Iran is worried about recent reports that the U.S. has worked toward defense discussions with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab Gulf countries.
The progression in Israel-Saudi relations is worrying Iran, something that is clear from the significant coverage of Iran on the issue, and also by Iran's attempt to smooth over its relations with Riyadh through Iraq.
Iran also hosted Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi and is trying to reconnect with Turkey after seeing its warming ties with Israel as of late. However, more significantly, Iran has watched as the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, paid Turkey a visit as well, signaling tough diplomatic times ahead for Iran.
According to Iranian news outlet Tasnim News, which reflects the IRGC's views, Israel has "increased the preparations for US President Joe Biden's expected visit to [Israel] on July 13. The final planning of this trip is expected to be completed in the coming days, and the American preliminary team will arrive in Israel at the beginning of next month to finalize the details and plans of this trip."
Iran's game plan
Iran relies on Israeli and foreign media to report that it believes there is new outreach between Israel and Saudi Arabia. According to reports, this is part of a US-backed approach.
The Wall Street Journal is generally the newspaper that has had the strongest stories on various news reports about Israel and the Saudis, as well as Israel-Iran tensions and US-Israel ties. Recent reports indicate that the US has worked toward defense discussions with Israel and several Arab countries in the Gulf.
This regards the Iranian drone and missile threat as well as other regional issues. "Do signs point to Israel-Saudi normalization," asked Yediot this week. The WSJ report indicates that talks are ongoing with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other states which Israel does not officially have relations with.
Axios has written that the US is "working on the normalization road map for Saudi Arabia and Israel." The Jerusalem Post reported that Israel and Saudi Arabia also have security arrangements regarding the Straits of Tiran. The WSJ reported three weeks ago that Riyadh was moving toward eventual ties with Israel and Al-Monitor says Israelis are doing deals in Saudi Arabia.
Tasnim News reported that "efforts are being made to reach an agreement to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia, [the time frame] aimed at resolving the issue of normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia is before Biden enters the region."
Furthermore, Iran's media has said that "efforts to improve relations with Saudi Arabia include the activities of all institutions of the regime, including the army, Mossad, the [Israel] Security Council and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs."
What is Iranian media doing?
In a sense, Iran's media is merely laundering what is already known via the WSJ and other media outlets. It argues that the "roadmap" has been created to normalize relations and that this is timed for the Biden visit.
"According to Zionist sources, US officials have stated that no agreement will be reached on the normalization of Israeli-Saudi relations until Biden's visit to the region; But Biden will raise the issue with officials on both sides, and work is ongoing," Tasnim reported.
What Iran cares about are some of the issues recently discussed in US media over the last three weeks, including Saudi Arabia publicly opening its airspace, reports that Israelis are doing business in Saudi Arabia and that Israel has agreed to security issues relating to the Red Sea and Straits of Tiran and some islands that Egypt and Saudi Arabia have an agreement regarding. Much of this has been previously reported. So the question for Iran is, so what?
Iran's eyes are on the USA
Iran is interested in Biden's trip to the region. Iran knows that the US needs Saudi support for energy markets, particularly oil prices. The US is in the middle of considering a gas tax holiday. Iran believes the second main reason for the Biden trip is "to normalize relations [of Israel] with Saudi Arabia."
To that end, Iranian media says that "according to news sources, Joe Biden's representatives are holding secret talks with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Zionist regime with the aim of normalizing relations between Riyadh and Tel Aviv [Jerusalem]; Therefore, it is predicted that the normalization of Saudi-Israeli relations will be one of the most important topics in the dialogue between Biden and bin Muslim."
At the end of the day, the reason for Biden's trip is probably more complex than this report makes it out to be. It's not all about Israel or oil. It is about managing the ties with Riyadh.
US-Saudi ties used to be a key pillar of US partnerships in the region, one that goes back many decades and was a key to the US policy in the Cold War. After the Baghdad Pact partnership countries fell apart after 1979, the US relied on Saudi Arabia and arms deals and support flowed to Riyadh. This was cemented with the Gulf War but also raised alarms due to the threats from Osama Bin Laden, who was from Saudi Arabia.
A shift came later with voices in Washington who believed the US should distance itself from Riyadh, and this policy was in part embodied by the Obama administration's embrace of the Iran Deal. A brief shift back under Trump and the Khashoggi controversy has rocked US-Saudi ties.
A recent article by Steven Cook and Martin Indyk in Foreign Affairs asserts that the US should "go big" in Saudi ties; and that Biden should strike a "new strategic compact with the Kingdom." That would indicate a push for a much broader policy than just Israel ties or oil. Billions in defense deals matter as well.
France and the UAE have done defense deals as well. The UAE is buying French warplanes, as part of an $18 billion deal in December 2021. And France wants to support UAE's air defense needs. The UAE land forces commander was at the recent Eurosatory defense expo and reports say Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are looking for drone deals and other systems. There is thus a much wider context here regarding US-Riyadh ties.
For Iran the talks via Iraq with the Saudis matter. Iran is capitalizing on outmaneuvering Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq and potentially winning some ground there. But Iran is also continuing to threaten Erbil with attacks by proxies. Iran wants to talk to Turkey but also uses proxies to attack the Turkish base at Bashiqa in Iraq. This means everything is in flux. Iran is paying close attention to potential Israel-Saudi ties as part of this regional shift.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.