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Could the Deal Between Iran and Saudi Arabia Be Good for Israel? | Opinion

Newsweek 3/24/2023 Avi Melamed
Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud. © ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud.

The Chinese-brokered agreement signed between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Beijing reflects China's growing presence and influence in the Middle East. This is good for Israel and for the whole region.

By entering this pact, Iran has now officially committed itself to China's interest in stability in the region, and particularly along the primary maritime trade routes in the Arab/Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, and the Red Sea. Therefore, I believe Iran will refrain from attacking vessels in the Gulf and the Red Sea, and it will avoid attacking oil facilities in Saud Arabia and the Gulf, creating a period of calm.

The agreement will also have impacts on the nuclear issue and the war in Yemen. On the nuclear front, Iran is motivated to adhere to the Saudi-Iran agreement, and I believe that for the foreseeable future, it will cooperate with the IAEA to ease suspicions and concerns regarding its nuclear program.

Additionally, the agreement could help stabilize the fragile truce in Yemen. Houthi attacks on Saudi soil and assets will cease. Located on the crucial Bab-el Mandeb Strait, stability in Yemen has significant regional and global ramifications.

The agreement will also affect the Syrian arena. Iran's presence in Syria was one of the reasons for Saudi support of President Bashar al-Assad's isolation. Over the past few years, Arab leaders have increasingly signaled their interest in bringing Assad back into the fold. This month Mohammed bin Zayed, president of the United Arab Emirates, hosted Assad. We are likely to see this process accelerate and see more Saudi gestures toward the Assad regime.

While some think the Iran-Saudi rapprochement signals that there is no chance of a path to Saudi-Israel relations, I believe it is highly likely that given the Saudi's experience and understanding of the Iranian regime, Riyadh will continue to keep its options open vis-a-vis normalizing relations with Israel. The Israeli-Saudi dialogue will continue as it has so far—as an under-the-radar process. Despite renewed relations between them, Saudi Arabia is still very much threatened by Iran and will not drop the Israel card.

From the Israeli point of view, the Jewish State can take comfort in this China-brokered deal—and potentially benefit from it—for at least three reasons:

First, anything that slows down Iran's progress toward building nuclear weapons is a good thing.

Second, calm in the Gulf serves Israel. Iran's repeated attacks on maritime traffic—including Israeli-owned vessels—aim to pressure Israel to stop attacking Iranian military infrastructure in Syria. Following the agreement—at least for the foreseeable future, Iran has lost this valuable card.

Third, it could also reduce the potential for a large military confrontation between Israel and Gaza. The agreement surprised Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad—both supported by Iran. In the immediate term, both will try to understand the impact on their activities and resources. Considering this, and because it is the month of Ramadan, the potential for a wide-scale military flare-up between Israel and the Gaza Strip in the near term is reduced, even if clashes between Israel and Palestinian militants in the West Bank continue.

The agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a prelude to a proactive Chinese policy in the region. Its strategy aims to reestablish a regional equilibrium that will support China's strategic interests. This agreement positions China as the new sheriff in the Middle East, and in this neighborhood that is a difficult job.

Avi Melamed served as senior Arab affairs advisor to Jerusalem mayors Teddy Kollek and Ehud Olmert and was a negotiator during the first and second intifadas. The author of "Inside The Middle East | Entering A New Era," he is the founder and chief education officer of Inside the Middle East, a nonprofit devoted to providing professional knowledge about the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

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