Shifting sands: On Iran and Israel’s U.S. and Arab friends

Arab countries and the U.S. should seek detente with Iran

March 31, 2022 12:05 am | Updated 01:05 pm IST

A conference in Israel of the top diplomats from the U.S. and four Arab countries would have been unthinkable a few years ago. But on Monday, in Israel’s Negev desert, officials from the U.S., the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Egypt and Israel gathered to discuss security partnerships, Iran and other issues, signalling a decisive shift in West Asian geopolitics. Ahead of the summit, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett went to Egypt to meet President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. The UAE and Israel, which normalised relations as part of the Abraham Accords in 2020, have stepped up their economic and security cooperation ever since. The Abraham Accords signalled that Israel’s continuing occupation of the Palestinian territories was no longer an Arab-Israel problem. Now, Arab-Israeli relations have gained a new dimension, with Mr. Bennet reportedly proposing a “Middle East defensive envelope” featuring Israel’s advanced missile defence systems. The Negev conference signals a new era of security partnership between these erstwhile foes who are brought together by regional and global developments.

America’s allies in the region face two challenges. One is the shrinking U.S. security umbrella. The bedrock of the partnership between the U.S. and its Gulf allies was America’s security guarantees in return for the seamless flow of oil. But the U.S. security promises took a hit when Saudi Arabia’s oil installations came under attack in 2019, for which the Saudis and the Americans blame Iran. Oil production was hit but the Trump administration chose to do nothing. Since then, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have come under multiple attacks by Yemen’s Houthis and the U.S. has offered little help. Second, the Gulf kingdoms and Israel look at the Iran nuclear deal differently from the U.S. While Washington sees the revival of the nuclear deal — which would impose curbs on Iran’s nuclear programme in return for lifting sanctions — as the best way to tackle Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the Gulf kingdoms as well as Israel believe removing sanctions would eventually strengthen Tehran’s standing in the region. Their worry is that if Iran is allowed to reach its natural economic potential, it would translate that economic might into conventional military capabilities and step up support for its proxies, from the Hezbollah to the Houthis. Faced with the U.S.’s declining security role and the possibility of a stronger Iran, these countries are coming together to write a new collective security model. There is nothing wrong in building partnerships based on pragmatic realism. But that alone might not bring peace. If lasting peace and security are their primary goals, Israel, West Asian countries and the U.S. should also seek some kind of detente with Iran.

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