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27 November 2013

An Israeli–Saudi alliance? It could only happen in the Middle East

Strange alliances in tumultuous times.

By David Patrikarakos

A little bit of history has just been made. On 24 November, Iran and the P5+1 (the five UN Security Council powers and Germany) struck a deal with Iran over its nuclear programme. The agreement, as all parties have stressed, is merely an interim step towards something greater. The hope – of the P5+1, at least – is that it will form the foundations of a longer-term solution to a crisis that has remained stubbornly unresolved for more than ten years.

The basis of the deal is a six month confidence-building period, during which time Iran has agreed to do various things: most notably, not to instal any new uranium enrichment centrifuges. In exchange, the US will provide some light sanctions relief (amounting to around $7bn) and allow Iran greater access to medical and humanitarian goods. If all goes well for six months, the two sides will start negotiations for a permanent agreement. Not everybody is happy. The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, called the deal a “historic mistake”; relations between Tel Aviv and Washington are now at a historic low. Israel fears the prospect of US-Iranian détente, which could marginalise its relationship with Washington, not to mention what a nuclear-armed Iran might do.

Just as worried as Israel is Saudi Arabia, which fears rising Iranian influence in the Middle East. Iran, a Shia state, and Saudi Arabia, the bastion of hard-line Sunni Islam, are opposed on almost every major issue in the region and are fighting each other by proxy in Syria.

By loosening the Taliban’s grip on Afghanistan and toppling Saddam Hussein, Washington removed the threat from two of Iran’s greatest enemies and strengthened it (albeit unintentionally). Tehran is struggling under heavy sanctions but its political power and influence has never been greater. The Saudis have hinted on more than one occasion that if Iran goes nuclear, they will, too. They lack the capability to build their own bomb so would most likely buy one “off the shelf” from Pakistan. Some believe that a deal along these lines is already in place. One thing is certain: if Iran did acquire nuclear capability, no amount of US pressure would stop the Saudis.

While travelling in the Middle East, I often spoke to Arab diplomats who were publicly supportive of Iran’s nuclear programme but privately terrified of it. Siding against an Islamic power whose nuclear activities are a symbol of resistance to the west was unthinkable but their fear of a strengthened Iran was striking. As WikiLeaks revealed, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia even urged Washington to “cut off the head of the snake” by launching military strikes to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities.

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A prominent Saudi prince, Alwaleed Bin Talal, recently summed up his country’s position. “There’s no confidence in the Obama administration doing the right thing with Iran,” he told the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. “We’re really concerned – Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Middle East countries – about this.”

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Alwaleed is very close to the ruling elite and often voices opinions widely shared by Saudi’s officials but that they feel unable to say publicly. That someone in his position has brazenly spoken of a de facto alliance between his country and Israel is startling and highlights the fear that a resurgent Iran is causing.

It is undoubtedly a time of change in the region: but Israel and Saudi Arabia as allies? It could only happen in the Middle East.