For years it has been an open secret, but one that’s rarely discussed beyond the corridors of power. Much as Israel and the Arab Gulf states often tangle over the plight of the Palestinians, these public enemies have privately been united by a mutual foe, a rival that they fear and loathe even more than each other: Iran.
In 1979, the Islamic Revolution brought radical Shiites to power in Tehran, and ever since, lawmakers in Jerusalem, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, to name a few, have been terrified of the mullahs, the power and reach of their oil money and their penchant for supporting radical militants.
In recent years that fear has grown, as the Iranians have been allegedly trying to produce nuclear weapons. Yet after the recent exchange of pleasantries by the presidents of Iran and the United States last week, the hushed alliance between Israel and the Gulf states was on public display at the United Nations General Assembly when a Saudi and an Israeli diplomat were caught whispering to each other. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was holding talks on the sidelines with his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, a Saudi statesman reportedly turned to an Israeli diplomat and asked: “What’s going on here? What do you make of this?”
The conversation, first reported in Haaretz, was just one example of the harried and frequent talks reportedly taking place between senior Israeli officials and their counterparts in Jordan and the Gulf. These increasingly frank and open encounters, analysts say, stem from a mutual fear that Washington and Tehran will strike a deal and end the debilitating sanctions against the Persian-speaking state—and that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will fool the callow Americans and covertly continue to develop nuclear weapons.
“All governments in the moderate Sunni states, especially in the Gulf, are very worried about the thaw in relations between the U.S. and Iran,” a senior Israeli official told Haaretz, requesting anonymity. “They’re afraid that the American-Iranian deal will come at their expense. There’s pressure not only in Jerusalem, but in the Gulf as well. They’re really wetting their pants.”
The broader fear is that without U.S. pressure, the mullahs in Tehran will try and re-create the Persian Empire, spreading their influence and brand of religion across the region. In the process, these Middle Eastern frenemies worry that Iran could use nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip and a means of intimidation, or that these weapons could wind up in the hands of Shiite proxy groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood—all of which are widely loathed by Israel and the Sunni Arab world. “There’s definitely similar views between Israel and Arab states, particularly Gulf Arab states, about Iran,” says Edward Gnehm, a professor of Gulf and Arabian Peninsula affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “They feel threatened because they think Iran wants to become weaponized.”
There are businesses interests at stake as well. A revitalized Iranian oil market, for instance, could hurt the Arab Gulf states, as could any instability caused by Islamist uprisings like the civil war in Syria or the ongoing Egyptian revolution. For the most part the Arab world has no diplomatic relations with Israel, but their financial interests often coincide; these purported enemies actually do a considerable amount of business with each other especially in the UAE, where commerce is mutually beneficial, but delicate. Before Israel sparked outrage for allegedly assassinating a Hamas commander at a Dubai hotel in 2010, relations were so copacetic that Israeli websites even offered travel tips to Dubai. Even today, some Israelis fly east through the Gulf because it’s cheaper, and few have problems using their Israeli passports (so long as they don’t leave the terminal).
Nevertheless, years of setbacks in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process have not made trade or foreign relations easy between the Jewish state and the Arab world. In July, the two parties, with the help of the U.S., restarted peace talks after a two-year stalemate, but analysts say the odds of a breakthrough remain slim, which means the Palestinian issue will likely remain a major sticking point for the Gulf nations, where most citizens would not approve of openly friendly relations with Jerusalem. “The difference over Palestine remains an obstacle,” says Gnehm.
One clear sign of the difficulty the two parties face: Arabic social media, where the news about a possible thaw between Washington in Tehran was met with skepticism and conspiracy. (Before the Islamic Revolution, Israel, Washington and Iran were allies, and some in the Gulf apparently think little has changed.)
واكتمل محور الشر , امريكا ,اسرائيل واختهم ايران ,خرائط اوطاننا الجديدة بالصحف ..وشهور قليلة تفصلنا عن الكارثة الجديدة ,لن بنجو عربي منها
— قاسم العفوري (@QasmAfori) September 30, 2013
“Completing the axis of evil, America, Israel, and their sister Iran… Newspapers and a few months separate us from the new disaster.”
هناك تعاون يدور في الخفاء بين إسرائيل وإيران وأمريكا لتقاسم الخليج والسيطرة علي موارده و مما يعلن عن خوف إسرائيل من ايران الا مسرحيه للتمويه
— moza tahwara (@mozatahwara) September 22, 2013
“Going on in secret cooperation between Israel and Iran and America Gulf-sharing and control over its resources, which announces Israel’s fear of Iran, but the play is disguise.”
الغزل الامريكي لإيران بداية اكتمال مثلث الهيمنة ( أمريكا -اسرائيل- ايران ) على الوطن العربي . — ماهر المدادحة (@MMadadha) September 28, 2013
“Spinning the U.S. an Iran is the beginning of a complete domination triangle (America-Israel-Iran) on the Arab world.”
On YouTube, many across the Arab world were also sharing videos claiming an anti-Arab Gulf state conspiracy of sorts.
There were, however, a few hopeful shows of support for continued Arab-Israeli cooperation.
التقارب الإيراني الأمريكي: امريكا لن تتخلى عن الخليج، إسرائيل أمنت من الحروب رفع العقوبات عن ايران تغير بسيط فى البحرين ليش هالهرآر كله ؟
— Hussain (@Hhhussain77) September 30, 2013
“Iranian-American rapprochement: America will not abandon the Gulf, Israel has secured from the wars. Lifting of sanctions on Iran. A simple change in Bahrain.”
Israel also remains skeptical about Rouhani’s recent overtures. Years of hate speech and Holocaust denying in Tehran won’t be easily forgotten, and fears remain that the mullahs could aim their nukes at Jerusalem. Israel is the only Middle Eastern country believed to have nuclear weapons—an advantage the country would like to keep. So for years, the country has worked closely with the U.S. to stall and destroy Iranian nuclear capabilities, even as Tehran has insisted that it’s enriching uranium for energy, not weapons.
“I want there to be no confusion on this point,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during a recent speech at the U.N. “Israel will never acquiesce to nuclear arms in the hands of a rogue regime that repeatedly promises to wipe us off the map. If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone.”
Publicly, if Israel attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities, Netanyahu would likely stand alone. But in private, the Gulf states would probably cheer. Indeed, according to the cables published by Wikileaks, in a 2008 discussion with U.S. diplomats about Iran, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia once urged the U.S. to “cut off the head of the snake.”