The secret police tail was impossible to miss but easy to lose. Two men in Saudi national dress — white thobe and checkered shemagh — drove a large black American saloon slowly behind me as I walked on the baking hot road. I turned into a shopping mall and they parked outside, not bothering to follow on foot as there was only one entrance. I went into a shop, all the way to the back, and then out through a door for staff to get to the mall’s loading bay, where a local activist picked me up in his car. We felt immensely pleased with ourselves when we got to the house of the Shia dissident we had come to see. He laughed and pointed out a nearly identical black car down the road, one man with binoculars, another on his phone. The dissident was being watched 24/7. He gave the secret policemen a wave.
The Saudi-Iran peace deal might be seen as MbS’s judgment that Israel will attack Iran sooner or later
This was the town of al-Qatif, in eastern Saudi Arabia, in 2011. Young Shia were starting to take to the streets, encouraged by the Arab Spring. They promised a “day of rage.” The Saudi authorities promised “an iron fist.” The dissident, a softly spoken intellectual, was trying to calm things down.
The Saudi authorities — terrified of losing the eastern oil fields — accused Iran of stirring up the trouble. More than a decade later, when mass demonstrations began last year in Iran, the authorities there accused Saudi Arabia of provoking the unrest. In both countries, people were angry enough without outside help. But the bitter enmity between the rulers in Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran has been a defining fact of the Middle East for the past forty years, deepening the sectarian divide across the region, fueling small wars and threatening a much larger conflict.
Then suddenly last month Riyadh and Tehran made peace. No one saw it coming — at least not the US State Department or the CIA. You couldn’t blame them. After all, the Saudi leader, Mohammed bin Salman, had once said that Iran’s supreme leader “makes Hitler look good.” MbS had also accused the Iranians of wanting to grab Mecca. He said he’d take the war to them, on Iranian soil, before letting that happen. It’s easy to talk tough when the big kid on the block, the United States, will step in if you lose a fight. But in 2019, MbS was shocked when the US — seething following the murder of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey the previous year — failed to hit back after an attack by Iranian-made drones shut down half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production. By all accounts, MbS started to doubt America’s reliability — and to see the wisdom of coming to terms with the old enemy.
Kim Ghattas is cautious about the resulting tentative agreement. Her book Black Wave is a history of the decades of conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, sparked by the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. This is not a genuine peace deal, she says — both sides are just being pragmatic. The Iranians are hurting from economic sanctions and under pressure from street protests; there is “internal discord… small cracks’ in the regime. The Saudis are in a panic — just like after the invasion of Kuwait — about how dangerous and volatile the region has become. “I remain a skeptic… this is a short-term tactic to buy time on both sides and see who comes out on top at the end.”
So, she goes on, both sides wanted to defuse tension and de-escalate “while keeping all their cards.” In Iran’s case, this means keeping its proxy militias active around the region: Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. The regime in Iran feels “encircled” and sees these militias as its first line of defense. It will continue to use them — to shore up the Syrian regime, to harass American troops in Syria and Iraq, to attack Israel. “There is no change to Iran’s foreign policy, except for some cosmetic changes to allow the supreme leader some space and time to figure out how they’re going to ensure the survival of the Islamic Republic.”
For Saudi Arabia, too, the fundamentals of its foreign policy remain the same: fear and suspicion of Iran. But two important things appear to have changed. The first is that MbS is desperate to get out of the quagmire of his war in Yemen, fought against an Iranian-backed militia, the Houthis. Thousands of Yemenis have died under Saudi bombs (supplied by the US and Britain). Many more have starved to death in a famine caused by the war. This, perhaps, does not bother MbS as much as the Houthis’ ability to send rockets and drones into Saudi Arabia at will. One fell on Jeddah while the city was hosting the international Formula 1 Grand Prix, an event MbS loves so much he may try to buy it for $20 billion.
The second change is one we can only guess. But, presumably, Riyadh’s new relationship with Tehran means it would not support Israel if it bombed Iran’s nuclear facilities. An American lawyer who deals directly with senior Saudi royals told me once that MbS was even thinking about sending his own jets to join an Israeli strike. That was hard to believe, though the lawyer had also told me MbS was meeting in secret with the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu — and later it emerged there had been at least one such meeting. True or not, the lawyer’s claims are exactly the kind of thing that would be said if Israel did bomb Iran. Now — as Ghattas tells me — the Saudis could declare “We’re not involved” and have some hope of being believed.
The deal with Tehran might, then, be seen as MbS’s judgment that Israel will attack Iran sooner or later. There are other signs this might happen. Iran’s talks with the US and others to limit its nuclear capabilities have broken down. Last month, the International Atomic Energy Agency discovered that Iran had enriched uranium to 83.7 percent purity;90 percent is the level needed to make a nuclear bomb.
Jason Brodsky is policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran, an American lobby group. He tells me the Iranians are feeling “very confident” right now. They have escalated their nuclear activities “without paying a meaningful price,” instead being “rewarded” with a deal from America’s principal ally in the region. He worries that Israel has been left weaker, hopes shattered that an earlier deal with the United Arab Emirates — the Abraham Accords — would lead to one with the Saudis too. “The unity that could have been developed if Saudi Arabia hadn’t normalized relations with Iran is now in question.”
A succession of Israeli leaders have promised to prevent the “flying holocaust” of a nuclear bomb atop an Iranian ballistic missile. For now, this means a war in the shadows, of assassinations and covert strikes. Iran has its own such covert war, too, using its (implausibly deniable) Shia militias. Here as well Brodsky says Iran has been “emboldened”: expect the Axis of Resistance — as Iran calls its anti-Israel, anti-American coalition — not just to remain active, but to “test red lines.” This is also a consequence, Brodsky points out, of Israel’s political crisis, with a divided government and mass protests on the streets against Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Last week, there was a volley of rocket fire from southern Lebanon into northern Israel. It was the largest attack since the war between Israel and Lebanon in 2006. At home in Beirut, we wondered if we should take the next flight out of Lebanon. We stayed, seeing that everyone was content to blame the Palestinian militant group Hamas, rather than Hezbollah, which is under more direct control from Tehran. But no one believed the attack could have occurred without Hezbollah’s consent. It just happened to take place while the Hamas leader was in Beirut to meet the leader of Hezbollah.
A beleaguered Netanyahu told a news conference this week that further attacks from Hamas, Hezbollah or the Assad regime — the Axis of Resistance — would bring on the “full force” of an Israeli military response. Brodsky tells me that, in his view, Israel has to consider “much bolder” operations, not just going after Hamas, but Hezbollah too.
Hezbollah, though, has a vast arsenal. An Israeli think tank puts it at 5,000 long-range missiles, capable of hitting any large Israeli city, 65,000 short-range rockets and 145,000 heavy mortars. Brodsky believes Israel could “calibrate” an attack to “rebuild meaningful deterrence… without triggering the full scale use of Hezbollah’s rockets” in reply. It might not be as easy as that. In 2006, a small incident on the border quickly blossomed into a full-scale war. Tensions are higher now.
A curious fact about the Saudi-Iranian cold peace: it was brokered by China, not (as with almost every other Middle East agreement) by the US. A photo shows the Iranian and Saudi foreign ministers shaking hands in Beijing. If not quite yet a New World Order in the Middle East, this is certainly a stunning upset. China’s clout is economic. It’s the biggest customer for Saudi oil and Iranian gas. The US, on the other hand, now produces enough oil to meet its own needs. Its clout is military, though Americans must increasingly wonder why, when they have their own oil, they have to pay for a peace that guarantees China’s energy supply.
Nevertheless, the US has just dispatched a nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Florida, to the Persian Gulf, carrying 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles. There is a dangerous perception in the region that the US is occupied elsewhere, in Ukraine and by the possibility of war over Taiwan, and is not paying attention. The Middle East has a way of exploding back into relevance. Old enemies are shaking hands, reopening embassies, talking about trade — and who could fail to welcome that? — but one peace deal may simply serve to make the next war more likely.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the World edition here.