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Saudi flirts with Iran and Israel as Biden’s peacemaking flounders

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Saudi Arabia has begun building quiet yet consequential inroads to both Iran and Israel, archrivals in the Middle East, amid uncertainties over the future of the long-standing role of the United States in the region.

Riyadh does not maintain relations with either nation, but parallel diplomatic tracks have the potential to transform not only the Kingdom’s role in the Middle East, but the geopolitics of the region itself. Both paths, however, are lined with pitfalls that also run the risk of sparking underlying tensions among the three countries.

Salem al-Yami, a former official of the Saudi Foreign Ministry, acknowledged the difficulty of these endeavours, but noted that they could ultimately prove successful if diplomacy managed to bring about fundamental changes in attitudes that have so far only served to further inflame frictions.

Saudi Arabia’s talks with Iran and Israel are concurrent but not necessarily equal, and it remains unclear whether either country would be willing to give the Kingdom what it wants.

When it comes to Iran, relations between Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Muslim monarchy and the Shiite Muslim-led nation have always been difficult, especially after the 1979 Islamic Revolution that ousted the West-backed shah and brought to power a theocratic government. The two rivals have competed for influence across the region for decades, funding opposing causes and finally breaking ties in 2016, after Iranians reacting to Saudi Arabia’s execution of leading Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr burned down Riyadh’s embassy in Tehran.

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This regionwide bout between the two powers continues unabated, most visibly and violently in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been directly engaged in a more than seven-year-long civil war against rebels of the Iran-aligned Ansar Allah, also known as the Houthi movement. A truce reached in April has held, but prospects for a lasting settlement are far from certain.

Yami said Saudi Arabia is particularly looking for Iran to change its approach to the conflict just across the Kingdom’s southern border.

Positive signs have emerged, and five rounds of talks have been held between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Iraq since last year. Yami said that “restoring relations to normal between KSA and Iran might be announced” possibly before the end of summer, with “indications of an Omani role in the mediation process as well.”

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Shabani argues that Saudi Arabia is motivated in part by the vacuum created by a widely perceived U.S. pullback from the region, noting that the pullback has continued under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

While the U.S. was once heavily involved in conflicts that necessitated a large military presence in the region, both former-President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden shared the aim of ending “forever wars,” which has led to a drawdown in both the size and activity of U.S. forces. In order to fill the void, Heirannia said the U.S. has effectively delegated countries in the region to step up in resolving their own issues. “On the other hand,” he added, “when the United States withdraws its military forces, countries in the region are forced to revive the diplomacy.”

This comes at a time when Washington’s diplomatic role in the Middle East appears to be diminishing.

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Meanwhile, the Biden administration has invested a significant portion of its foreign policy resources on other major issues, including Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s rising status on the world stage.

“Iran wants to reduce regional spending due to tensions with Saudi Arabia and wants regional countries to support the JCPOA if a nuclear deal is reached,” Heirannia said. “Saudi Arabia wants Iran to help end the Yemeni war by influencing the Houthis.” But he also noted potential obstacles.

“Iran is also trying to prevent further convergence of Saudi Arabia with Israel,” Heirannia said. “But the main issue is that the normalization process of Arab countries with Israel, including Saudi Arabia, is a growing process.”

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The Abraham Accords, negotiated by the Trump administration, marked a significant shift in the diplomatic layout of the Middle East. This series of historic deals saw the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco normalize relations with Israel in 2020, becoming the first Arab nations to do so since Jordan did in 1994. Israeli officials have publicly expressed their desire for Saudi Arabia to join, much to Iran’s chagrin.

“Iranians want to make sure that Saudi Arabia doesn’t join the Abraham Accords, which they see as a big threat,” Farhad Rezaei, a Canada-based analyst specializing in Iranian foreign policy and a senior research fellow at the Philos project, told Newsweek.

Rezaei said Iran’s desire to talk to Saudi Arabia was rooted in an effort “to dissuade Saudi Arabia from normalizing relations with Israel and to limit Israeli influence in the region,” as well as “to make sure that Saudi Arabia doesn’t join the regional air defence alliance that Israel and Arab countries are trying to form with the goal of countering threats of ballistic missiles.”

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The history of enmity between Saudi Arabia and Israel dates back to the inception of the Jewish state. Saudi Arabia was among the Arab nations in 1948 that sent troops to fight the new State of Israel established on land also claimed by Palestinians. Riyadh also played minor roles in the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973, though it notably helped to lead the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries boycott over U.S. support for Israel in the latter engagement.

Iran’s Islamic Revolution helped shift the dynamic, however, and Tehran came to be viewed as a common foe of Israel and Saudi Arabia in more recent decades.

Amid years of covert interactions, the Abraham Accords brought even further signs of cooperation, including reports that then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a secret trip to the Kingdom in 2020, and the announcement earlier this month that Saudi Arabia would allow Israeli flights to the UAE to pass over Saudi airspace.

Danny Danon, who served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations from 2018 to 2020, said interactions are expanding between the two states. Danon said this comes as both nations sought “to prevent Iran, the world’s greatest exporter of terror, from achieving its nuclear ambitions.” Despite Iranian denials, both have accused the Islamic Republic of seeking nuclear weapons.

And he argued that the recent trend of countries like Saudi Arabia rekindling talks with Iran would not change their condemnation of Iranian tactics.

But Israeli-Saudi contacts remain controversial, even if their interests appear to be aligned in certain areas. The House of Saud has held a unique role in the Muslim World, overseeing the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina, as well as maintaining a historically important position in supporting the Palestinian struggle for statehood.

Moneef Ammash al-Harbi, a Saudi political analyst based in Riyadh, argued that “there are no talks or relations or meetings with common interests” between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

“Peace with Israel begins with establishing the Palestinian state,” he told Newsweek, “and the ball here is in Tel Aviv’s court, not in Riyadh’s.”

While the Trump administration counted the Abraham Accords as a victory, the Palestinians saw it as a resounding blow to their cause. Coupled with earlier setbacks, such as the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem, it has served to further erode the established role of the U.S. as mediator in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

And though Biden’s trip to the Middle East earlier this month may have helped smooth tensions between him and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, his visit to Israel and the West Bank produced little in the way of restarting long-frozen peace talks on that front.

Nonetheless, Yami sees an opportunity for Israel and Saudi Arabia.

He argues that Saudi Arabia “doesn’t want much from Israel but honouring Palestinian rights and building further relations that would pave way for peace and stability in the region.” He said that such an outcome would entail “taking steps forward to reconcile with Palestinians, ceasing its settlement operations, lifting its siege on Palestinian cities, and reaching solutions to establish a Palestinian state.”

“The political situation today says that Israel is a potential ally for KSA,” Yami added. “But the real question is, ‘does Israel understand this, and will it work towards it or not?'” He described Saudi Arabia’s careful engagement with both Iran and Israel as part of a broader effort to redefine Riyadh as a capable geopolitical player, an endeavour that requires easing existing tensions with other nations.

“We continue to support Saudi Arabia’s direct talks with Iran,” a State Department spokesperson told Newsweek. “We hope that dialogue will contribute to de-escalation of tensions.”

The spokesperson said it was the Biden administration’s position that countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, “to include Saudi Arabia, have an important role to play in fostering regional security.”

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