Prolonged War in Gaza Will Test Iran-Saudi Ties

It may appear that pan-Islamic unity has brought Iran and Saudi Arabia closer during the Gaza War in demanding a prompt ceasefire, condemning the unparalleled damage caused by Israel’s military action on Gaza’s populace and infrastructure, and professing their steadfastness to maintain calm and stability in the Persian Gulf. However, Hamas’ barbaric Operation al-Aqsa Flood and the actions of other regional Iranian proxies like the Hezbollah and Kataib Hezbollah have increased Saudi Arabia’s worries regarding Tehran’s activities and aims in West Asia

Dr Aditya Bhan

Opinion

At a news conclave on 30 December 2023, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that the war in Gaza would last over several more months, and that Israel would seize authority over the Gazan side of the border with Egypt. Netanyahu claimed that Israel must assume complete dominance over the Gaza Strip border passage with Egypt to guarantee the area’s demilitarisation.

The comments indicate no reprieve from an offensive that has claimed the lives of thousands and destroyed most of Gaza. This article explores the impact of a prolonged war in Gaza on Iran-Saudi relations.

Iran’s Actions

While Tehran’s threats of directly attacking Israel have constituted mere posturing1, its regional proxies have been active during the Gaza War. In fact, the conflict has provided Iran the chance to demonstrate the potency of its recently reconfigured architecture of proxies, which allows Tehran to exert strategic influence from afar.

On each day since the 7 October 2023 Hamas terror attack on Israel – Operation al-Aqsa Flood, at least one of these proxies has conducted an attack somewhere in West Asia. The Houthis in Yemen are attacking ships in the Red Sea, Kataib Hezbollah and other Iraqi militias are striking American military bases in Iraq and Syria, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah is regularly involved in exchanging fire with Israeli troops across the Israel-Lebanon border.

The strikes may appear unrelated, but constitute the implementation of a cautiously measured strategy evolved in the aftermath of the 2020 assassination of Qasem Soleimani, leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force, to enhance cohesion within the loosely-linked alliance of proxies – chosen by Tehran as the “axis of resistance.” Though the militias appear unrelated, they are all loyal to Iran from where they receive arms, funding, as well as ideological mooring and inspiration.

On the economic front, Saudi Arabia is concerned about the potential spillover effects of the Gaza War on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030. Of particular worry to Riyadh is the degree to which the western Red Sea region, home to several of Saudi Arabia’s economic diversification projects and tourism destinations, has been impacted by the conflict’s expansion

“What these different elements have done, moving forward with these attacks, shows the strength of this proxy network Iran has established throughout the region and how much of a concern it is,” said Joseph Votel, the former Centcom commander who oversaw US military personnel in the region at the time of the American drone strike in Baghdad that eliminated Soleimani2.

Official accounts have detailed a measure of cooperation previously unparalleled in the almost two decades since Tehran began to cultivate a plethora of regional proxies as a means of expanding its strategic reach. Militia representatives coordinate through a joint operations centre that convenes regularly, usually in Beirut.

No outfit is in command, with each enjoying a measure of freedom over the nature and timing of attacks in its area of operation, given its capacity and aims. The Houthis, for instance, have assumed the role of threatening shipping3, to pressurise the global community to demand that Israel implement a ceasefire in Gaza. The militias in Iraq are attacking American military installations, responding to the Biden government’s support for Israel. Hezbollah is firing at Israeli troops to divert Israeli soldiers away from the Gaza theatre.

Concurrently, these attacks are measured to avert a broader regional conflict. This indicates that while the proxies retain autonomy on single actions, their operations are designed not to conflict with Iran’s strategic objectives4.

Riyadh’s Headache

It may superficially appear that pan-Islamic unity has brought Iran and Saudi Arabia closer during the Gaza Warhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaza%E2%80%93Israel_conflict in demanding a prompt ceasefire, condemning the unparalleled damage caused by Israel’s military action on Gaza’s populace and infrastructure, and professing their steadfastness to maintain calm and stability in the Persian Gulf. However, Hamas’ barbaric Operation al-Aqsa Flood and the actions of other regional Iranian proxies like the Hezbollah and Kataib Hezbollah have increased Saudi Arabia’s worries regarding Tehran’s activities and aims in West Asia. Riyadh is worried about Tehran’s capacity to capitalise on the Gaza war in ways that could potentially harm the kingdom and its Arab neighbours5.

Saudi Arabia is simultaneously pursuing the alternative approach of coordinating with Washington and its Arab partners to prevent Tehran from exploiting the conflict to consolidate its axis of resistance. Although Tehran’s response to Riyadh’s outreach is uncertain, a regional war has been avoided thus far. However, Saudi Arabia and its regional partners still fear such a possibility if Tel Aviv pushes forward with its military action to eliminate Hamas

On the economic front, Saudi Arabia is concerned about the potential spillover effects of the Gaza War on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) Vision 2030. Of particular worry to Riyadh is the degree to which the western Red Sea region, home to several of Saudi Arabia’s economic diversification projects and tourism destinations, has been impacted by the conflict’s expansion and internationalisation6. Indeed, if Riyadh had known of Hamas’ Operation al-Aqsa Flood in advance, it would have likely exerted pressure on Tehran to utilise its levers in Gaza to avert the catastrophe.

Although Tehran asserts that it is not Hamas’ cobelligerent in the October 7 assault, it uses provocative, poisonously anti-Israel propaganda that is repeated by its proxies across West Asia. This itself constitutes a worry for Riyadh – the traditional Arab sphere of influence where Saudi Arabia expectedly enjoyed strategic depth, is now terrorised by armed militias loyal to Iran. In fact, the theory of a “Shia Crescent” may have appeared doubtful when King Abdullah II of Jordan coined it during an interview7 in 2004, but is certainly pertinent today with the impact of Iran’s proxies discernible across West Asia (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Locations of militant outfits supported by Iran across West Asia  (Source: GIS)

Amidst increasing hostilities, Tehran could have promoted dialogue and stability. Conversely, its proxies have increased their actions in Syria, where Riyadh has tried to reattain influence and Damascus’ cooperation. The regret is even more palpable because Saudi Arabia invested significant diplomatic capital8 to readmit Syria into the Arab League last year. The outcomes have been disenchanting, with the Syrian regime not having reciprocated with any indications of receptivity to Riyadh, except for some general pronouncements.

Riyadh’s two-tracked diplomacy provides a fleeting sight of its stratagem to deal with Iran following the resumption of diplomatic relations in March 2023 after a seven-year hiatus. The two nations are long-time geopolitical rivals in West Asia, driven partly by the Iranian leadership’s zeal to export their Islamic revolution to other parts of the region as well as their previous repudiation of the House of Saud’s custody over Islam’s most revered sites in Saudi Arabia

An Olive Branch and a Rapprochement

Given its concerns, Riyadh has approached Tehran with a proposal to enhance collaboration and investment into the latter’s sanctions-afflicted economy9 if Iran restricts its regional proxies from converting the Israel-Hamas war into a broader regional conflict. The offer was conveyed directly and via multiple channels since Operation al-Aqsa Flood.

The chance for deeper cooperation also arose in the encounter10 between Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and MBS, during a summit in Riyadh addressing the Gaza War. It is also noteworthy that Raisi was one of the first leaders that MBS conversed with11 following Hamas’ assault.

Saudi Arabia, though, is simultaneously pursuing the alternative approach of coordinating with Washington and its Arab partners to prevent Tehran from exploiting the conflict to consolidate its axis of resistance. Although Tehran’s response to Riyadh’s outreach is uncertain, a regional war has been avoided thus far. However, Saudi Arabia and its regional partners still fear such a possibility if Tel Aviv pushes forward with its military action to eliminate Hamas.

Riyadh has not forsaken its strategic objectives of assisting in the establishment of a Palestinian state coexisting with Israel, normalisation of relations with Israel, and securing deeper defence ties with Washington, all of which risk antagonising Tehran given Iran’s commitment to annihilate Israel and finish American military presence in West Asia. Iran opposes a two-state solution

Conclusion

Riyadh’s two-tracked diplomacy provides a fleeting sight of its stratagem to deal with Iran following the resumption of diplomatic relations in March 2023 after a seven-year hiatus12. The two nations are long-time geopolitical rivals in West Asia, driven partly by the Iranian leadership’s zeal to export their Islamic revolution to other parts of the region as well as their previous repudiation of the House of Saud’s custody over Islam’s most revered sites in Saudi Arabia.

The ghost of a broader regional conflagration induced Riyadh to go the extra mile to secure Iran’s co-sponsorship of the communique released at the culmination of the extraordinary Islamic-Arab summit in Saudi Arabia, with the document13 strongly condemning Israel, calling for an instant ceasefire, and detailing steps for a long-term resolution.

MBS appears to be focused on de-escalating tensions with Iran, rather than relying on a more hawkish approach toward the Islamic republic. Maintaining and possibly also consolidating the China-brokered agreement with Iran, mainly through economic relations, appears to be the kingdom’s chosen approach over the foreseeable future. A salient aim of MBS is to end Saudi Arabia’s destructive eight-year war against the Houthis in Yemen.

However, Riyadh has not forsaken its other strategic objectives of assisting in the establishment of a Palestinian state coexisting with Israel, normalising relations with Israel14, and securing deeper defence ties with Washington, all of which risk antagonising Tehran given Iran’s commitment to annihilate Israel and finish American military presence in West Asia. Iran unambiguously opposes normalisation and a two-state solution. Thus, there is a ceiling to the potential for de-escalation between Iran and Saudi Arabia if West Asia is largely burning from the fallout of the Gaza War, or if Iran maintains hostility toward Saudi Arabia’s Western partners.

References

  1. https://raksha-anirveda.com/gaza-war-should-israel-worry-about-an-iranian-intervention/
  2. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/defense-secretary-says-iran-and-its-proxies-may-be-planning-fresh-attacks-on-us-personnel-in-iraq/2020/01/02/53b63f00-2d89-11ea-bcb3-ac6482c4a92f_story.html
  3. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2023/12/21/red-sea-shipping-houthi-suez/
  4. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2024/01/01/iran-militias-gaza-israel/
  5. https://www.newarab.com/analysis/carnage-gaza-bringing-iran-and-saudi-arabia-closer
  6. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/dec/19/us-announces-naval-coalition-to-defend-red-sea-shipping-from-houthi-attacks
  7. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A43980-2004Dec7.html
  8. Not available
  9. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-11-23/iran-s-poverty-spread-in-lost-decade-of-sanctions-oil-swings-world-bank-says
  10. https://www.spa.gov.sa/en/N1996012
  11. https://www.spa.gov.sa/en/N1978598
  12. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-01-03/saudis-cut-diplomatic-ties-with-iran-foreign-minister-says-iiyzvsw5
  13. https://www.spa.gov.sa/en/N1996072
  14. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-09-21/biden-white-house-eyes-diplomatic-win-with-us-israel-and-us-saudi-arabia-deals

-The writer is serving as a Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda