Tom, the odds for joint Israeli-Saudi airstrikes against Iran are about slim to none

Tom, the odds for joint Israeli-Saudi airstrikes against Iran are about slim to none

By Richard L. Russell
Best Defense guest columnist

Israel and Saudi Arabia are seething that President Barack Obama reneged on his threat to use military force against Syria after it crossed Obama’s "red line" and repeatedly used chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war. For Israelis and Saudis alike, Obama just doesn’t get the power politics of the Middle East. If a leader threatens the use of force and doesn’t follow-through, he suffers a loss of face and a severe deterioration in his prestige or reputation for power, which is the coin of the realm in Middle East politics.

The Israelis and Saudis judge that the U.S. failure to use military power against Damascus sent the wrong message to Syria’s staunch security backers in Tehran. The mullahs now know that if President Obama was not willing to "pull the trigger" on Syria, he does not have any appetite to do it against Iran’s nuclear weapons program either. Both Jerusalem and Riyadh see Tehran’s aggressive military support to Syria’s embattled regime as part and parcel of its determination to maintain its geopolitical land bridge from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus and into the realm of Arab-Israeli politics in Lebanon. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia fear Iran’s support of its Hezbollah proxy in sub rosa war against them. Saudi Arabia especially sees itself as the vanguard of Sunni opposition to Iran’s leadership of the Shia Muslim community. The Sunni and Shia are now pitted in sectarian battles throughout the Middle East.

The six-month interim agreement with Tehran to freeze its nuclear program does nothing to relieve shared threat perceptions in Jerusalem and Riyadh of Iranian ambitions to dominate the Middle East from behind a nuclear weapons security umbrella in the future. The Israelis and the Saudis see the interim agreement as little more than buying Iran diplomatic time and protection from American military strikes. They anticipate that the Iranians in six months time will parlay the interim agreement into endless negotiations to buy more diplomatic time, political legitimacy, and economic sanctions relief. While Israel and Saudi Arabia see an acute Iranian threat, both countries are exceedingly frustrated that Washington sees Iran’s nuclear program more as a nuisance.

The Israelis — unlike the Americans — have on numerous occasions enforced their "red lines" in the region. They have made good on their "Begin doctrine" never to allow another state in the Middle East to harbor nuclear weapons. They have mounted preemptive military strikes against both Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 to bludgeon Saddam’s and Bashar’s nuclear programs, respectively.

Iran’s nuclear program, however, is much more robust, diversified, and farther away from Israel than the past Iraqi and Syrian programs, making for a much more formidable and demanding military problem. The Israelis would much prefer that the United States do the job for them because they lack the wherewithal needed for a sustained campaign against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure that the Americans have. Hence, the seething anger in Israel today that for all intents and purposes the American military option against Iran’s nuclear program is off the table as the West exclusively pursues negotiations with Iran.

Might the Israelis now look to Saudi Arabia for assistance in mounting a military campaign against Iran? The Israelis sure could use access to Saudi airbases for refueling, rearming, and generating faster sorties against Iran for a more intense and robust campaign given Saudi Arabia’s proximity to Iranian airspace. That Saudi real estate certainly has been put to good use in supporting U.S. military operations in the region, especially during the 1990-91 Gulf war and to a lesser extent — and with even a lower public profile — during the 2003 war against Iraq.

While hosting Israeli aircraft on Saudi airbases would make tactical and operational sense when viewed entirely through a military prism, it would be an extraordinarily dangerous move for the Saudi royal family when viewed through a political lens. And, as Clausewitz reminds us, the political always trumps strictly military considerations.

The Saudis could not be confident that Israeli operations from their airbases could be kept secret. They would have to worry that word would eventually leak out from Washington because that city leaks like a sieve these days. The public exposure of such close military cooperation with Israel would risk shaking the political foundations of the Saudi regime. The Wahhabi religious establishment might violently protest against the royal family for allowing Zionists into the land of Mecca and Medina. They could take to the streets and shake the political legitimacy of the regime in an echo of the 1979 Mecca uprisings. The Saudi royal family is especially on nervous guard for political discontent on the heels of the "Arab Spring."

On top of that, the public exposure of Israeli-Saudi military cooperation in an air campaign against Iran would be a huge windfall for Iranian propaganda. Tehran would argue that the Saudi regime had lost its legitimacy as an Islamic state and as host of Islam’s holy sites. The Iranians would be gifted a powerful critique of Saudi Arabia as the land of Arab tribes held together by an old and invalid royal family that was so weak it could not use its modern Western-purchased military hardware against Persian civilization itself. Instead, the Saudis had to go and beg the Israeli Zionists to attack Iran from Islamic sands.

Some observers may argue that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" phenomenon is so potent that the Saudis would firmly align with the Israelis to strike out at Iran’s nuclear program. More specifically, they may argue that the Saudi Sunnis hate the Iranian Shia more than they do the Israelis so they would be have no qualms about aligning with a lesser evil to erode the power of a greater evil. Maybe so, but the Saudi political sphere simply could not run the risks of hosting an Israeli military campaign from Saudi airbases which might last weeks, and potentially evolve into a prolonged war of attrition lasting years reminiscent of the 1980-1988 war between Iran and Iraq. To do so, would be the Saudis cutting off their political heads — not just their noses -to spite their faces.

In short, small-scale clandestine Israeli-Saudi intelligence cooperation is doable — and plausibly denied, if uncovered — but hosting the Israel Air Force for a war against Iran would be politically unsustainable for the Saudi regime. The best the Israelis could hope for would be for the Saudis to turn a blind-eye to Israeli penetrations of Saudi airspace in route to bomb Iran as well as for air-to-air refueling, which too would have plausible deniability.

Then again, might the Saudis undertake military action against Iran’s nuclear program absent Israeli or American action? The Saudis, as well as all the other Arab states, are fond of their narrative that the United States has a "double standard" between them and Israel. They argue that the United States has relentlessly provided security assistance to Israel. Lost in the narrative is that while the United States has given Israel about $1.5 billion in annual security assistance, it has nearly matched that with about $1 billion dollars per year in security assistance to Egypt to secure the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. The United States, moreover, has never had to dispatch American soldiers to fight shoulder-to-shoulder and to die with Israeli troops in battle. But it had to do so with Arab forces in the 1990-1991 war to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi forces. American Marines also were put in harm’s way to ensure that Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian forces were allowed to depart
Beirut for Tunis in the wake of Israel’s invasion in the 1980s of Lebanon.

The United States and Western allies have increasingly made available top-shelve military hardware to Arab Gulf states making them some of the best-equipped military forces in the world. According to the Military Balance, the Saudis can boast of an impressive air order-of-battle that includes more than 150 F-15 fighter aircraft, 70 Tornado fighters, and five E-5 Sentry command and control aircraft that could be harnessed for an air campaign against Iran. The United Arab Emirates, which also views Iran as a grave threat, could add 70 F-16 fighter aircraft and 44 Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft into an air campaign pot.

Even though the Saudis and the Emirates cooperated closely in marshaling Gulf forces to quell domestic unrest in Bahrain in 2011, they probably would not be up to the task of preemptively striking Iran’s nuclear program. To be sure, the Arab Gulf states in the past have assigned aircraft to multinational campaigns, like the 1990-91 Gulf war and symbolically with the NATO-led campaign against Qaddafi in Libya in the midst of the "Arab Spring." But they have never waged an integrated, joint air campaign by themselves. Iran’s air defenses and air forces have deteriorated in the decades since the fall of the shah, but the Arab Gulf states have never launched a campaign to take down an adversary’s air defense system and air forces as a prelude to airstrikes against strategic facilities such as Iran’s nuclear program. The Arab Gulf states too would have to worry that Washington would not be eager to come to their defenses should they strike Iran on the their own to bring on Iranian retaliation in the likely form of ballistic missiles.

For all the Arab Gulf state narratives that accuse the United States of a double-standard with Israel and berate Israel for "reckless" behavior in international security, they are no doubt secretly hoping that the Israelis will unilaterally do the dirty deed and preemptively strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. The Arab Gulf states want to see the Israelis act unilaterally, much as they did in Lebanon in the 1980s without an American "green light," and to suffer the consequent international opprobrium. The Arab Gulf states then could publicly denounce Israel for yet another example of "reckless" international action, diplomatically reassure Iran to stay out of the regional military fray, and resume admiring their impressive military inventories, which are more used to ensure domestic and international prestige than to wage war against a hostile neighbor. 

Richard Russell is professor of national security affairs at the Near East and South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. He is the author of Sharpening Strategic Intelligence (Cambridge University Press) and Weapons Proliferation and War in the Greater Middle East (Routledge). The views expressed are Russell’s alone.