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U.S. Leverages Saudi-Israeli Relations to Isolate Iran

The United States wants to force a gradual shift in Iran's "decision-making calculus" by signing a defense deal with Saudi Arabia and securing the normalization of relations between Riyadh and Israel.

"We continue to work with allies and partners to enhance their capabilities to deter and counter the threats Iran poses, impose costs on Iran for its actions, and seek to shift Iran's decision-making calculus over time," a U.S. State Department spokesperson told RFE/RL.

The security package has several components, including a bilateral U.S.-Saudi defense pact aimed at enhancing the Sunni kingdom's deterrence capabilities. But Washington is adamant that regardless of how close the Americans and the Saudis are to a bilateral agreement, the security package cannot materialize without Saudi-Israeli normalization.

Saudi Arabia has conditioned the normalization of ties with Israel on the establishment of a cease-fire in Gaza and a credible pathway to Palestinian statehood.

The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden sees a three-way deal key to ensuring a sustainable peace in the Middle East, which includes isolating Iran and making it costly for the Islamic republic to maintain its current regional policies.

"Iran's isolation in the region and in the international community is a result of its own policies," the spokesperson said in an e-mailed statement to RFE/RL.

A calculus shift will "definitely" happen, but not in the way that the United States wants, according to Hamidreza Azizi, a fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

"Any sort of coalition-building would result in Iran going for counter-coalitions," he added.

But analysts maintain that for Saudi Arabia, isolating Iran is not the core objective of a security pact with the United States.

The Saudis see normalizing relations with Israel as a strategic leverage to help them extract substantial security commitments from Washington, "thereby balancing against Iranian influence without overtly antagonizing Tehran," Azizi said.

Meanwhile, securing a path toward Palestinian statehood could help Saudi Arabia assert its leadership within the Muslim world and effectively end the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Iran has long opposed Arab normalization with Israel and is a staunch critic of the Abraham Accords, which saw Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) establish diplomatic ties with Israel in 2020.

On May 1, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei implicitly criticized Saudi Arabia for looking to normalize relations with Israel in the hopes of resolving the Palestinian question.

Anna Jacobs, a senior Gulf analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, argued that the U.A.E. model of balancing relations with Iran and Israel suggests that Saudi Arabia can do the same.

"Riyadh seems confident that normalization with Israel wouldn't have a major impact on its relationship with Tehran," she said. "The Saudi strategy with Iran right now is both containment and engagement."


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