Courting a Nemesis Out of Necessity: An Israeli-Saudi Alliance

Originally Posted on December 11, 2013 by Wikistrat

Cross-Posted on RealClearDefense on December 16, 2003

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In the recent strategic simulation The Turkey–Iran–Saudi Arabia Co-Evolution — in which Wikistrat’s analysts explored competing pathways for Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia vis-à-vis each other — Senior Analyst R. Jordan Prescott suggested that Israel and Saudi Arabia might sign a non-aggression pact to balance against their common enemy, Iran. He expands on that proposal here.

In October, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stunned international observers by turning down the opportunity to sit on the United Nations Security Council. According to the Saudi Foreign Ministry, the rejection reflected frustration with the United Nations’ ineffectiveness in “preserving world peace”. Diplomats speculated that the move actually reflected Saudi frustration with the West, especially the United States, regarding its policies toward Egypt and Syria. Now, in the wake of the recently concluded nuclear agreement with Iran, Saudi Arabia is reportedly exploring alternatives to its alliance with the United States. While experts acknowledge Saudi frustration is genuine, they assert the kingdom has few viable options. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia could contravene all geopolitical calculations if it is prepared to engage a nemesis that also happens to be the region’s sole credible counterweight to Iran.

Mounting Unease

The alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia dates back to 1944 and has weathered many crises, from the 1973 OPEC oil embargo to the participation of nineteen Saudi nationals in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

However, in the aftermath of American military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as foreign policy decisions over the past twenty-four months, the Saudi leadership has become very apprehensive as to the alliance’s durability.

In February 2011, Saudi leaders watched as the United States sanctioned the departure of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and then condoned the election of Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, to the presidency the following June. When the military ousted Morsi in July 2013, the United States declined to condemn the takeover as a coup, but quietly signaled its displeasure and began decreasing aid.

In September 2013, Saudi leaders watched as President Barack Obama declined to militarily enforce his declared “red line” against Syria after the regime there had used chemical weapons against rebels, who have received Saudi support.

During this period, the United States announced, in January 2012, its intent to “rebalance” its diplomatic and security priorities toward the Asia-Pacific.

Lastly, on November 23, the United States concluded a multilateral agreement with Iran whereby the latter would pause its nuclear enrichment program and submit to a stricter inspection regime in exchange for temporary relief from international sanctions. In subsequent reporting, Saudi leaders learned that the United States had been meeting secretly with Iranian representatives in Oman for the past eight months, despite public disavowals.

The Egyptian and Syrian episodes may have reflected the United States’ best attempts to navigate the uncertain circumstances of the Arab Spring, but Saudi Arabia has been engaged in a proxy war with Iran across the region for the past decade. Saudi leaders have also made clear their categorical opposition to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.

With the rapprochement between the United States and Iran imminent, the Saudi leadership may have concluded its longtime security guarantor can no longer be depended upon to uphold its commitments.

Few Alternatives Indeed

Without the American security umbrella, deterring a nuclear Iran would require either new allies or nuclear capabilities.

Russia, while regularly inclined to counterbalance the United States, stands athwart Saudi interests as patron of the current regimes in Syria and Iran.

China, while ascendant and increasingly dependent on Saudi oil, lacks power projection capabilities and is similarly interested in restarting trade with Iran.

Turkey, while a regional economic and military power, has no nuclear capabilities and is bound by NATO obligations.

Acquiring a nuclear weapon from Pakistan would obviate the need for a new ally, but Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and would risk the very same international sanctions visited upon Iran.

Faced with few alternatives, Saudi leadership may have to opt for extraordinary measures.

The Enemy of My Enemy…

Saudi Arabia and Israel may be mortal enemies, but both countries are unequivocally opposed to Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.

Israel has similarly been frustrated by recent U.S. foreign policy, especially in regard to Iran. After the agreement with Iran was announced, the Israeli prime minister described it as an “historic mistake.”

To counter Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel could inaugurate a detente of convenience. The detente need not be overt or ratified in a formal alliance, but the two countries could clearly communicate their new understanding by concluding a temporary non-aggression pact; Saudi Arabia would cease all overt and covert hostilities against Israel in exchange for protection under the latter’s nuclear umbrella. Furthermore, the two countries would begin covertly collaborating on all measures to subvert the Iranian nuclear program as well as preparing for joint military operations.

While less optimal than securing a new major ally or acquiring a nuclear arsenal of its own, Saudi Arabia’s pact with Israel would arrest Iran’s momentum in the region.

The kingdom would regain the initiative and be privy to a nuclear deterrent without the risk of becoming an international pariah. Israel would obtain additional options to conduct a military strike against Iran’s nuclear sites. Moreover, Israel would preclude another neighboring hostile regime from obtaining nuclear weapons.

The United States would probably be shocked by such a development and have to contend with a variety of domestic reactions, ranging from vehement opposition to enthusiastic acceptance. Whatever the reaction, though, America would not end its bilateral alliances with either country.

Europe, in general, could welcome the pact as a positive step toward regional peace.

China, as noted above, is more concerned about the security of Gulf energy supplies and, if detente appeared to ensure the continued flow of oil, it would probably welcome the pact as well.

Russia could worry how the Saudi-Israeli detente impacts Iran and Syria. It might decline to react publicly, but it would probably begin exploring how to respond if the relationship became operational.

A Saudi-Israeli non-aggression pact may be speculative, but both countries know the American-Iranian nuclear agreement, like the unexpected opening of China in 1972, only marks the beginning of a deeper and consequential alignment.

Friends for Now, But Afterward?

For Israel and Saudi Arabia, the Iranian nuclear program is an existential threat. Both countries’ pursuit of national interest turns on this matter of survival, not ideological affinity or historical ties. The United States may be seeking a new balance of power in the Middle East that will provide it greater room for maneuver and the option to forgo military intervention, but such efforts may inadvertently imperil its longtime alliances.

If Israel and Saudi Arabia deepened ties, the question is whether the United States would capitalize on the opportunity. Israel possesses a first-class military and a covert nuclear arsenal; Saudi Arabia does not. If the Iranian threat disappeared by virtue of a joint military strike or regime change, would the two countries revert to hostilities? Would Saudi Arabia align with Iran to renew the Islamic war on Israel? Or would the United States have helped to cultivate a more constructive relationship?

As a Russian might darkly observe, countries linked by non-aggression pacts would be wise to watch their backs, as such pacts can end dangerously.

What Reid Has Wrought

“As of today, the Senate effectively has no rules. Congratulations, Harry Reid.
Finally, something you will be remembered for.”

November marked a stunning reversal of fortune for President Barack Obama and his Administration. After the government shutdown in October, President Obama and the Democratic Party appeared politically secure heading into the 2014 midterm election season, whereas the Republican Party, instigators of the shutdown and consumed by an ideological civil war, seemed in utter disarray. Nevertheless, volatility remains the byword of contemporary American politics and the disastrous rollout of the Obamacare website has left the Administration reeling. In the space of a year, Obama’s approval rating has essentially flipped, with most of the damage occurring in the past three months (RealClearPolitics, below).  In a mid-November, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found Romney would best in a rematch, 49 percent to 45 percent. As president, Obama cannot escape responsibility.  In the background, however, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader, has inexplicably avoided scrutiny, despite being the noxious nexus of liberal perfidy today.

Elected in 1986, Reid partook in the re-taking of the Senate by the Democratic Party during President Ronald Reagan’s second term.  Reid won re-election easily in 1992, but only narrowly in 1998. From 1999 to 2005, Reid served as minority whip.  In 2005, the Democratic conference elevated Reid to minority leader after Senator Tom Daschle lost his re-election bid in 2004.  

During the 26 year period between 1987 and 2013, Reid shifted between the majority and minority four times, serving a total fifteen years in the former and eleven years in the latter. (From that Congress, only John McCain, Charles Grassley, and Barbara Mikulski remain.)

In the aftermath of the 2006 Republican “thumpin’”, Reid finally became Senate Majority Leader.

Reid, until then a moderate Democratic with some social conservative positions, immediately established himself an orthodox liberal.

In April 2007, Reid culminated years of liberal Democratic hypocrisy regarding the war in Iraq by declaring “this war is lost and the surge is not accomplishing”. Like twenty-nine of his Democratic colleagues, Reid had voted for the authorization to use military force against Iraq, only to join a long list of Democratic leaders, such as Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and John Edwards, in repudiating their vote as soon as public support began to ebb.

After Obama won the presidency, Reid shepherded the Administration’s agenda through the Senate.

In February 2009, Reid sponsored and secured passage of the Administration’s $831 billion stimulus plan, garnering only three Republican votes (one of which was Arlen Specter, who later opportunistically defected to the Democratic side in a failed attempt to win re-election).  The Administration’s principal aim was to create or “save” jobs, of which many were advertised as “shovel-ready” by the president.  According to the Congressional Budget Office, the stimulus boosted economic output and prevented wider unemployment, but it did not achieve the Administration’s promised goal of reducing unemployment below 8 percent.

In December 2009, Reid committed thirteen hours of negotiations to secure the support of remaining holdout, Sen. Ben Nelson (Democratic, Nebraska), for the Administration’s Affordable Care Act. Reid acceded to numerous Nelson demands:  tighter restrictions on abortion funding, eliminating the federal antitrust exemption for health insurers, rewriting a proposed fee on insurance companies to exempt nonprofit firms (a change that would benefit Nebraska firms), and, most egregiously, provisions to exempt Nebraska from the costs of expanding Medicaid.  

This last concession entailed a cost of approximately $100 million and was immediately denounced as the "Cornhusker Kickback". Obtaining this sixtieth vote, Reid ensured the legislation's passage. After Republican Scott Brown won an open seat election in Massachusetts and ended the Democrats' filibuster-proof majority, Reid and then Speaker Nancy Pelosi resorted to using the reconciliation process to pass the legislation.  The Cornhusker Kickback did not survive reconciliation, but after another round of party-line votes, the Congress under Reid and Pelosi passed the Act.  

Now, Reid has dismantled a key feature of American constitutionalism that protects the rights of minority dissenters against the tyranny of the majority. On November 21, Reid led the Senate chamber in changing the rule whereby federal judicial nominees and executive-office nominations would advance to confirmation votes by a simple majority of senators, rather than a sixty-vote supermajority.  

Initial political commentary focused on the move as a means to distract from the disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act website.  However, upon closer inspection, observers noted the rule change would facilitate the confirmation of presidential nominees to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the locus of federal regulatory rulings, like those relating to the Affordable Care Act.  

More pointedly, “Reid acted outside the formal rulemaking process, leading his colleagues to overrule the Senate president in the middle of a contentious debate. Reid thus created a new precedent in which a simple majority can dispense with Senate rules on any vote, including legislation covering any aspect of life in America.” [Emphasis added]

While the House remains Republican and the move has only galvanized normally somnolent moderate Republican Senators, President Obama and Majority Leader Reid now possess the means to govern more overtly on behalf of its base by confirming even more stridently liberal appointees and approving onerous regulations.

As has been noted extensively, the maneuver will only backfire if and when the Democratic Party returns to the minority. Nevertheless, the audacity of the act only reiterates how negotiations with liberals always amounts to a sucker’s bet.  

When the Republican majority contemplated the same rule change, liberal Democrats were unmatched in their shrill denunciation. The video clips from that episode make for amusing viewing, but the conclusion is all but forgotten -- the Republicans retreated in a tacit admission that such a step would undermine the integrity of the Senate.

Charlatans like Reid have no such inhibitions.

As noted in a 2010 New York Times magazine profile, “By reputation and appearance, Reid, who is 70, is one of the blander elected officials in Washington. Upon closer inspection, he is deeply and deceptively interesting.”

Very apt. After all, Reid was the first major Democrat to counsel then Senator Barack Obama to take on the party’s all-but-uncrowned frontrunner Hillary Clinton in 2008, out of fear the latter would lose. If Clinton had run and lost, Reid might have been the senior Democrat in the country, but what is that worth when everything you pass is vetoed? That would have just been another sucker’s bet.