted a video on his Facebook page wishing “the Iranian people success in their noble quest for freedom.” In Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, state-run media hailed the protesting Iranians with such joyful hysteria that Saudis could be forgiven for believing that the regime in Tehran was on the verge of collapse.
Jewish Israel and Sunni Saudi Arabia have no formal diplomatic ties and decades of enmity behind them. However, their mutual pleasure over the grassroots demonstrations in Iran is the latest manifestation of a growing convergence of political interests, between the two Middle Eastern countries against their shared regional nemesis: Iran.
If the Saudi-Israeli rapprochement continues, their collaboration could lead to improved Israeli relations with other Arab states, removing Iran’s security buffer and possibly making Tehran more vulnerable to direct Israeli military action.
The first signs of the thaw between Saudi Arabia and Israel appeared in 2015, when both nations opposed the nuclear deal struck between Iran and the six world powers known as the P5+1. According to the terms of the deal, Tehran would cut back its nuclear program in return for relief from economic sanctions. To compensate for its nuclear concessions and concerned that Washington might not honor its commitment to the agreement, Iran followed its signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by intensifying the consolidation of its regional power base.
To that end, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and their overseas operations arm, the Quds Force, doubled down on their support for like-minded and mostly Shi’ite paramilitary groups across the Middle East. In Syria, Iranian intervention in favor of Bashar al-Assad, coupled with a relentless Russian air campaign against the rebels, finally turned the tide of civil war and kept Assad in power. Tehran also took the opportunity to help oust extremist anti-Shi’ite groups like Islamic State (IS) from Syria. Iranian leaders insisted their intent was to “nip terrorism in the bud,” but their tacit goal was also — and more importantly — to maintain land access and supply lines to their main proxy, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, as part of the Islamic Republic’s commitment to the “axis of resistance” and its “strategic depth” policy in the region.
The recapture of Aleppo by Syrian government forces in December 2016 relieved Iranian-backed militia forces stationed in northwestern Syria of a formidable battlefield challenge, enabling them to concentrate their manpower and firepower on the southwestern and eastern fronts. This sounded alarm bells for the Israeli government, which feared entrenchment of Iran’s military foothold in its immediate neighborhood.
Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader, has spoken figuratively of a “resistance highway” that starts in Tehran and continues through Mosul, Damascus and Beirut to the Mediterranean. Similarly, with the expulsion of IS from Syria’s eastern province of Deir al-Zor, IRGC-affiliated media outlets such as Mashregh News and Javan Online have promoted the establishment of a land “corridor,” linking Iran to the Mediterranean and potentially useful for military as well as trade purposes.
Israel has responded to this perceived threat militarily and politically. On the military front, it has embarked on a sustained campaign of targeted airstrikes against arms convoys believed to be delivering “game-changing” weapons to Hezbollah as well as a reported Iranian military base in Syria. On the political front, Israel has sought to build an anti-Iran “coalition” with the Arab Sunni bloc led by Saudi Arabia.
In an unprecedented Nov. 16 interview with Elaph, the popular independent Arabic news site, Israel’s army chief of staff Lieutenant-General Gadi Eizenkot offered to cooperate with Saudi Arabia against Tehran, which he labeled the “biggest threat” in the Middle East. “We are ready to exchange experiences with moderate Arab countries and to exchange intelligence to confront Iran,” he said, adding that “in this matter there is complete agreement between us and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” Less than two months later, in a Dec. 28 BBC interview, Israeli education minister Naftali Bennett echoed Eizenkot, explaining that Israel hoped to form “coalitions” with “moderate” Arabs, in order to “contain” Iran.
Riyadh, too, has been cautiously building closer ties with Tel Aviv. In the summer of 2016, one year after Iran’s nuclear deal, a Saudi delegation headed by retired general Anwar Eshki met with Israeli foreign ministry officials and Knesset members in an unusual visit to Jerusalem. During the meeting, Eshki tried to persuade the Israelis to accept the Arab Peace Initiative, arguing that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would foil Iran’s attempts to exploit the Palestinian cause and delegitimize its support for anti-Israeli groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah. Israel made no commitments, but welcomed the improvement of ties with Arab states.
The growth of Iranian power and influence in the region, however, is not the only driver of Saudi-Israeli entente. The Trump administration’s determination to counter the Islamic Republic, along with Washington’s close relations with Saudi Arabia and Israel, have facilitated bilateral efforts to form such an alliance.
In November 2017, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman summoned Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to Riyadh and presented him with the blueprint for a U.S.-devised peace plan that favored Israelis. The powerful prince then demanded that Abbas either accept the scheme or resign. Tellingly, the Palestinian leader’s urgent trip to Riyadh came less than two weeks after Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and advisor on the Middle East, visited the Saudi capital to discuss the plan with bin Salman.
As delegates met at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos this week, there were no official Saudi-Israel meetings reflected on the public program. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and top Saudi officials, including Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, are at the summit and have already made it clear, in formal panel discussions and conversations with reporters, that their governments view countering the threat from Iran as a primary foreign policy goal. Davos is famous for its backroom meetings as well as the inevitable spontaneous encounters that occur when attendees are crowded into an Alpine conference center; it’s not unreasonable to assume that these discussions could solidify relationships out of the public eye.
Iranian leaders are clearly worried about the emerging Saudi-Israeli alliance, which is likely to bring Riyadh’s Sunni allies, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, into its fold as well. In a recent address to the Iranian parliament, President Hassan Rouhani declared that Iran would not resume its ties with Saudi Arabia unless Riyadh ended its friendship with Israel. The new realpolitik of the Middle East means that Tehran may face even greater strategic challenges in the future.
Maysam Behravesh is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science and an Affiliated Researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University, Sweden @behmash