The agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran to renew their diplomatic relations, announced in Beijing last March, exemplifies a broader push and desire across the Middle East to resolve the region’s many disputes and reduce overall tensions. This broader trend also includes Syria’s return to the Arab fold, the resumption of relations between Bahrain and Qatar, and possibly even a looming regional solution to the Yemen civil war and Saudi Arabia’s intervention there. These developments join other dramatic processes, centering around improved relations within the Arab world as well as between the Arabs and the region’s main non-Arab forces — Turkey and Iran — as part of an overarching, cumulative process that is changing the face of the Middle East.
The benefits are obvious to regional actors in the Gulf and Levant, anxious to build on a more secure and stable neighborhood as a prerequisite to refocus on their domestic social and economic needs. And in the case of Iran, de-confliction and reduced regional tensions may finally allow the country to escape the crushing economic sanctions imposed on it in response to Tehran’s malign policies, including but not limited to its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability.
For Russia and China as well, a more peaceful region less dependent on the U.S. security umbrella opens up possibilities for economic and political gains. China, in particular, has used progress in Saudi-Iranian normalization as an advertisement for its own preferred strategy of conflict resolution through negotiation as opposed to the perceived U.S. preference for deterrence and confrontation.
The picture for the U.S. and Israel is more complicated. As a statement of principle, both Washington and Jerusalem welcome any reduction in regional tensions and prospects for a more stable, secure, and prosperous environment. Moreover, the Abraham Accords — which allowed for a normalization of Israeli relations with key Arab states in the Gulf and North Africa and the opening of new economic and political opportunities for Israel — can themselves be seen as part of the broader drive to reduce or eliminate regional conflict and promote peace. Also, a more secure Saudi Arabia is in both America’s and Israel’s interest. Finally, the less freedom of action for aggressive behavior Iran has in the region the better — Tehran might be more constrained in using its proxies against its neighbors once it has better relations with them.
Nevertheless, there is a risk for U.S. and Israeli policy priorities. In particular, the push for regional tensions reduction, including potential assistance to Iran in sidestepping the international sanctions regime, will reduce pressure on Tehran to negotiate on issues of concern, especially its nuclear weapons program. Thus, while there is a diminished possibility of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states supporting military action should negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program categorically fail, the need to keep that option alive and viable has not changed.
Washington and Jerusalem need to adapt to the new regional realities — what David Ignatius in the Washington Post has referred to as the “age of deconfliction.” While there needs to be sustained pressure on Iran over its nuclear weapons program, empty rhetoric about military options to address the problem will be poorly received in the region. Overall, emphasizing relations based on security and military cooperation will not be convincing for governments and societies looking for a peace dividend from recent diplomatic developments. Instead, Washington and Jerusalem should look for opportunities to reinforce ties based on the strong economic and societal possibilities that greater regional integration can foster. Utilizing the Negev Forum agreements that encourage regional integration, cooperation, and development, including initiatives that could strengthen the Palestinian economy and improve the quality of life of the Palestinian people, would be a good place to start. Allowing security cooperation to proceed organically will reduce pressure on regional governments to push back publicly.
A further risk factor for both the U.S. and Israel must also be addressed: The profound internal crisis within Israel risks further complicating U.S. regional relations and stalling, if not reversing, Israel’s normalization process with its neighbors. The suggestion that what happens in the Israel-Palestine context is unimportant to the broader Middle East and that the region “doesn’t care” about the Palestinians is a misconception. Regardless of the frustrations over Palestinian failed leadership and its inability to resolve internal Palestinian challenges, all will be quickly set aside if the Israeli government continues to threaten the political, social, and economic well-being of the Palestinian people. The U.S. and Israel need to address this challenge head-on.
In the immediate future, Washington and Jerusalem should move rapidly to prevent an erosion of the normalization process and to elicit fresh thinking on the design of a regional architecture to manage security threats, all the while advancing a more comprehensive vision for a region that is prioritizing domestic challenges.
Amb. (ret.) Gerald Feierstein is a distinguished senior fellow on U.S. diplomacy at the Middle East Institute (MEI) and director of its Arabian Peninsula Affairs Program.
Dr. Yoel Guzansky is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and a Non-Resident Scholar at MEI, specializing in Gulf politics and security.
Photo by MAZEN MAHDI/AFP via Getty Images
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