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Post-Abraham Accords, Israel’s foes are reconciling with their rivals

March 22, 2023 at 9:19 am

Iran and Saudi Arabia agree to restore ties and reopen embassies on 10 March 2023

The Middle East has been in turmoil for decades, with conflicts often fuelled by historic rivalries, sectarianism and geopolitical interests. However, in recent months, there have been some significant developments that have the potential to shift the regional dynamics. The China-brokered Saudi-Iran normalisation agreement, Syria’s reconciliation with neighbouring states and possible return to the Arab League, and Turkish-Egypt reconciliation efforts have all caught the attention of many, particularly Israel, which has long been considered a key regional actor and instigator.

The occupation state is still optimistic about the 2020 US-brokered Abraham Accords which normalised its relations with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan. The accords were seen as a historic diplomatic breakthrough, leading to strong speculation that other Arab states would follow suit, chief among them Saudi Arabia.

Despite the Iraq-hosted talks between Riyadh and Tehran launched in 2021, five years after they severed diplomatic ties, news of the resumption of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two of the most prominent foes in the Middle East, caught the international community by surprise. This is because they have been engaged in a perceived proxy war in Yemen, while also supporting opposing sides in other regional conflicts, including those in Syria and Lebanon. However, China’s successful efforts to bring these two powers to the negotiating table have led to some optimism that their rivalry may be coming to an end.

The impact of this normalisation on the region cannot be overstated. It is likely to reduce tensions, at least in the short term, and lead to some level of stability. The development also offers the opportunity for them to collaborate on issues that affect the entire region, such as economic development and security. It is still too early, though, to say whether the agreement to resume relations will translate into significant policy shifts by either country, particularly given the history of mistrust and hostility between them.

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The implications of this reconciliation for Israel are particularly significant. For years, Israel has maintained a hostile relationship with the Islamic Republic alongside covert contacts with the Saudi Kingdom, with which the occupation state shares security concerns over Iranian activities in the region and Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

One possible outcome of the Saudi-Iran normalisation is that both countries could reduce their support for opposing sides in regional conflicts. This could lead to a reduction in tensions in places like Syria and Yemen, where the warring factions have been backed by one or the other. Another possible outcome is that the deal could lead to a realignment of regional alliances. If Saudi Arabia and Iran are no longer seen as bitter rivals, it could change the way that other countries in the region view their own relationships with these two powers.

According to reports, some of the security clauses of the Beijing-backed agreement include Saudi Arabia pledging not to fund Iranian opposition media outlets such as Iran International, and separatist groups and parties designated as terrorists by the Iranian government. Iran for its part has allegedly agreed to ensure that the armed factions it supports in Iraq do not violate Saudi territory from within the country.

However, the future of the most contentious issue, that of Iran’s support for the Houthi-led government in Yemen, remains unclear, even though some reports have claimed that Tehran has said that it will stop arming the Houthis. This has yet to be confirmed by Iranian sources but, in any case, both sides have said that they will cooperate to resolve regional conflicts.

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While Saudi Arabia and Iran have been the most prominent rivals in the region, Syria’s reconciliation with its neighbours and possible return to the Arab League could also have a significant impact. Syria was suspended from the League in 2011, following the government’s harsh crackdown against popular demonstrations calling for political reform, which led to the ongoing Syrian uprising. For the best part of a decade, Damascus has been isolated from many regional powers, becoming increasingly reliant on Iran and Russia.

However, in recent years there have been positive signs of Syria reconciling with its neighbours. This has included discussions with Jordan in addition to growing relations with the UAE, which most recently voiced support for Syria’s return to the Arab League during President Bashar Al-Assad’s second visit in as many years to the Gulf state. This could all lead to greater regional cooperation and possibly reduce tensions in the region. It could also lead to Syria becoming less reliant on Iran and Russia, which, again, could shift the regional balance of power.

It is yet another development that Israel will be sure to keep a watchful eye on, given the ongoing hostilities between the two countries, and Syria’s resumption of relations with Palestinian resistance movement Hamas.

Israel has historically maintained close ties with the Western world, particularly with the US, and is considered a key ally of the West in the Middle East. On the other hand, Iran has stronger ties with Russia and China, both of which are major powers with geopolitical interests in the region. Russia and China are key members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a political and economic alliance aimed at strengthening cooperation between member countries, with Iran set to become an official member next month. Iran has also participated in China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has helped strengthen its ties with both countries. Tehran, meanwhile, has applied to join the BRICS group, with Saudi Arabia also having expressed interest in joining the powerful economic bloc.

Coupled with Israel’s current political crisis, with concerns that it could morph into a “civil war”, the occupation state may find itself in a marginalised position in the near future, especially as its security interests are aligned with those of the US, which is seeing its influence diminish in the Middle East, unlike Russia and China.

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As Israel perceives Iran as a threat to its national security, any rapprochement between Tehran and Saudi Arabia, a key US ally, is likely to be viewed as a threat to Israeli interests. The occupation state has been known to engage in covert operations to undermine Iranian interests, including cyber-attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities and the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. It is, therefore, likely that Israel will try to instigate tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia to undermine their reconciliation.

Normalisation with Israel has been a controversial issue and has faced opposition from a significant number of citizens in the Arab states that signed the Abraham Accords. One of the goals of the deal was to encourage other Arab states to make peace with and recognise the apartheid state, while further isolating Iran and its ally, Syria, who have been staunch opponents of Zionism. Recent diplomatic developments demonstrate that Israel’s opponents are building bridges with their former adversaries. If Israel finds such developments objectionable, then it is likely that they are actually beneficial for the region as a whole.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.