Dubai, United Arab Emirates – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fiery speech this week before the U.S. Congress, in which he argued against an emerging nuclear deal with Iran, has received tacit support from an unlikely quarter — Saudi Arabia.
The oil-rich Sunni kingdom views Shiite Iran as a regional rival that is perhaps even more menacing than Israel.
That was clear in a string of columns this week published in Saudi state-linked media, which is widely seen as reflecting official views and mainstream thought in the kingdom, and which voiced skepticism of President Barack Obama’s efforts to broker a landmark nuclear agreement with Tehran.
“Who could believe that Netanyahu today has taken a better stand than Obama with regard to the Iranian nuclear file?” columnist Ahmed al-Faraj wrote in the Saudi-owned al-Jazira newspaper on Monday, a day before the speech.
On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in the Saudi capital to ease Gulf concerns about the negotiations with Iran, which are aimed at reaching a framework agreement this month and a final deal later this year. Kerry is meeting with the foreign ministers of the Sunni-ruled Gulf states and the new Saudi monarch King Salman.
Like Israel, Saudi Arabia has long viewed Iran as an expansionist power that seeks to dominate the region through local proxies, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Palestinian armed groups in the Gaza Strip and Shiite militias in Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Iran are fighting a proxy war in Syria, with the kingdom arming the rebels seeking to topple Iranian-backed President Bashar Assad.
In a column published in Asharq al-Awsat, a daily owned by King Salman’s family, Abdulrahman al-Rashed wrote “Iran’s fingerprints are everywhere.”
“Iran is currently in an offensive state, the likes of which we have not seen in modern history,” he wrote.
Netanyahu said as much to Congress, telling lawmakers that Iran is “gobbling up” nations in its “march of conquest, subjugation and terror.”
Saudi Arabia is part of the U.S.-led coalition striking the Islamic State group, awkwardly putting it on the same side as Iran, which is battling the extremists through its allied Shiite militias in Iraq and by supporting Assad. The kingdom, like the U.S., has refused to coordinate its efforts with Tehran.
Netanyahu’s argument that “when it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy,” resonates in Riyadh, where the royal family is concerned about a possible U.S.-Iranian rapprochement.
Despite the alignment of interests, Saudis still view Israel as an illegitimate occupier of Arab and Muslim lands, and any kind of open alliance is out of the question.
An editorial in al-Medina newspaper ridiculed Netanyahu’s insistence that he had traveled to Washington out of concern for Israel’s security and not to boost his prospects ahead of elections later this month. The editorial said it was ironic that he spoke of Israel’s need for security despite “hundreds of (Israeli) massacres against Palestinians and Arabs over more than six decades.”
An editorial by the al-Sharq newspaper went so far as to suggest that Netanyahu wants to scuttle the deal in order to allow Iran to get nuclear weapons, “which will not be directed toward Israel, but toward the Arabs, so that Iran can see its project through and achieve what Israel could not.” But the editorial did note that his assessment that Tehran is expanding was “right.”
Saudi columnist Dawoud al-Shiryan wrote in al-Hayat that if Israel was so worried about Iran getting nuclear weapons, “why haven’t they stopped it by force as they always do?”