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A Lesson from Riyadh About the True Threat to Middle East Peace

All those Westerners who deem Israel “the greatest threat to world peace” ought to read a fascinating  story in the Guardian yesterday: A senior Saudi official informed the paper that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia will be forced to follow suit.

“We cannot live in a situation where Iran has nuclear weapons and we don’t. It’s as simple as that,” the official said. “If Iran develops a nuclear weapon, that will be unacceptable to us and we will have to follow suit.”

Why is this noteworthy? Because Israel is widely thought to have had nuclear weapons for almost 50 years now. Yet Riyadh never felt that Israel’s alleged nukes were threatening enough to necessitate acquiring its own nuclear deterrent, even though it has been formally at war with the Jewish state since Israel’s creation and has no diplomatic relations with it. Iran, in contrast, is a fellow Muslim state with which Riyadh has full diplomatic relations; they also share membership in groups like OPEC and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Yet Saudi Arabia deems Tehran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons so threatening as to require an immediate response in kind.

The reason for this seeming paradox is simple: Because they live in the region, Saudi officials know what too many Westerners seem to have forgotten: Israel has never once attacked anyone that didn’t attack it first. And since Saudi Arabia, for all its anti-Israel rhetoric, has not actually participated in anti-Israel hostilities since 1948, it knows it’s perfectly safe from whatever military capabilities Israel has. Iran, in contrast, has a record of unprovoked military meddling outside its borders even without the immunity nuclear weapons would bring. For instance, it offers extensive military support to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and Shi’ite militias in Iraq – all three of which have fomented civil wars in their respective territories, while the first two have fomented cross-border wars as well. Thus, a nuclear-armed Iran would be a real threat.

Why do so many Westerners seem ignorant of what Saudi officials know about Israel’s nonaggression? For this, Western media bear much of the blame. Consider just one typical example – Ethan Bronner’s New York Times piece this week on Gaza’s agricultural revival, in which former World Bank President James Wolfensohn recalled his dashed hopes for a thriving agriculture business in Gaza following Israel’s 2005 withdrawal:

But between the looting, security delays and corruption of border guards — both Israeli and Palestinian, he noted — and then after Israel’s three-week offensive in 2008-9 and the naval blockade, the economy fell apart.

Note what’s missing in this description of Bronner’s: the roughly 6,000 rockets and mortars Palestinians fired at southern Israel from Gaza in the three years following the withdrawal. This rocket fire was the reason for both the military offensive and the blockade. But an uninformed reader would never know it: He would conclude from this piece that Israel was guilty of unprovoked aggression, having launched a military offensive and imposed a naval blockade (which is also an act of war) for no reason at all.

But actions, they say, speak louder than words. And the vast difference in Riyadh’s response to Iranian versus Israeli nukes speaks volumes about the true threat to peace in the Middle East.