Dr. Ian Lustick to Gulan: The Iran-Saudi rapprochement was driven, and is driven, by the real needs of each side
Dr. Ian Lustick holds the Bess W. Heyman Chair in the Political Science Department of the University of Pennsylvania. He teaches Middle Eastern politics, comparative politics, and computer modeling. He is a recipient of awards from the Carnegie Corporation, the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Social Sciences Research Council. Before coming to Penn he taught for fifteen years at Dartmouth College and worked for one year in the Department of State. His present research focuses on the implications of the disappearance of the option of a negotiated “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and techniques of counterfactual forecasting. He is a past president of the Politics and History Section of the American Political Science Association and of the Association for Israel Studies, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Among his books are Arabs in the Jewish State (1980); For the Land and the Lord (1988, 1994); Unsettled States, Disputed Lands (1993); Trapped in the War on Terror (2006); and Paradigm Lost (2019).
Gulan: How do you characterize the recent Iran-Saudi rapprochement? In in your opinion, it was primarily driven by what?
Dr. Ian Lustick: The Iran-Saudi rapprochement was driven, and is driven, by the real needs of each side. The Iranians, who are under pressure from internal dissent, want ties with the Arab Gulf countries to help avoid US imposed sanctions and re-establish opportunities for the extension of Iranian influence in the Muslim world via diplomatic and economic ties rather than subversion. The Saudis want an end to the Yemen debacle and can demand things from the United States by showing that they can play ball with the Chinese and the Iranians and don’t need to rely only on Washington.
Gulan: Will this agreement be successful and sustainable in your perspective? Will it lead to real progress in addressing substantive issues of the region?
Dr. Ian Lustick: There certainly will be ups and downs, and nothing is permanent in the Middle East since the regimes in the region, including both the Saudi and the Iranian regimes, are illegitimate in the eyes of many inhabitants of those countries. So in some ways these agreements are arrangements among authoritarian rulers anxious to find allies to protect themselves from their own populations. But there are real interests here that are being served and a number of hatchets seem to be in the process of being buried, not only re the Houthis in Yemen but also regarding treatment of Shia in Saudi Arabia. We can hope that better ties between Riyadh and Tehran can bring some peace and opportunities for recovery to Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
Gulan: To what extent this is a sign of Chinese growing influence in the Middle East? And to what extent it has ruffled US feathers?
Dr. Ian Lustick: A key factor in the ability of the Chinese to recognize and exploit the opportunity for diplomatic success by brokering the Iran-Saudi rapprochement is that the United States has been hamstrung in its policy toward Iran and Israel by the domestic political pressures that keep it wedded closely to Israeli policies, even when Washington disagrees with those policies (e.g. with respect to the Palestinians and toward the character of the Iranian threat). This reduces American maneuvering room. Otherwise the United States could have reached out to build as least as productive a relationship with the Islamist authoritarian regime in Tehran as it has with the Islamist authoritarian regime in Riyadh. So although it is not clear how much more intimate Chinese ties will be with either Iran or Saudi Arabia as a result of their sponsorship of the rapprochement, it is definitely a shot across the American bow which warns Washington that tying itself too closely to extreme Israeli governments can force it to pay heavy costs.
Gulan: Is it fair to say that this agreement called into question the strategic relation between US and Saudi Arabi? And how do you see the future relations between these two countries?
Dr. Ian Lustick: That relationship has been under stress for years now. Saudi Arabia increases its leverage with the United States by dangling prospects of some kind of rapprochement with Israel (something that would be very valuable politically to the Biden administration) even as it also shows its independence, and the availability of other options, by enhancing ties with Iran and China. Ultimately, I do not think the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia will change dramatically from what is has been since I do not believe there will be a full or open normalization with Israel as long as the current Israeli government is in power.
Gulan: With regard to Israel-Palestine conflict, why this conflict is so protracted, and the peace process always facing insurmountable obstacles that obstruct reaching a lasting accommodation?
Dr. Ian Lustick: The conflict is protracted because, unlike most settler colonial settings (the U.S., Canada, Australia, Argentina, etc.) the indigenous populations were virtually annihilated or made demographically and politically irrelevant, or almost irrelevant. Zionism and Jewish settlement in Palestine did not do that. There are as many Arabs east of the Jordan, under Israeli control, as there are Jews. So, this is a conflict that will continue for generations. Had a two-state solution been implemented twenty-five years ago, things would be different. But that opportunity has been missed. Now the question is whether and if so how long will it take for the apartheid-like state of Israel to become a multicultural democracy.
Gulan: How do you see the normalization of relations between Israel and some Arab states, and do you expect any Détente between Saudi Arabia and Israel in the foreseeable future?
Dr. Ian Lustick: Normalization of any kind will occur only after a change in government in Israel, and even then, it will be more of a continuation or possible deepening of the under the table security and intelligence ties and “détente” that already exist between Israel and the Saudis. In this respect all the regimes that rely on authoritarian and mukhabarat techniques to rule over large Arab and Muslim populations, including Israel, have interests in sharing techniques and information with one another. In the long run, as the “one-state reality” (meaning that the West Bank and Gaza Strip have effectively already become part of the State of Israel) sinks in, Saudi “normalization” will produce opportunities for Arabs under Israeli rule to gain access to resources and, perhaps, a measure of diplomatic protection from Muslim and Arab countries with whom Israel has ties that it will not want to jeopardize.