Iran and Saudi Arabia upend Israel's defense strategy

Yoav Karny

The Chinese-sponsored reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and Iran's growing military ties with Russia, cast a long shadow over Israel.

The cards have been torn up. Week after week we talk about global changes, processes taking place before our eyes with breathtaking speed. The pace obliges us not only to change our minds about what is happening, but also to change our viewpoint.

Israel at the end of winter bears no resemblance whatsoever to Israel at, say, mid-fall. But Israel is just a small link in the chain.

When we reach the end of the year, if we reach it, what will we remember of the second week of March? Will we remember the diplomatic rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia under the auspices of China? Will we remember Russia’s hypersonic missile attack on Ukraine? Or perhaps we’ll remember waiting for the markets to open on a Monday morning without knowing whether the federal government would save the depositors of the failed Silicon Valley Bank?

It is not inconceivable that down the road, from a wide vantage point, these three events will look much more closely connected to one another than mere coincidence on the calendar. How? In the sense that they will bring home the growing systemic and strategic weakness of the US and its allies.

It’s hard to decide what was more astonishing in the announcement of the agreement on renewal of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran: the agreement itself, its suddenness, or the unprecedented Chinese patronage under which it took place. The answer depends almost entirely on your point of view.

The agreement itself brings to mind a declaration by President Barack Obama in 2016. Then, he called on the Saudis to "share the neighborhood" with the Iranians. It was not hard to guess his source of inspiration. Before he entered politics, Obama was a youth leader in Chicago. His task was to ensure peace in neighborhoods known for violence. One way was to arrange ceasefires between street gangs. By 2016, Obama already knew a great deal about the outside world, but he chose to implore the heads of the gangs to be realistic, and divide up spheres of influence.

The naivety of this recommendation looked to many like arrogance. The fury of the Saudis knew no bounds. Iran wasn’t trying to divide up spheres of influence. It wanted it all, and it continues to want it all. It was then at an advanced stage of forming the land corridor from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean.

Obama gave his advice to the Saudis when he completed the nuclear agreement with Iran in the spring of 2016. Seven years on, the neighborhood bullies are getting together. The outstanding disagreements between them should not comfort anyone. Whether or not there are secret protocols between them on spheres of influence (perhaps such as were signed in 1939 between Ribbentrop and Molotov), this agreement guarantees at least one thing: the status quo. After years of hostility that ignited conflicts all over the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has foregone active resistance to the spread of Iranian influence.

Bin Salman knifes the US

The past two years have offered plenty of signs of growing Saudi interest in a reorientation. Joe Biden repeatedly condemned the Saudi crown prince even before he was elected president. He promised to punish Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and to make Saudi Arabia a pariah among nations. Although, in the second year of his presidency, Biden went to Canossa, that is, to Riyadh, to appease the prince, shortly afterwards bin Salman stuck a knife in his back when he conspired with Russia to prevent a fall in the price of oil. The US was dismayed. The White House announced a "reset" of US-Saudi relations. A 75-year strategic alliance started to totter.

I wrote here at the time: "Israelis should show particular interest in the crown prince’s thought processes and in his goals. If he wants to land a strategic defeat on the US and its allies, what strategic future does he see for the Middle East? Does he want to invite Russia and China to fill the vacuum? Is he prepared to concede a central position to Iran in the next incarnation of the relationships between the regional powers?"

These questions were answered at the end of last week: the crown prince does want to land a strategic defeat on the US and its allies; he does want to invite Russia and China to fill the vacuum; and he is prepared to concede a central position to Iran.

Israel misread the equation. Its misreading did not begin the day before yesterday, but a decade ago, in the first days of the civil war in Syria, when then minister of defense Ehud Barak predicted the imminent downfall of President Bashar al-Assad. At the same time, Israel shrugged it shoulders, and at least implied that it didn’t care who came out on top.

Barack Obama squirmed out of his famous promise to punish Assad for the use of chemical weapons, and embraced the mendacious Russian initiative of "removing chemical weaponry from Syrian soil." The "removal" ensured Assad’s survival, and opened the door to two new dominant powers between the Euphrates and the Mediterranean: Russia and Iran. Israel, of course, didn’t want Iran, but convinced itself that there was a basis for doing business with Vladimir Putin.

How far will Russia’s hypersonic missiles reach?

The non-final outcome of the strategic misreadings is a de facto military alliance between Russia and Iran. Iranian drones are helping Russia destroy Ukrainian cities. Only on Saturday, the Iranian mission to the UN announced that Iran had signed an agreement to procure Sukhoi Su-35 fighter aircraft, the Russian (imperfect) equivalent of US F15s.

At the end of last week, sources in Washington claimed that Russia was sending to Iran advanced Western weaponry that the Ukrainians had left behind on the battlefield, for the purposes of reverse engineering. During the years of sanctions, the Iranians have excelled at reverse engineering Western weapons.

Last Thursday, Russia launched hypersonic missiles at Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. This is an especially threatening weapon, because of it speed and its performance. Russia and China have a considerable advantage over the US in the development of hypersonic weapons. At present, there are no means of defense against them. What will happen if Russia supplies hypersonic missiles to Iran, or lets it have the technology? Iran has claimed hypersonic capability for some time. It can only improve.

Finally, China. It has entered the Middle East. It is of course developing an economic presence, but, gradually, it is developing a military presence as well. It is engaged in a dangerous global competition with the US, and it pulled off an amazing coup with the reconciliation between the Saudis and the Iranians. The White House declared that the reconciliation was unconnected to China. But it is of course very connected. In Obama’s "neighborhood", the Russians and Chinese are unwelcome guests, not to mention worrying. In fact, it might as well be said, very worrying.

A long shadow is now cast over Israel’s national defense policy. It is dark enough to justify a national debate about the future.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on March 13, 2023.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2023.

עוד דעות של Yoav Karny, Washington
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