How will Iran respond to closer Persian Gulf-Israel ties?
The normalization of ties between Israel and the Arab countries in the south of Persian Gulf has raised alarm bells for Iran. While in recent years Tehran has had a strong presence of friendly forces in the vicinity of Israel, now it is Tel Aviv that is encircling Iran more than ever.
On September 15, 2020, the White House hosted the leaders of Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, to formally unveil the two tiny Persian Gulf Arab states’ normalization of their relations with Israel. Even before the meeting, Iranian officials had reacted severely to the Arab countries’ decision to establish relations with Israel. On September 1, the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said that the UAE betrayed the Islamic world and Palestinians by reaching a deal with Israel.
Additionally, compared to previous years, the situation in Gaza and Lebanon is different and the balance of power seems to be changing in Israel’s favor. Moreover, as the Trump administration intensifies its maximum pressure campaign against Tehran, Benjamin Netanyahu has seized the opportunity in recent years to further encircle Iran in the Middle East. The re-imposition of severe economic sanctions by Washington has also made it difficult for Iran to pursue its previous schemes in the region.
However, it seems that Iran will not easily give in to Israeli pressures and has options to confront Tel Aviv.
Although Israel has conducted military strikes in Syria against Tehran’s positions with impunity and without sparking international criticism, it seems that Tehran is designing a new strategy to respond to Israeli security threats. It is noteworthy that at present Israel’s actions against Iran do not pose a “practical threat” and are limited to tightening the siege in the Persian Gulf against Iran. The same policy can also be pursued by Iran in Syria. One can name such a policy a “balance of threat,” as international relations scholar Stephen Walt puts it, between Tehran and Tel Aviv.
The balance of threat examines the formation of alliances between actors from a different angle. According to Stephen Walt’s theory, the formation of these alliances is a response to external threats, and it is to counter these threats that such alliances are formed.
Accordingly, when we address the issue of Iran-Israel relations from a balance of threat perspective, we discover other aspects to the issue.
On the one hand, Tel Aviv’s allies in the Persian Gulf are countries that claim Iran threatens their national security and have always looked at Tehran’s nuclear program negatively. According to this perspective, that’s why the UAE and Bahrain have moved towards the normalization of ties with Israel.
From a another angle, Turkey, which despite having close relations with Israel, has for several years — especially after the so-called Arab Spring developments in 2011 and the failure of its project to change the regime in Syria — had cold relations with the Arab countries in the south of Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular. These cold relations have intensified, especially after the failed coup against Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016. Turkey believes that some of these small wealthy Arab states had a hand in the failed coup.
Based on this perspective, another balance of threat relationship between Iran and Turkey against the Arab countries in the south of the Persian Gulf can be formed. Especially in recent years, Ankara has become frustrated with the change in the Syrian equation through the Arab channels and has approached Iran and Russia to pursue its goals on its southeastern border with Syria.
In a joint virtual meeting between the presidents of Iran and Turkey amid the coronavirus pandemic, Rouhani and Erdogan stressed in a final statement issued on September 8 that the two countries should work together to overcome security concerns in the region, especially in Syria and Iraq. The two presidents also reaffirmed their commitment to pursuing the Palestinian issue.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s reaction to the announcement of a peace agreement between Israel and the UAE was relatively severe. On August 14, Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened that his country would suspend its relations with the UAE. This never happened and was nothing more than an empty threat, but these tough stances could pave the way for Iran-Turkey cooperation against the UAE and even Saudi Arabia.
Accordingly, although Turkey is trying to keep tensions in its relations with Israel at a manageable level, Tel Aviv’s closer relations with the UAE and other Arab capitals could add to Ankara’s concerns and lay the ground for closer ties between Tehran and Ankara.
It is obvious that any intensified conflicts between the countries of the region increases the possibility of a military confrontation between them, especially in Syria. Although Iran’s economy is struggling with many difficulties due to the sanctions and other economic problems at home, Iran’s decisive role in Syria’s military equations cannot be ignored.
As a result, it looks like Syria could still be a “wild card.” Although the Islamic Republic has not taken any action against the tightening siege by Israel, presumably it does not intend to escalate tensions before consolidating its position in Syria. While Tehran has so far tried to tolerate Israeli pressure and attacks in Syria as Bashar al-Assad’s government gains more control over the situation, it is consolidating its position in the south and southeast of the country.
In the meantime, the influential role of Russia should be taken into account. Moscow’s unclear policies have led Iran to conclude that it must act independently in Syria and the region. As a result, Iran has opted for negligence when it comes to responding to Israeli attacks in Syria.
To conclude, it should be noted that the nature of Iran and Israel’s activities in the region is clearly different from one another. Iran, unlike Israel, is more accepted by the Arab public, and in fact it enjoys much more influence.
Israel, on the other hand, has gained tacit acceptance by the ruling elites in Arab states more so than their societies. Tel Aviv has been attempting hard for a long time to normalize its relations with the Arab states and replace the issue of Arab-Israeli or Muslim-Jewish conflict with an Iran-Arab conflict. However, while Israel’s actions in the Persian Gulf against Iran have not yet become a credible threat and have been limited to tightening the diplomatic and economic siege around Iran, a threat to Iran’s security in the Persian Gulf could accelerate Iran’s activities in Syria — something that makes a military conflict between regional powers in Syria more likely than ever.