by Marsha B. Cohen
*This post has been updated.
The Sunday Times has once again recycled its periodic claim that Israel and Saudi Arabia are about to join forces for an attack on Iran. According to Uzi Mahnaimi, Israel’s external intelligence service, the Mossad, is formulating contingency plans with Saudi officials if Iran’s nuclear program “is not significantly curbed” in the agreement that may be signed this week in Geneva:
Both the Israeli and Saudi governments are convinced that the international talks to place limits on Tehran’s military nuclear development amount to appeasement and will do little to slow its development of a nuclear warhead.
As part of the growing co-operation, Riyadh is understood already to have given the go-ahead for Israeli planes to use its airspace in the event of an attack on Iran.
Both sides are now prepared to go much further. The Sunni kingdom is as alarmed as Israel by the nuclear ambitions of the Shi’ite-dominated Iran.
Mahnaimi’s corpus of “scoops” for the Sunday Times over the past decade include well over a dozen reports that an Israeli military strike on Iran is imminent. Mahnaimi has also provided fanciful depictions of secret high-tech weaponry Israel might deploy in an attack like “the gamma pulse that could send Iran back to the stone age” and a bacteriological ethnic bomb Israel had developed that would only harm Arabs.
Two previous Sunday Times reports have alleged that the Saudis were comfortable and cooperative with the prospect of an attack on Iran through their air space.
On July 5, 2009, in an article titled, “Saudis Give Nod to Israeli Raid on Iran,” Mahnaimi quoted a diplomatic source who claimed that “The Saudis have tacitly agreed to the Israel air force flying through their airspace on a mission which is supposed to be in the common interests of both Israel and Saudi Arabia.” According to Mahnaimi, then Mossad chief Meir Dagan had held secret talks earlier that year and had assured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that “Saudi Arabia would turn a blind eye to Israeli jets flying over the kingdom during any future raid on Iran’s nuclear sites.”
On Jun. 12, 2010, a very similar report by the Sunday Times‘ Hugh Tomlinson alleged — citing an unidentified US “defense official — that Saudi Arabia had practiced standing down its anti-aircraft systems in order to allow Israeli warplanes passage on their way to attack Iran’s nuclear installations. He added that the Saudis have allocated a narrow corridor of airspace in the north of the country. Saudi sources denied the report. Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf, the Saudi envoy to the UK, declared that any such move “would be against the policy adopted and followed by the Kingdom,” and that Saudi Arabia would not allow any violation of its territories or airspace.
Mahnaimi reported on May 13 of this year that Israel was preparing to join Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey in establishing “an early warning system to detect Iranian ballistic missiles.” The American-brokered proposal, Mahnaimi wrote, “may eventually lead to technicians from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan working alongside Israelis in joint command-and-control centres.”
Israeli news sources, including Haaretz, the Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Post, Israel Today and Y-Net are today uncritically reporting the Sunday Times‘ claim that an Israeli-Saudi attack is in the works, without mentioning the almost identical stories of 2009 and 2010, or the plethora of predictions of an Israeli attack on Iran during the course of the past decade that never happened. The business daily Globes vaguely alludes to previous reports, but claims that “there has been substantial progress in the relations between the two countries — progress based on a common Iranian enemy.”
An analysis by Jane’s Intelligence Review in July revealed evidence that the Saudi base at Al-Watah has two launch pads for Chinese DF3 missiles — one directed against Iran and the other pointing toward Israel. A two-part series in Israel Today from October belied its upbeat headline: “The Unspoken Alliance: Israel and the House of Saud” with skeptical statements from several analysts about the existence or prospects of any such alliance.
This hasn’t stopped Israelis from fantasizing about the prospect of an Israeli-Saudi alliance against Iran in recent weeks, while worrying about the prospect of Saudi Arabia seeking to acquire a nuclear weapon of its own. “It’ll be fun, my friends,” wrote Ari Shavit in Haaretz last week. “The Sunnis and the Jews are boiling with anger. Therefore, they are now holding hands and launching a campaign against the Christians and Shi’ites who are closing a deal in Geneva.”
As of the time of this post’s publication, English-language Arab news sources have made no mention of Mahnaimi’s claims. Having been burned by Mahnaimi in the past, mainstream U.S.media (thus far) seems to be ignoring the story as well.
*Update: Several news sites have now published Saudi denials of the Sunday Times‘ most recent claims of cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel.