28/11/2013

Friend or Ally? The United States and Israel/Saudi Arabia

Peace seems to be breaking out in the Middle East. An agreement has been reached with Iran to curb the development of its potential military nuclear program. The United States and the Islamic Republic are publicly talking. Over thirty years of diplomatic isolation appears to have ended. In addition, and not unrelated, a date has been set for a major conference in Geneva to stop the horrendous civil war in Syria. Diplomacy is working; sabers have been put back in their sheaths. Geneva is back in the news; the Hotel Intercontinental is doing land office business.

There are, however, two countries that are not jumping up with joy over the above.


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has condemned the agreement with Iran as a “historic mistake.” Saudi Arabia is not at all pleased that the Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran is back in good graces with the international community, threatening the Sunni leadership of the major ally of the United States in the region. In other words, in the jargon of international relations specialists, the deck is being reshuffled in the Middle East.

What interests me here is the changing nature of the relationship between the United States and Israel/Saudi Arabia. Before the recent diplomatic activity with Iran, these countries were the closest U.S. allies in the region. In fact, they were supposed to be our closest friends. What is the difference between an ally and a friend? As Henry Kissinger once famously pointed out, “The United States has no permanent friends, only permanent interests.” The Shah of Iran and the former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili certainly learned this lesson the hard way when both were dumped by the Americans.

There is no simple way to talk about countries. It is an enormous fallacy to talk about them as individual people. Countries cannot have feelings, countries cannot have emotions. But, countries do have relationships with other countries. And these “relationships” can have similar characteristics to inter-personal relationships. In the recent spying scandal, it was often said that countries should not spy on their friends, implying that the NSA had gone overboard in listening to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s telephone calls. There is something more than mere diplomatic chat when leaders meet. Countries do not sign agreements with other countries; people sign agreements. It is in this sense that the line between ally and friend can be rather thin.

The thawing of the isolation of Iran from the international community has been widely hailed as a great achievement. Their oil and gas will once more be flowing. They could play a positive role in the Syrian crisis as well as the deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian situation. But, for those sitting in Israel and Saudi Arabia, that thawed relationship has sent an icy chill throughout their countries. Those who thought the United States was a friend are learning a lesson about the difference between friend and ally, the results of which will take years to unfold. While all eyes were watching the United States’ interest pivot from Europe to Asia, another pivot is taking place.

Allies can change, friends should not. Israel and Saudi Arabia are becoming case studies of the difference between the two. And Kissinger continues to be proven correct; the United States has only permanent interests.

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