Mondoweiss / March 18, 2023
The Chinese-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore relations has the potential to shake up regional and global politics for the Palestinians’ benefit.
In a surprising development last weekend, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to restore normal relations, reopen embassies in each other’s country, and reactivate security and trade agreements that have lain dormant. The agreement has the potential to shake up both regional and global politics, but could also mean a lot less than it initially seems.
It must be emphasized that this agreement, while certainly important, is not a cure-all for the Iranian-Saudi rivalry that has had such devastating effects across the region. That competition will still exist, as it existed before Saudi Arabia cut off relations with Iran in 2016 in the wake of protests that attacked Saudi missions in Iran after Saudi Arabia executed Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shi’ite cleric and vocal critic of the Saudi government.
Even if the agreement, brokered by China after years of negotiations mediated by Iraq, holds, the competition for regional dominance between the two major oil exporters, who also are each seen as leaders, or at least prominent hubs, of different denominations of Islam, will still be there. Some territorial disputes will remain, as will regional conflicts in places like Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon where the two countries often back opposing forces.
Nonetheless, the agreement brings significant potential for the region. The disputes can potentially be addressed diplomatically rather than through conflict and each side will have strong incentives to do so.
The chance of regional war is diminished
Since the United States senselessly shattered the Iran nuclear deal, the possibility of a regional war has been heating up. As the U.S. tightened sanctions, Iran responded by exceeding the boundaries of that agreement, chiefly by enriching uranium more and more, gradually approaching weapons-grade levels. The United States responded with more sanctions and Israel with more threats to attack Iran, which were not so subtly backed, in turn, by the Biden administration.
While the temperature between Iran and Saudi Arabia had already lessened because the truce, brokered by the United Nations, is holding, this new agreement provides a much stronger incentive for Saudi Arabia to avoid war. The agreement also reinforces the abject failure of Donald Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran, a policy which Joe Biden has embraced and enhanced.
Israel will have a hard time attacking Iran if the Saudis object. Israel will find it difficult, amid Saudi opposition to an attack, to find a good route to Iran for its planes. More importantly, Saudi opposition will have real sway throughout the region and, crucially, in Washington and Brussels. On top of all of that, a détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia allows Riyadh to more actively work to dissuade Iran from any plans to acquire a nuclear weapon (an accusation which remains unsubstantiated, despite U.S. and Israeli insistence to the contrary), and to work with other Gulf states that have relations with Iran such as Oman and Qatar to convince Iran to avoid even the perception of trying to acquire a nuclear weapon.
Saudi Arabia always stood to lose a lot in a regional war; that’s why, even at the lowest points of relations with Iran, they were unenthusiastic about the prospect. If the two countries can find even a cold peace that at least mostly holds to the security agreement they signed in 2001 and have now agreed to revive, Saudi Arabia has every reason to do all it can to avert an attack on Iran that could spark a regional war. And it can do plenty.
The Abraham Accords are dealt a crippling blow
It is telling that the only country to react with anger, outrage and vehement opposition to the Iran-Saudi agreement is Israel. Immediately after the announcement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Yair Lapid were hurling accusations, blaming each other for this failure in “allowing” this to happen.
In truth, there was very little Israel could have done to prevent it. Any interference would have only provided more impetus for the deal to be struck. What we’re seeing, however, is frustration across the Israeli political spectrum because this agreement undermines the most basic rationale for the Abraham Accords. Israelis and Americans can talk all they want about the Accords being peace agreements—they’re nothing of the kind—or about the economic benefits they can bring which, though exaggerated, are real enough. But the fundamental rationale behind the Accords was increased access to U.S. arms and coordination for the Arab states and an Israeli-Arab alliance against Iran.
For Israel, that framework offered the path it had been seeking for decades: normalization with the Arab world without granting Palestinians their rights and freedoms. While the Saudi-Iranian deal doesn’t completely erase that line of thinking, it widens the diplomatic path for Gulf Arab states, as well as their allies in the wider Arab world, for dealing with Iran. As the agreement includes security arrangements designed to avoid confrontation and trade deals that Iran desperately needs, there’s reason to believe that this represents a sharp, lasting turn away from a catastrophic war in the Gulf. As a result, the incentive for expanding normalization with Israel is significantly diminished.
Israel will certainly continue to press for expanding the Accords, probably leaning more on increasing trade, especially in the tech sector, as well as dangling the prospect of greater access to U.S. weapons. But clandestine trade between Israel and Arab states has been an unspoken reality for many years, and the deals that have already been struck with the UAE and Bahrain mean those countries can serve as middlemen for Israel to trade with states that don’t have normal relations yet.
The big prize for Israel, of course, is Saudi Arabia, and that seems a good deal less likely now. The day before the agreement with Iran was announced, Saudi Arabia presented the U.S. with its price for entering the Abraham Accords. While some observers saw the demands as an opening volley in negotiations, the fact that a deal with Iran was announced the next day suggests that the Saudis are content to put off, perhaps for years, any agreement with Israel, and might even wish to hold on to the idea of winning, if not the full terms of the Arab Peace Initiative, at least some significant concessions for the Palestinians in exchange for normalizing with Israel.
The Saudis’ asking price for entry into the Accords was a security guarantee from the United States and U.S. assistance in developing its ostensibly civilian nuclear program, including the ability to independently enrich uranium in Saudi Arabia. The United States is still reeling, both domestically and internationally, from its involvement in Saudi Arabia’s massive onslaught in Yemen and the catastrophe that resulted in that country. There is little trust in Washington that extending greater commitments to Saudi Arabian “security” will not drag the U.S. into more Mideast conflicts.
And, while Saudi Arabia has the right to enrich uranium for civilian use under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the U.S. has, wisely, been loathe to enhance their ability to do so due to concerns about the potential for developing a nuclear weapon, and fueling a regional nuclear arms race, considering that Saudi Arabia has not adopted the protocols that would allow for International Atomic Energy Agency monitoring.
The Saudis are floating the possibility of agreeing to those additional protocols now. It’s worth noting that not only has Iran adopted those protocols, under the now-dead nuclear deal, they agreed to far more intrusive inspections. But even if that issue is resolved, the negative view of Saudi Arabia among ordinary Americans and Congress is likely to render concessions on expanding arms sales over their already high levels and a greater security commitment politically distasteful for Biden.
Impact on the Palestinians of the Saudi-Iran deal
It is crucial for Palestinians that the Abraham Accords be stopped in their tracks, and rolled back if possible. There is exceedingly little pressure on Israel as it is. The more Arab states that normalize relations with Israel, the more that incentive to change policy toward the Palestinians and the occupation diminishes even further. But Israel and the United States are pushing hard to expand them. The Biden administration has been passionate about bringing more states into the Accords, and Congress is pushing bipartisan legislation to create a special envoy to promote the Accords.
Dan Shapiro, the former U.S. Ambassador to Israel said, “Normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, facilitated by the United States, is in all three parties’ interests.” But is that really true? The benefits for Israel are obvious. But the Saudis are already coordinating with Israel on defense matters, and they have been cooperating on many levels for decades. For the most part, Saudi Arabia is already getting what it wants from Israel.
And the benefits to the United States are nil. Again, the U.S.’ major interest is that Saudi Arabia and Israel work together on military matters, and they are already doing so. The U.S. already enjoys full trading partnerships with both countries. The only prize is political points for Democrats from Israel’s supporters in the United States.
Notably, Shapiro doesn’t even pretend that the Abraham Accords are in any way good for the Palestinians.
But pushing back on the Abraham Accords is not the only way this deal helps Palestinians. The fact that the deal was largely brokered by Iraq, with China coming in at the end to broker the final agreement, was a direct rebuke to American diplomacy in the Middle East. The U.S.’ diplomatic tactics—which depend heavily on security assistance and arms sales and usually see the United States taking the side of one of the conflicting parties—have repeatedly failed, whether in Yemen, the Saudi-Qatari dispute, the Saudi-Iran conflict, or Israel and Palestine.
China, which engages in considerable trade with Iran and Saudi Arabia and whose interests are best served by a stable and positive relationship between the two oil-rich icons, acted instead as a neutral broker. Whatever benefits it might get for itself or be able to offer the parties in the wake of the agreement were kept separate from the talks, enabling China to act as the honest broker the United States cannot.
The agreement is also part and parcel of a Saudi shift toward a foreign and security policy that is less dependent on the United States. That the Saudis are particularly unhappy with the Biden administration is hardly a secret, but even the warm relationship they had with Donald Trump did not lead the U.S. to retaliate when Houthi missiles attacked Saudi Arabian oil fields in 2019.
The Saudis have indicated that they are eager to invest heavily in Iran, and Iranian statements in the wake of the deal reflect a determination between the two countries that they expect and will resist efforts by Israel to undermine their new rapprochement. All of this is leading toward a diminished regional role for the U.S. which can only be a positive for the Palestinians, as well as raising the possibility that the Saudis see significant value in holding out for major progress for Palestinian freedom, at least, before they will normalize relations with Israel.
Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy; he is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics