Saudi Arabia, Israel Share Common Enemy in Iran?
A recent headline in Britain's Sunday Times must have sent blood pressure readings soaring on both sides of the gulf known on one side as the Persian Gulf and on the other as the Arabian Gulf: "Saudi Arabia gives Israel clear skies to attack Iranian nuclear sites." Had Riyadh really struck a deal with the Jewish state, making it easier for Israeli jets to pound Iranian targets? The Times quoted anonymous "defense sources in the Gulf" who maintained that the kingdom had gone as far as to conduct practice drills in which its air defenses would stand down, allowing flights over its airspace without a response. The agreement between the House of Saud and the Israelis, the article claimed, would grant passage to Israeli fighter planes across a narrow corridor in the north of the country, without Saudi jets being scrambled. After the overflights, Saudi defenses would quickly return to full alert, presumably in preparation for an Iranian response to the Israeli attack. Reaction to the article was rather curious. One would expect Saudi Arabia to forcefully deny the reports, which is precisely what it did. The Saudi Press Agency issued a sharp denial by an unnamed official saying the kingdom rejects "the violation of its sovereignty and use of its airspace by anyone to attack any country." The official added acidly that the policy would apply to "the Israeli occupation with which [Saudi Arabia] has no relationship in any way." In the larger region, some commentators attributed the report to a campaign of "disinformation, lies and deceit" by Israeli authorities. Interestingly, however, Israel jumped to Saudi Arabia's defense, also issuing a denial. The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a terse statement saying, "The Sunday Times report is fundamentally false and completely baseless." While it seems unlikely that the two countries have suddenly reached a new deal on the issue, there is general agreement over the notion that Saudis and Israelis have found a common enemy in Iran. That provides fodder for speculation in a region that gave the world the concept of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." And while the Saudis and Israelis probably wouldn't go as far as to call each other friends, facing a common enemy makes for the basis of an irresistible alliance of convenience, no matter how quiet - and deniable -- as it must remain. It is no secret that Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states, as well as Arab leaders in more distant locations, are extremely concerned not only with Iran's nuclear program but with the Obama administration's efforts to stop it. Like leaders of other Muslim countries from Bahrain to Morocco, Saudi rulers worry about Iranian efforts to spread its populist revolution and its encouragement of Shiite minorities to rebel. In broad strokes, Arab regimes worry about Iran's efforts to obtain regional supremacy, which many believe would be greatly enhanced if it acquired nuclear weapons. Early in the Obama administration, as the U.S. policy of engagement began, Gulf states expressed worries that the new diplomacy would come at their expense and would ultimately result in what some described as their "worst nightmare": a nuclear-armed Shiite superpower living next door. More recently, as it became clear that the engagement policy had failed to persuade Iran to stop enriching uranium, those concerns have only increased. Writing in the influential Asharq Al-Awsat, the respected journalist Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed expressed what may well be the view of the Saudi leadership. He blamed delays in achieving results on "Obama and his refusal to use the threat of force in a genuine manner, and this has made everybody -- not just Tehran -- believe that nothing will stop the Iranian project, whether this is its nuclear weapons project or its conventional weapons project." Al Rashed may have also been speaking for the Al-Sauds when he said that the Times report made no sense. And yet, the report of an agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia was no accident. It is highly unlikely that the two countries have made a new deal. That's because, though all sides would vehemently deny it, a Saudi-Israeli agreement was probably concluded a long time ago. Recent tensions between Israel and Turkey make the Saudi corridor more critical for an attack, but Israel probably wants a series of options. What is quite clear though, is that the United States is currently putting on a show of force against Iran, and Israel is a part of that performance. Just last week, the U.S. Carrier Strike Group 10, with the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, crossed the Suez Canal. Arab media reported that Israeli warships crossed the narrow passage along with the U.S. ships. Crossing the Suez takes the ships into the Red Sea, within striking distance of Iran, just after the U.N. passed a round of mild sanctions against Iran, which are soon to be fortified with much stricter unilateral sanctions from the U.S. and Europe. The best bet is that the Times story came out now, not due to any new developments on the Israeli-Saudi front, but because the Obama administration is trying to correct its earlier failure to show a willingness to use force against Iran if necessary. It's unlikely that Saudi Arabia or any of its neighbors want to see a war. But they definitely do not want to see a nuclear Iran. And they will do what it takes to prod Washington to keep that from happening, even if that means making secret deals with Israel.