Saudi Arabia, Iran And Israel: The Shifting Sands Of The Middle East

Apr 22nd, 2023 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

In mid-March 2023, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations and reopen embassies after seven years of conflict and tension. The major diplomatic breakthrough negotiated with China lowers the chance of armed conflict between the Mideast rivals — both directly and in proxy conflicts around the region (e.g., Yemen).  The deal, struck in Beijing amid its ceremonial National People’s Congress, represents a major diplomatic victory for the Chinese as Gulf Arab states perceive the United States slowly withdrawing from the wider Middle East. It also comes as diplomats have been trying to end a long war in Yemen, a conflict in which both Iran and Saudi Arabia are deeply entrenched.  The two countries released a joint communique on the deal with China, which brokered the agreement as President Xi Jinping was awarded a third five-year term as leader earlier Friday.  Xi, whose administration in recent days has relaunched a campaign to challenge the U.S.-led Western liberal order with warnings of “conflict and confrontation,” was credited in a trilateral statement with facilitating the talks through a “noble initiative” and having personally agreed to sponsor the negotiations.


This agreement is potentially a watershed moment in the Middle East of the 21st century.  What are the implications of this agreement?  How will this affect Israel?  The United States?  Other Middle Eastern nations?

  1. The news of a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabiawas greeted in Israel with “surprise, anxiety and introspection. It also compounded a sense of national peril set off by profound domestic divisions about the policies of the government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And it seemed to catch Mr. Netanyahu—who has long presented himself as the Israeli leader best qualified to fight Iran and most able to charm Saudi Arabia—off guard.”  As Peter Kingsley of the New York Times concludes, “The announcement undermined Israeli hopes of forming a regional security alliance against Iran. It suggested that while other countries in the Middle East may see Iran as a menace, they see little gain in isolating and opposing Tehran to the extent that Israel does. Israel views Iran and its nuclear weapons program as a danger to Israel’s very survival. But the Saudi decision was a reminder of how Iran’s neighbors in the Persian Gulf see Tehran as a troublesome neighbor that must nevertheless be engaged with.”  For Netanyahu, the news was perceived as particularly damaging. For years, his two chief foreign policy goals have been the isolation of Iran and the normalization of ties with Saudi Arabia, which has never recognized Israel.

Kingsley also observes that for some Israeli analysts, “the recasting of Saudi-Iranian ties might prevent the emergence of a more formal Saudi-Israeli relationship, even if it accelerates those relations in private.”  “Iran and Saudi Arabia will continue to be rivals, and Saudi Arabia and Israel will continue to actively cooperate against Iran,” said Yoel Guzansky, an expert on the Persian Gulf at the Institute for National Security Studies, an Israeli research group. “But it might affect the more public sides of normalization” with Israel, Mr. Guzansky said.  And in symbolic terms, the Saudi decision was undeniably a blow to Israel, Mr. Guzansky said.  “It sends a message that Israel is all alone in the region to fight Iran,” said Mr. Guzansky, who dealt with Iranian issues while a senior official on Israel’s National Security Council. “And that the Gulf countries are getting closer to Iran.”

Finally, Walter Russell Mead places the agreement in a larger context: “”The combination of Iran’s nuclear program nearing its goal, Tehran’s deepening relations with an activist Russia, and China’s commitment to attacking American preponderance in the Middle East threatens Israel.   Crises are erupting both in its American alliance and its new security partnerships with key Arab states.”

  1. The announcement by Iran and Saudi Arabiathat they are re-establishing diplomatic ties could lead to a major realignment in the Middle East. But it also represents a geopolitical challenge for the United States and a victory for China, which brokered the talks between the two longstanding rivals.  Under the agreement, Iran and Saudi Arabia will patch up a seven-year split by reviving a security cooperation pact, reopening embassies in each other’s countries within two months, and resuming trade, investment and cultural accords. But the rivalry between the two Persian Gulf nations is so deeply rooted in disagreements about religion and politics that simple diplomatic engagement may not be able to overcome them.

Ben Hubbard and Shashank Bengali of the New York Times summarize some of the key questions surrounding the deal.

  • Why is this important?  “The new diplomatic engagement could scramble geopolitics in the Middle East and beyond by bringing together Saudi Arabia, a close partner of the United States, with Iran, a longtime foe that Washington and its allies consider a security threat and a source of global instability.  Saudi Arabia and Iran have competed for influence for decades, each seeing itself not just as a regional power, but also as a lodestar for the world’s 1.9 billion Muslims. Tensions between the two nations grew into an all-out rift in 2016 when protesters in Iran stormed Saudi diplomatic missions after the kingdom’s execution of a dissident Shiite cleric . . . How the breakthrough announced on Friday would affect Saudi Arabia’s participation in Israeli and American efforts to counter Iran was not immediately clear. But the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two regional powers marked at least a partial thaw in a cold war that has long shaped the Middle East.”
  • What could the impact be across the Middle East?  “Since they broke off diplomatic relations in 2016, the leaders of Iran and Saudi Arabia have regularly denounced each other. Tehran has accused the Saudis of backing terrorist groups such as the Islamic State, and Saudi Arabia has blasted Iran’s support for a network of armed militias across the Middle East.  It has played out perhaps most catastrophically in Yemen, where Saudi bombs aimed at reversing gains by Iranian-backed rebels have killed large numbers of civilians. Those rebels have responded by firing increasingly sophisticated missiles and armed drones at Saudi cities and oil facilities . . . A more formal diplomatic engagement may provide avenues for the two regional powers to make further progress on cooling regional flash points.”
  • What was China’s role? “Beijing maintains ties with both Middle Eastern countries, and the breakthrough highlights its growing political and economic clout in the region, which has long been shaped by the influence of the United States.  “China wants stability in the region, since they get more than 40 percent of their energy from the Gulf, and tension between the two threatens their interests,” said Jonathan Fulton, a nonresident senior fellow for Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council in Washington.  Regional leaders have also noted their appreciation that China, which maintains a policy of “noninterference” in other countries’ affairs, avoids criticizing their domestic politics and does not have a history of sending its military to topple unfriendly dictators.  The announcement also reflects China’s desire to play a bigger diplomatic role on the world stage. Beijing has presented what it calls  and, last month, introduced a peace plan for Ukraine. Both the security initiative and the Ukraine proposal have been panned in the West for lacking concrete ideas and for ultimately promoting Chinese interests.”
  • What could it mean for the United States?  “News of the deal, and particularly Beijing’s role in brokering it, alarmed foreign policy hawks in Washington.” “Renewed Iran-Saudi ties as a result of Chinese mediation is a lose, lose, lose for American interests,” said Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank that supports tough policies toward Iran and China.  He said it showed that Saudi Arabia lacks trust in Washington, that Iran could peel away U.S. allies to ease its isolation and that China “is becoming the major-domo of Middle Eastern power politics.”  Trita Parsi, an executive vice president of the Quincy Institute, a Washington group that supports U.S. restraint overseas, said, “While many in Washington will view China’s emerging role as a mediator in the Middle East as a threat, the reality is that a more stable Middle East where the Iranians and Saudis aren’t at each other’s throats also benefits the United States.”
  • What are the obstacles to a true thaw in relations?  “Saudi Arabia and Iran are global leaders of the two largest sects of Islam, with Saudi Arabia considering itself the guardian of Sunnis and Iran assuming a similar role for Shiites.  Leaders in Tehran routinely criticize Saudi Arabia’s close ties with the United States, accusing the kingdom of doing the West’s bidding in the Middle East. And Iran, in an effort to enhance its own security and project influence, has heavily invested in building a network of armed militias across the region. Saudi Arabia considers that network a threat not only to its own security, but also to the broader regional order.  Other areas of stark disagreement include the role of Shiite militias in Iraq and Lebanon, which Iran supports to enhance its regional influence and Saudi Arabia says weakens those countries.  The future of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, whom the Saudis wanted to help topple and Iran has helped remain in power, is another dividing line.  How to resolve the war in Yemen is yet another major point of contention, with Iran backing the Houthi rebels, whose advances prompted Saudi Arabia to launch a broad military intervention into the conflict to try to push them back.”
  • What could be behind the Saudi move?  “For decades, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy was relatively predictable. But Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman upended those expectations when he began rising to power in 2015, intervening in Yemen’s civil war, cutting ties with neighboring Qatar and in effect kidnapping Lebanon’s prime minister and pushing him to resign.  He has recently demonstrated a more pragmatic approach, mending the rift with Qatar, easing tensions with Turkey and pursuing peace talks in Yemen. The prince’s move toward regional reconciliation is partly driven by the challenges he faces at home as he tries to overhaul nearly every aspect of life in Saudi Arabia.  His ‘Vision 2030’ plan calls for diversifying the oil-dependent economy by attracting tourism and foreign investment, drawing millions of expatriates to the kingdom and turning it into a global hub for business and culture. Calming regional tensions is central to that vision, but it is also driven by his desire to turn Saudi Arabia into a global power and make it less dependent on the United States.  That doesn’t mean replacing the United States, which still supplies the vast majority of Saudi Arabia’s weapons and defensive systems — at least not anytime soon. But the prince has been looking for ways to build deeper ties with other global powers, such as China, India and Russia.”


  1. One final point:  Michael Singh, managing director and Lane-Swig Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy and a former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council, puts this deal in the larger context of 21st century diplomacy and world conflict:  “The newsthat China brokered a rapprochement between bitter rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran came as a shock to many in Washington, stoking fears that Riyadh was defecting to Beijing’s camp after having been a key U.S. partner since the 1940s.   Such worries misapprehend how U.S. partners are responding to growing competition between the United States and China. Pushed to choose between the established order led by Washington and the alternative order proffered by Beijing, our partners are instead choosing ‘all of the above.’ By and large, it is neither the United States nor China they see as most threatening, but the competition between them.  This is the new global reality U.S. policymakers need to accept— and adapt to—going forward.”


“[I]n reality, economics, politics and security are unavoidably intertwined, and China’s aspirations, unsurprisingly, are not limited to trade. As Beijing’s economic stake in the region has grown, so too has its diplomatic tempo: It has unleashed a fusillade of peace proposals, conferences and envoys on the region even as Washington has scaled back such activities. Riyadh turned to China not only because it has influence with Iran, but because Beijing has positioned itself to seize just this sort of opportunity.  But this does not mean Saudi Arabia is turning toward China or away from the United States. Indeed, even as it looks to China for mediation with Iran, Riyadh appears to be seeking a defense agreement with the United States and mulling a normalization deal with Israel. States that during the Cold War might have chosen to be nonaligned are, in the current iteration of great-power competition, electing instead to be “omni-aligned”—that is, they are opting to participate in the multilateral orders led by both Washington and Beijing rather than choosing between them. It’s an obvious hedging strategy, making them the object of competition between the great powers, while protecting their interests if one or the other draws back.”


  1. This new reality in the Middle East has caused me to think biblically about this region.  The prophetic Scriptures in Daniel chapters 9 and 11-12 and in Revelation 12-14 speak of powers to the north and to the immediate east and far east of Israel.  A resurgent Russia under Putin and a resurgent Persia under Iran fit this description perfectly.  China is obviously the major power of the East.  The world order put together by the United States after World War II is coming apart.  Together, China, Russia and Iran are challenging that order. We live in very dangerous times such that many are now beginning to speak of a “post-American world.”  Since 1945, the US has been the arbiter of a “rules-based” world order.  Today, it is struggling to fulfill that role.  There is no greater illustration of that than in the Middle East.

See Peter Kingsley, “Saudi Deal With Iran Surprises Israel and Jolts Netanyahu” in the New York Times (10 March 2023); Ben Hubbard and Shashank Bengali, “Answers to 7 Key Questions on the Saudi-Iran Deal” in the New York Times (10 March 2023); Michael SinghThe Saudi-Iran deal reflects a new global reality” in the Washington Post (16 March 2023); and Walter Russell Mead in the Wall Street Journal (14 March 2023).

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