The Israeli-Saudi-American Alliance Against Iran

F-15 warplanes fly over officers during a graduation ceremony at King Faisal Air Force University in Riyadh. Hassan Ammar / AFP-Getty Images

The United States is preparing to sell 84 advanced F-15s to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Once upon a time, this might have meant upsetting a crucial ally—Israel. But this time, once the Obama administration told Israel that the F-15s destined for Riyadh were not equipped with certain long-range offensive capabilities, Jerusalem relented. The balance of power in the Middle East has changed and may yet change again before long. If Israel and Saudi Arabia aren't exactly headed toward rapprochement, the old enmities are not what they used to be.

Historically, Israel has been extremely prickly when the United States sells weapons to its putative opponents, like Saudi Arabia. Most famous was the 1981 deal that sent AWACS radar planes to Riyadh, against Israeli opposition so strong it required President Ronald Reagan's personal charm to persuade Congress to make the sale. That arms deal was especially important to Washington, coming two years after the revolution that overthrew the shah of Iran and took an American ally off the board in the energy-rich Persian Gulf. After losing Iran, President Jimmy Carter had initiated the Rapid Deployment Force (CentCom's precursor), showing that even then Washington understood that U.S. troops would have to protect Saudi oilfields from real predators, as they did when Saddam Hussein marched through Kuwait. Reagan presumably saw this as well, for while the arms sold to Saudi Arabia were ostensibly intended to help protect the Saudis against the Soviet Union as well as the revolutionary energies that turned their Shia neighbor in Tehran openly hostile, the deal was largely an expression of U.S. support for a vital ally.

It is worth remembering that the Israelis also lost an ally with the fall of the shah; moreover, they gained an enemy in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Tehran has fought the Jewish state for almost three decades through the efforts of its Lebanese asset, the Shia militia Hizbullah. So if Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu's government can sleep at night knowing the Saudis have F-15s, it's because Saudi Arabia isn't really the enemy anymore. Indeed, Jerusalem and Riyadh are in agreement, alongside Washington, that Iran constitutes their major strategic threat, which makes them de facto allies. Further, it explains why Washington-based friends of the Jewish state predictably (and correctly) helped persuade Congress to suspend military aid to Lebanon—whose national Army, allegedly responsible for the assassination last week of an Israeli colonel, appears to have been penetrated by Hizbullah.

Nonetheless, it's hardly an easy decision to cut off Lebanon. American statesmen are not obtuse, and they know that Hizbullah has taken control of Lebanon and its state institutions. At the same time, they're more accustomed to dealing with Arab countries through their military and security establishments than through these states' feeble political institutions, like parliaments and judiciaries. American policymakers fear that, with nothing to offer the Lebanese Armed Forces, they will no longer have leverage to shape a future Lebanon on behalf of American interests. Historically, U.S. arms sales to the Arabs are driven by political exigencies as often as by the actual security needs of those particular Arab states.

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U.S. military aid to the Arabs is proof that the Americans know how to treat their friends—sort of. Washington has provided military support to Jordan since 1950, but when King Abdullah II proved a loyal ally in the George W. Bush administration's war on terror (with unrivaled intelligence cooperation) and assisted in the war in Iraq—in the face of considerable and dangerous domestic Jordanian opposition—Washington made the Hashemite Kingdom a major recipient of U.S. military aid. In 2007 the U.S. upgraded Jordan's fleet of F-16s (single-engine planes, compared with the dual-engine, pricier, and more powerful F-15s) and provided military-communications and intelligence networks, as well as Black Hawk helicopters—a package worth well over a half-billion dollars.

After Egypt signed a peace accord with Israel, Washington rewarded Cairo with an enormous influx of military aid, standing presently at $1.3 billion of the $2 billion given annually to Egypt. That money allows the Egyptians to feather the nests of their senior officers, thereby guaranteeing that the ruling regime stays in power. On our end of the bargain, it buys us a fair amount of security cooperation and intelligence sharing (more discreet than that provided by Jordan). Most important, the support helps ensure that Cairo maintains its peace with Israel.

If we didn't give Egypt that aid, we would have no window onto its military budget, which would raise tensions around the region, especially with Israel. But while Washington is sensitive to Cairo's wish to keep up with the Joneses—we once sold Egypt planes less suitable to its military requirements and capabilities but more desirable, since they were the same planes the Israelis used in 1973 to defeat the Egyptian Air Force—we do not arm Egypt, or any other Middle Eastern state, to have military parity with Israel.

For four decades now, American strategy in the Middle East has been based on one simple idea: that everyone in the region knows it is pointless to wage war against the Jewish state, since Washington backs it to the hilt. Therefore, if the Arabs had a problem with Israel, they'd have to petition Israel's American patron for relief. This post-1973, post-energy-crisis strategy put us in the middle of the Arab-Israeli conflict and tied all our regional allies, from Jerusalem to Riyadh, to American apron strings. It gave rise to the peace process, producing Israeli peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and a negotiating track with the Palestinians and Syria, while helping to hedge against the possibility of the Saudis again using oil as a political weapon. This arrangement made the United States the regional power broker, which suits not only Jerusalem but Arab nations as well—at least compared with the prospect of Iranian regional hegemony. America's regional allies fear that an Iranian nuclear bomb would shift the balance of power against the entire order of the Middle East.

A few months ago, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal explained to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that sanctions against Iran did not offer the immediate solution required to stop the revolutionary regime's push for a nuclear weapon. This sentiment was echoed a few weeks back by the United Arab Emirates' ambassdor to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, who calculated that bombing Iran was preferable to an Iranian bomb. Even as the ambassador later backtracked, the Middle East's worst-kept secret was now in the public record: the Arabs are even more concerned than the Israelis about an Iranian bomb. After all, the Jewish state allegedly has its own nuclear deterrent, while Arab nations finally depend on Washington to protect them—no matter how many arms we sell them. The Saudis didn't fuss over our decision to withhold long-range offensive capabilities from those advanced F-15s because they understand the deal as a token of our friendship; it does not mean they are equipped to defend themselves against their No. 1 concern, Iran. To preserve the American-backed regional order, Arab nations expect us to stop the Iranians, a security arrangement that has been clear since the Carter administration. What's new is that if we don't step up, the Arabs' unlikeliest ally, Israel, may have to do it.

Smith is a columnist for Tablet magazine and author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations.