Monday, January 4, 2016

What Saudi-Iran Tensions Mean For Israel

Saudi Arabia executed 47 people on Saturday January 2nd, 2016. Among them was Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a Saudi Shia cleric who had preached against the Saudi government. al-Nimr's execution sent ripples across the Shia communities in Iraq and Iran. On Saturday evening, protesters threw gasoline bombs and broke into the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, trashing the offices and stealing items from them. Saudi Arabia accused Iran of purposefully not protecting the embassy, summonsed the Iranian ambassador in Riyadh, and cut diplomatic ties with Iran on January 3rd. Today, Bahrain and Sudan followed suit. Other states have downgraded ties but not cut them off.

Israel has been following closely the conflict between Saudi and Iran as a regional power with a keen interest in Gulf politics. The conflict presents opportunities for Israel to lend support and assurances to Saudi Arabia. However, it also presents challenges as Iran looks to shift pressure away from itself and diffuse regional tensions. Given Israel's current regional posture, the Saudi-Iran tensions have three major impacts.

First, Iran may use its relations with Hizbullah and Hamas to escalate conflict on Israel's borders. Today's incident on the Lebanon border and Friday's rocket attacks from Gaza show the extent of tensions that Iran can exploit to shift attention away from it's conflict with Saudi Arabia. As the tension continues, Iran may also be tempted to push Hizbullah and Hamas to escalate conflict in order to mitigate pressure from the international community.

Second, US influence in the region will be constrained, which Israel can exploit for better or worse. The Iran nuclear deal is a Sword of Damocles over Amerca's ability to pressure Iran to de-escalate the conflict. The US has limited contact with Iran's government, and significant pressure to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia. It is unlikely the US will determine the outcome of the current conflict. Israel can use this fact in ways that help or harm US policy. A helpful response would be to quarterback the US position towards a Saudi Arabia suspicious of American aims in the wake of the nuclear deal. A less helpful response would be to bolster Saudi saber rattling, sectarianism, and protests against the nuclear deal. 

Third, a resolution of the Syria conflict may be delayed, giving ISIS a stronger footing along the Syrian border with Israel. Saudi Arabia and Iran are major parties to talks in Vienna that seek a political resolution to the Syrian conflict. The current tensions may delay the pace of progress, leaving the door open to further fighting. Last week the IDF raised the possibility of ISIS approaching the border between Syria and Israel. ISIS, or fighters aligned with it, may have a greater opportunity to send rockets and mortars into Israel given a delayed political solution and incentive to escalate fighting between Saudi and Iranian proxies (as well as the IRGC) in Syria.

In formulating a policy response, Israel must keep each of these three factors in mind. While it had an isolationist policy during the Arab uprisings, the nuclear deal and new ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE have shifted Israel's regional posture. But given the risky posture in which Israel finds itself, deeper involvement may prove a risky venture.