(February 1, 2022 / JNS) In its annual strategic survey released in recent days, the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies pointed to a central understanding that has spread across the region. The United States is focusing its attention and resources on relations with China (and, more recently, Russia) and does not wish to become significantly involved in any new conflicts in the Middle East.
Washington’s enthusiasm to relaunch the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran is one such signal of this intention to disentangle itself from the Middle East.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August was another. The INSS survey called the withdrawal “winning evidence for Middle Eastern countries” that Washington was no longer prepared to devote resources and major attention to the region. Middle Eastern leaders have begun to realize that while they still rely on the United States, they must begin to prepare to face the challenges alone.
In this spirit, the coming year presents a golden opportunity for Saudi Arabia to join the Abraham Accords. Under the deal so far, Israel has normalized relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, all with quiet support from Saudi Arabia.
Bringing Saudi Arabia into the deals is one of the most important strategic goals for the coming year, due to the economic, political and military clout the Kingdom brings with it to the table. The result of integrating such a dominant Sunni power into the fold could be a strategic game-changer.
“A Combined Threat of Malicious Nuclear and Regional Activities”
The modern Middle East can be fundamentally divided into two opposing camps, or colors “blue” and “red”. The red areas represent Iran’s radical area of influence, which extends from Iran itself and encompasses Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and the Gaza Strip. Blue areas represent moderate regional states.
Over the past 20 years, Iran’s red zone has expanded considerably. This means that when Israeli strategic planners examined a map in 2002, Iran’s nuclear program – a serious strategic threat – was located more than 1,000 kilometers from Israel’s borders. Now, in addition to the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program itself, Iranian-backed terrorist armies and Iranian weapons produced by competent Iranian military industries lie on Israel’s borders.
The radical Iranian-Shiite axis injects weapons and destabilization wherever it extends. It sends funds and capabilities to radical actors through a range of supply lines. The axis threatens both the Gulf States and Israel; Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen fire Iranian-made drones and missiles at Riyadh and Abu Dhabi; while Iran-backed Hezbollah and Gaza terror factions aim a large arsenal of projectiles at Israeli cities.
The Iranian axis is ideologically determined to destroy the State of Israel. Those who doubt Iran’s penchant for paying the price for its ideology should consider Tehran’s willingness to drag its 83 million people through years-long economic crises to realize a nuclear vision.
Against this combined threat of malign nuclear and regional activity stands the moderate camp in the Middle East.
As the Abraham Accords grow and its members discover each other’s comparative advantages, cooperation between Israel and the Gulf states could expand significantly to include capability sharing, overflights of the air force, the deployment of Israeli air defense systems in the Gulf and intelligence sharing.
Israel is leading the way in the gray zone military war in the region against Iranian entrenchment efforts. A reported Israeli airstrike overnight Sunday-Monday near Damascus is the latest apparent indication of Jerusalem’s full commitment to continue to enforce its policy of not allowing Iran to entrench itself militarily in Syria or its proxies, and not to allow a “Hezbollah 2” scenario to occur. unfold without dispute.
The countries of the moderate camp managed to safeguard their sovereignty, unlike the nations infiltrated and dominated by the Iranian axis. Moderate members remain deeply troubled by Iranian aggression.
Such concern has created a new willingness to cooperate with Israel to varying degrees. Some of the moderate Sunni countries have been willing to come openly to the table with Israel, forming the basis of the Abraham Accords and strengthening the moderate architecture of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has yet to officially cross this threshold. Enabling it to do so should be a priority objective for 2022.
What unites these members of the moderate camp is the desire to see stability and prosperity in the Middle East.
Whereas in the past the members of this camp had been held back by the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict – pending progress on the matter – today the threat posed by Iran to their security is more important than their wish to wait patiently for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The resulting Abraham Accords mean that Egypt and Jordan – the first moderate states to establish ties with Israel – no longer feel isolated. The agreements give them more confidence and support to move forward with Israel towards cooperation in the civil, economic and defense sectors, as demonstrated by the recent memorandums of understanding signed between Jordan and Israel on the agreements on energy and water (with the support of the United Arab Emirates).
The Israeli government’s push to improve relations with Egypt and Jordan is good news since these countries represent Israel’s strategic depth.
Iran is a major threat to all of this, as are jihadist and Islamist movements in the Middle East.
Expand blue area
This does not mean that the moderate camp will cooperate in offensive military operations against Iran. Yet the growing cohesion of the moderate camp is unquestionably bad news for Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Khamenei wants to turn as many countries on the map as possible into ‘red’, creating more and more proxy threats and moving friction away from Iran’s borders to maintain his regime’s stability and ability to threaten Israel and Sunni states.
The Blue Camp – and its potential to grow in size and influence – is the antidote to this vision.
And while the United States is withdrawing from direct military operations in the region, the potential for growth and power of the blue camp still depends very much on American policy and Washington’s motivation to bring additional countries to the diplomatic roundtable. .
When Sunni states like Saudi Arabia hold de-escalation talks with Iran, it is a signal of their lack of confidence in the future rock-solid support of the United States. It is therefore imperative that Washington issue credible assurances of American support for their security.
The truth is that no amount of diplomatic de-escalation talks between Tehran and Riyadh will alter the fundamental animosity that defines Saudi-Iranian relations. The Saudis do not want to be drawn into an all-out war with Iran, but neither have they changed their hostile orientation towards it, based on the tangible threat the Islamic Republic poses to the Kingdom.
China has become a key player in the Middle East
Meanwhile, even if the United States wishes to pivot to the Far East, it may find that the Far East itself leads back to the Middle East. China is investing heavily in the Middle East through its long-term Belt and Road Initiative, buying ports and investing in a range of infrastructure.
Iran and China signed a 25-year, $400 billion deal in March 2021, which finally presents financial support to Iran and allows it to avoid the worst results of US sanctions against it.
This means that China has become a key part of Iranian history in the Middle East.
Under these conditions, the Abraham Accords, along with Israel’s transfer to the US Military Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility (the Middle East), create growing daily tools for joint operations and stability.
Israel can offer many capabilities to reinforce the shared vision of the moderate camp, as can Saudi Arabia. A normalization deal that includes Saudi Arabia would be a blow to Iran’s dangerous ambitions.