With Yemen’s increasingly fractured political landscape, the longer the war continues, the harder it will be to resolve.
As the new U.S. administration makes its first steps toward a renewed diplomatic process with Iran with the aim of returning to the nuclear deal, Israel and the Gulf states’ ability to translate their shared strategic interests with regard to Iran into a coordinated policy in general and vis-à-vis Washington in particular is being put to the test.
The normalization process between Israel and the Gulf states opens up new diverse opportunities for strategic collaborations for both parties. Many in Israel, particularly in government circles, see the top political-security priority for relations with the Gulf Arab states as the effort to create a broad regional front to counter Iran’s influence in the Middle East.
Israel and the Gulf states have a series of immediate and aligned interests with regard to Iran and the threats it poses, particularly the need to block its pursuit of regional hegemony and obtaining nuclear weapons capabilities. Israel and the Gulf states endeavor to thwart Iran’s attacks, whether directly or via its proxies, and to counter its efforts to entrench and build up the force of its proxies, on their borders as well as in more distant arenas.
Despite the broad convergence of interests, adopting a shared approach and coordinating policies on negotiations with Iran are expected to be complex, among other reasons because another parameter is introduced into the equation – the United States. This trilateral dynamic may highlight potential differences and gaps between Israel and the Gulf states in several aspects.
Dependence on the United States in Light of the Iranian Threat
While Israel prioritizes the nuclear challenge, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain seem more fearful of being encircled by Iran and its proxies and are extremely concerned by a direct Iranian threat to their homeland security and stability.
Moreover, whereas Israel is capable of coping with the threat posed by Iran’s missiles and drones, deterrence and power balance between Iran and the Gulf states is in Iran’s favor. Iran and proxy forces have been able to penetrate the air defenses in the Gulf and conduct attacks on key civilian and economic infrastructure, and the Gulf Arab states have become far more dependent on the U.S. defense umbrella.
The Dialogue With Washington on Iran
Both Israel and the Gulf states are calling for the administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to consult with them regarding the steps the United States will take vis-à-vis Tehran so as not to surprise them, as they felt was the case with the negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that was signed in 2015. Nevertheless, Israel is emerging louder and more focused in its objection to the U.S. administration’s return to the JCPOA. By contrast, it is unclear whether the UAE and especially Saudi Arabia will be willing to confront the U.S. administration directly on this point or will opt instead to prioritize their efforts to restore their relationships with Washington, which have been tainted by human rights issues and the war in Yemen.
Be that as it may, the political-military dialogue on Iran between Israel and the Gulf states on the one hand and the U.S. administration on the other is expected to be complex, multidimensional, and based on sensitive intelligence. It is therefore likely that both the Gulf states and Israel will seek to keep their existing bilateral channels to Washington exclusive and intimate, thereby making it difficult to cooperate fully and in detail with one another (particularly on the various specifics of the nuclear issue) beyond coordinating strategic communication and general policy guidelines.
Maintaining the Qualitative Military Edge
New countries considering normalizing ties with Israel in the future, particularly Saudi Arabia, would likely push for advanced weapons systems from the United States, such as F-35s and armed drones, following the precedent established in the agreement between Israel and the UAE. They will reasonably argue that they require such advanced capabilities to address the Iranian threat. Israel, however, is concerned about a regional arms race, attributing special importance to maintaining its qualitative military edge, and viewing it as a key component in ensuring stability in the Middle East. It further believes that the Gulf states are highly unlikely to employ these U.S. weapons against Iran.
Diverse Approaches to Iran in the Gulf
The Gulf Arab states are not a single homogenous group with regard to their policies on Iran. Despite the UAE’s decision to normalize relations with Israel, it is also attempting to hedge risks vis-à-vis Iran, positioning itself between Washington and Tehran. As part of this effort, Abu Dhabi has a pragmatic relationship with Iran, and the two share a security-related dialogue designed to mitigate tensions in the Gulf.
Saudi Arabia has also looked into the possibility of a similar dialogue with Tehran due to some doubts over the reliability of U.S. support following the September 2019 attack against the kingdom’s critical oil infrastructure; the United States blamed Iran for the attack, though avoided responding militarily. However, since then, Riyadh seems to have adopted a more aggressive approach toward Iran and is willing to confront it publicly. There is also diversity in the independent policies led by Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait toward Iran.
The Way Ahead
To address their mutual concerns regarding Iran, Israel and the Gulf states should distinguish between two separate objectives: creating a joint front to confront Iranian threats and having a coordinated stance on Iran vis-à-vis the United States.
The Abraham Accords present a unique opportunity for achieving the first of the two goals by enhancing Israeli-Gulf collaboration to stop Iran’s entrenchment in the region. As part of this effort, the various parties should scale up security and intelligence ties, inter alia by considering allowing Israel access to deploying capabilities closer to Iran’s borders, creating a shared anti-missile architecture, possibly under U.S. auspices, and strengthen counterterror cooperation. Iran is well aware of the potential of such cooperation against it, and is already attempting to sabotage it by making threats against the UAE and Bahrain.
As for the second objective, Israel and the Gulf states should take into account that the Biden administration has already prioritized addressing the Iranian nuclear threat. They should therefore base the steps they take on a broad agreement with Washington that focuses on preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
With regard to possible future negotiations among the United States, Iran, and other world powers about a return to the JCPOA, coordination between Israel and the Gulf states is expected to be a challenge. This is particularly because it appears that Israel and the Gulf states have yet to consolidate an organized strategy by which to conduct themselves regarding the Biden administration and due to the possible risk that Washington will view a coordination of efforts against its policies as an act of defiance and interference with the negotiations.
Nevertheless, a coordinated message with Saudi Arabia and the UAE on Iran, as well as a joint regional stance in the Iranian context, could serve as a powerful lever in the effort to impact the U.S. administration’s policy on Iran. Thus, Israel and the Gulf states’ preparation for dialogue with the new administration should include: the examination of common denominators they would be able to present to it as part of a quiet dialogue, as well as publicly; the establishment of robust Israel-Gulf communication channels for consultations and coordination; and reflection on overcoming inherent tensions among them, such as those associated with maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge.
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