Reading Clausewitz in Riyadh


The November announcement of an agreement between Iran and the P5+1 to curb the former’s nuclear program in exchange for some easing of sanctions was met with mixed global reactions.  As the most significant step yet toward deescalating a crisis that has hung over Middle East politics like an ominous cloud pregnant with unpredictable stormy consequence, the deal was quite unsurprisingly lauded by many in the international community.  But in some corners, the response was one of skeptical condemnation.  This was the tenor of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reaction to the announcement.  Similar concerns that were less forcefully voiced, but no less sincerely felt, were heard from Saudi Arabia’s government.

That these two countries have become the de facto public faces of regional scepticism of the Iran deal has prompted no small level of speculation that this development could signal the burgeoning of some sort of Saudi-Israeli alliance.  In turn, other commentators have scoffed at the notion that such an unlikely alliance could ever materialize.  Bruce Riedel, for instance, argued that “a mutual aversion to Iran and annoyance with the United States,” should not be mistaken for a sign of any measurable change in the relationship between the two states, and thus cannot form the basis for an Israeli-Saudi axis.

But why must the outcome be one or another?  Must the events surrounding the Iran deal necessarily either (A) imply the potential for a newly formed alliance or (B) obscure a statically tense relationship?  Such a simple, binary explanatory model is the result of a misconception of the notion of strategic alliance as fundamentally rigid and defined by a considerable degree of permanence.  This conceptualization applies the term only to those groupings of states – like NATO, for instance – that are bound together by formally contracted agreements.

An alliance, however, need be neither formal nor permanent.  It can result simply from a temporary state of parallel interest.  This state is often just described as alignment, but it represents an alliance nonetheless.  In fact, in a Clausewitzian sense, such temporary alignment is a more accurate definition of “alliance.”  By Clausewitz’s reckoning, shifts in these more temporary alliances are the natural by-product of a world constantly seeking out a stable balance of power, a world in which:

the great and small States and interests of nations are interwoven with each other in a most diversified and changeable manner, each of these points of intersection forming a binding knot, for in it the direction of the one gives equilibrium to the direction of the other; by all these knots therefore, evidently a more or less compact connection of the whole will be formed and this general connection must be partially overturned by every change.

Thus, patterns of alliance will change in response to events that upset the previously established balance, which the Iran deal certainly does.  While it offers a glimmer of hope for resolution of a dangerous crisis, the deal also renders uncertain the future balance of power and influence in the Middle East.  By acknowledging this, we can appreciate the Israeli-Saudi partnership implicit in their shared sentiments for what it is: the partial overturning, as Clausewitz would describe it, of patterns of regional alliance in response to the balance-upsetting Iran deal.

This partial overturning is indeed temporary, driven by a single change.  As such, critics are right to be skeptical of the claim that it could augur the establishment of an alliance as defined by the NATO model.  There are real, structural impediments to such a formalized, cooperative relationship between the two states.  These obstacles emanate principally from the Saudi side, and most notable among them are the political realities of the Arab world, which promise serious threats to the longevity of any government that is seen as colluding with the perceived agent of Palestinian oppression.  Overcoming these obstacles will require a tectonic shift in the worldview of millions, one that has been cynically cultivated for decades by many Arab regimes themselves, not just a single geopolitical development whose potential impact remains far from certain.

Equally, while deep and long-term mutual interest is the necessary foundation for any NATO-style alliance, the current Israeli-Saudi harmony is not that.  It is not a deliberate coming together, but rather a function of entirely exogenous factors.  And while the practical effect of these factors is to bring the two governments’ thinking into accord, the factors themselves are different for each of them.  For Israel, the threat is complex, but is at its core existential – its current interests are tied to its not irrational fear that it represents the most likely target of an Iranian nuclear weapon.  Saudi Arabia’s interests are subtler.  The Saudi government wants to see Iran remain isolated.  It fears that more cordial relations with the world could be accompanied by an expansion of Iran’s influence.  To date, Iranian influence has resonated largely only with those on the periphery of the international political stage – like Venezuela during the Chavez era – and with those who are seen as outright outcasts from this stage – like Hezbollah or Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime.  If Iran is welcomed into the community of respectable nations, Saudi Arabia fears that this influence will extend, most worryingly (from its perspective) to disaffected Shia minorities like those in its own Eastern Province.

And yet observers who assign too much weight to these obstacles, and those who assume too high a threshold of requirements for an alliance to form, also risk missing a crucial point: when an Arab regime weighs all factors, it might willingly stake out a political position that, while differing by degrees of detail, is generally in concert with that of Israel.

This is precisely what the Saudi government is currently demonstrating, choosing pragmatism over pure ideology.  So while this spell of Saudi-Israeli harmony does not signal a burgeoning alliance by strict, NATO-style definitional standards, Riyadh’s pragmatism very clearly lends itself to the sort of shifting alliances that are crucial to building stability in a region that is both geopolitically and socio-politically dynamic.

That this pragmatism contrasts with the ideological rigidity that often marks Middle Eastern politics is important.  Ideologically rigid states make excruciatingly difficult partners with whom to cooperate in search of a resolution to a crisis.  And Saudi Arabia will need to be a partner in any lasting solution to the Iranian nuclear problem, of which the Iran deal is just a single step.  While unanimous support for this step from all stakeholders would be ideal, the longer-term implications of the realism implicit in Saudi Arabia’s Clausewitzian alliance with Israel are far more significant.


John Amble is the Managing Editor of War on the Rocks.  A former United States Army intelligence officer, he has been featured in print and broadcast media in the U.S. and Canada.  Follow him on Twitter @johnamble.


Photo credit: Zamanalsamt