Peace with Israel means war with Iran

Bilal Y. Saab 

Foreign Policy  /  August 30, 2023

There’s a dangerous flip side to Saudi Arabia’s potential new diplomatic deal.

Policymakers in Washington and the Middle East have been busy talking about the possibility of Saudi Arabia normalizing its ties with Israel in return, in part, for a formal defense pact with the United States. Receiving far less attention is a critical question, at least for Riyadh: Would such a move jeopardize Saudi Arabia’s recent diplomatic accord with Iran?

There’s strong reason to think it would. Iran doesn’t just have adversarial relations with Israel. The two countries have been in a shadow war for decades—one that has escalated over the past seven years. Just last year, it was reported that the Israeli military had carried out more than 400 airstrikes since 2017 in Syria and other parts of the Middle East against targets belonging to Iran and its sub-state allies. One would imagine the number of such attacks has gone up since.

If Saudi Arabia embraces Israel, Iran will likely throw everything but the kitchen sink at the Saudis. It will more aggressively challenge the kingdom’s legitimacy as leader of the Muslim world and most probably threaten its very security—either directly, as it did in September 2019, when it struck Saudi oil facilities with drones and missiles, or indirectly through regional surrogates, including the Houthis in Yemen.

For Tehran, it’s one thing for Riyadh to be friends with Washington—something that the Iranians have gotten used to—but another altogether to partner with Israel, the country that has shown no hesitancy to use military force to counter Iranian plans and influence in the region. Iran also worries about a preemptive attack by Israel against its nuclear program more so than by the United States. So, if Saudi Arabia teams up with Israel, Iran will assume that Riyadh will provide a platform for the Israeli military to launch a swift attack against Iran, even if the Saudi leadership has no intentions of doing so.

When the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain agreed to normalize relations with Israel in September 2020, both were incredibly careful to limit any talk of military cooperation with Israel to vague notions of peace and stability. It wasn’t because Abu Dhabi and Manama did not want to improve their military ties with Israel. It’s just that they understood enhanced security cooperation with Israel could provoke Iran, with which Abu Dhabi had been conducting diplomacy to achieve de-escalation and prevent further attacks by the pro-Iran Houthis against Emirati civilian targets.

If Saudi Arabia, or any of the Gulf Arab countries, gets too close to Israel and, for example, provides it with crucial intelligence and military access, Iran most probably will lash out at them. Abu Dhabi, Manama, and potentially Riyadh would be guilty by association, which is precisely what happened to the Saudis when Tehran attacked Saudi oil infrastructure in September 2019, not because of anything the Saudis had done but because of their support of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against the Iranian regime.

But even if Saudi Arabia follows the path of the UAE and Bahrain and restricts its security cooperation with Israel following normalization, this will not spare it from vicious political and religious condemnation from Iran.

Because of its position, role, and authority in the Muslim world, the stakes for Saudi Arabia are much higher than those for the UAE, Bahrain, or any other Arab Muslim nation that normalizes ties with Israel. The Saudi king, currently Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, also bears the title “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.” He is responsible for not only safeguarding and maintaining the two holiest sites of Islam in Mecca and Medina but also making sure that the fate of Jerusalem is negotiated fairly between the Israelis and Palestinians. Jerusalem, home to Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest Muslim site, is a historical cornerstone of any Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and an issue that carries deep religious significance to Saudi society and Muslims worldwide.

If Saudi Arabia is perceived as abandoning the Palestinians and giving up Jerusalem, Iran will launch an intense political pressure campaign against the House of Saud. And it wouldn’t be the first time Iranian leaders challenged the legitimacy and authority of the Saudi leadership. For many years, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has called on the Muslim world to reject the Saudi royal family as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques because it is a “cursed tree” that is infiltrated by Israel.

So, when Saudi officials insist that normalization with Israel will not happen unless there is a Palestinian state or at least an effective process to create one, they are not being insincere or paying lip service to the issue. “True normalization and true stability will only come through giving the Palestinians hope, through giving the Palestinians dignity,” Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan said in January. The Saudis cannot afford a normalization deal with Israel à la the UAE and Bahrain that merely suspends or freezes Israeli annexation of Jewish settlements and the Jordan Valley in the West Bank. The Saudis require something more meaningful because their reputation, legitimacy, authority, and even security are all on the line.

It is still possible that the Saudi leadership, and specifically Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, could opt for something less than sure on the Palestinian issue—but more than what the UAE and Bahrain were promised—if Washington fulfills its demands. Indeed, the carrot of a treaty alliance with the United States, more so than anything else the Saudis have asked for, might just be too irresistible for the kingdom. Saudi leaders might be thinking that Iran will do what it always does, which is challenge and threaten Saudi Arabia, but with a U.S. defensive shield to protect them, the Saudis might take their chances.

That is why Saudi Arabia is so adamant about obtaining a formal defense pact from Washington. Riyadh knows that such a historic and game-changing move will invite political opprobrium and possibly security threats from Iran. It knows that normalizing with both Iran and Israel might not be possible, that it’s one or the other.

But that is also precisely why the United States is so hesitant to accept Saudi Arabia’s steep price for normalizing with Israel. If the outcome described above does materialize and Iran lashes out at Saudi Arabia for accepting Israel, will the United States be in a position to go to war against Iran for Saudi Arabia? And what if Iran avoids direct military action against Saudi Arabia and uses its regional proxies to attack the kingdom, how would Washington respond then?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but Riyadh will expect them from Washington. The complexities and implications of a treaty alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United States are many, but leaders in Riyadh and Washington would well be advised to consider Iran’s reaction to a potential Saudi-Israeli normalization deal. Tehran’s position shouldn’t deter or kill a potential deal, but Riyadh and Washington should deliberately plan for it.

Bilal Y. Saab is a senior fellow and the director of the defense and security program at the Middle East Institute and an associate fellow with Chatham House