Will new US-Israel-Arab security pacts leave Iran with a bad hand?
The Persian Gulf, usually thought of as a prime region of conflict, appears to be turning into an “oasis” of diplomatic initiatives and negotiations, to paraphrase President Jimmy Carter, even as the rest of the world sinks into war and confrontation.
Yet the Gulf is nothing if not strategic, and what is happening is another round of poker; all bets are off as to what Iran’s responses will be, and all the players at the table are wagering with high stakes and praying hard.
Mohammed Bin Zayed, or MBZ, is now firmly established in his seat at the table, having been named the Emir of the United Arab Emirates after the death of his father last month. He has been the main driver of the Gulf’s rebranding as a modernizing juggernaut willing to shoulder more regional military responsibility in its alliance with the United States, and to prioritize Iran over Palestine as the region’s greatest threat, a shrewd move that opened the door to warmer relations with Israel during the Trump years.
Most recently, MBZ has spearheaded discussions with Washington around a Strategic Framework Agreement to lock in Washington’s commitment to protect the Emirates should it suffer attack, whether from Yemen’s Houthis — which happened just a few months ago when missiles rained onto its capital, Abu Dhabi — or from Iran across the Hormuz Straits.
Negotiations with the U.S., which had cooled after the Abu Dhabi attacks, took a leap forward two weeks ago, after White House Middle East Coordinator Brett McGurk stopped over in Abu Dhabi with a draft agreement that solidifies U.S.-Emirati security and defense cooperation. The extent of U.S. security commitments remains shrouded, but this did not deter the Emiratis, whose cold shoulder toward Washington in the wake of its lukewarm response to the Houthi attack strengthened their bargaining position once talks resumed.
Saudi Arabia is a hulking presence at the poker table, holding its cards close to its chest while throwing its chips in only occasionally, although it is clearly, if gradually, reshaping its defense and diplomatic relationships not only with the U.S., but also in important ways with Israel. In the works is a bipartisan Congressional plan for the Pentagon to integrate air defenses with Saudi Arabia, Israel as well as Qatar, the Emirates, and other Arab states to counter threats from Iran — creating a Gulf NATO of sorts.
President Biden’s visit to the Middle East in July offers an opportunity to strengthen commitments to this plan, especially as he is stopping in both Israel and Saudi Arabia where he will meet with other Gulf Arab leaders.
Saudi Arabia, as the birthplace of Islam with responsibility for protecting the religion’s two holiest pilgrimage sites, Mecca and Medina, has not felt as free to normalize relations with Israel as its smaller, more nimble neighbors. It is always being forced not only to weigh the reactions of the wider Muslim community against its immediate security concerns in the Gulf, but also balance its role as a supporter of the Palestinian cause with its closer and growing alliance with the majority Jewish state.
As such, Riyadh did not sign the Trump-initiated Abraham Accords that opened the door to what is happening today, although Mohamed Bin Salman, its young de facto ruler, has made it clear he is rethinking Saudi’s traditional stance. Nonetheless, he was hoping that one of the populous predominantly Muslim Asian states, notably Pakistan or Indonesia, both with Islamic populations of well over 200 million, would sign the Abraham Accords as a buffer against any step Riyadh might take toward a formal security arrangement with Israel.
That has not happened, leaving his game more vulnerable than he would have liked as the bill to integrate regional air defenses wends its way through Congress.
The level of the stakes MBS is facing was vividly illustrated last week when the Iraqi parliament unanimously expanded a law criminalizing relations with Israel — including diplomatic, political, military, cultural and economic. Passing the law has shifted the game, as it dusts off Iraq’s pro-Palestine credentials and, crucially, strengthens its ties to Iran, a country which has harshly criticized the Gulf states for normalizing ties with Jewish state. For Saudi Arabia, being left out of a U.S.-designed regional security coalition is not an option, and MBS is betting that if the Pentagon acts as the umbrella for a larger group that includes both Riyadh and Jerusalem, he will be able to sidestep the risks that a bilateral agreement with Israel would bring.
The wealthiest player at the table, tiny Qatar, had a tough few rounds when its fellow members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) embargoed it in 2017 for allegedly supporting terrorism, but it is now back in the game, its dignity restored. Qatar, home to the U.S. Central Command’s regional headquarters, joined Bahrain and Kuwait as a major non-NATO ally this year, a “powerful symbol,” in Biden’s words, of its strategic importance to Washington.
Qatar’s ability to negotiate with Iran is one of its most valuable cards. Its young Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, as well as several other family members who hold ministerial positions, visited Tehran over the past few months, attempting to find common ground between the U.S. and Iranian negotiators who are locked in a standoff over the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal. Doha’s failure to bridge the divisions and move the JCPOA negotiations forward adds tension to the game, as Washington’s move to integrate the western Gulf’s defenses into a new security arrangement with Israel puts pressure on the deal and signals Washington’s belief that Iran will continue its “malign” regional behavior even in the increasingly unlikely event that the JCPOA is revived.
Keeping communication open between Iran and the U.S., as well as the other Gulf states, rests heavily on Qatar’s narrow shoulders, especially as Washington’s latest diplomatic initiative is certain to raise the stakes for all the players, increasing the likelihood of tit-for-tat threats to shipping in the Hormuz Straits. Still, the talks continue, with all players save Israel, seeing them as the best way to counterbalance the threat perceptions that render the region so volatile.
Iran, the most disliked player at the table, has kept in the game through unilateral negotiations, facilitated by Iraq and Oman, with both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi this past year. Faced with a deadlock in the nuclear talks and the strategic shift toward Israel across the Gulf, Tehran’s response has been to increase its enriched uranium production and stockpile and reduce the visibility of its nuclear program to International Atomic Agency inspectors by removing 27 of the Agency’s monitoring cameras last week.
Meanwhile, Iran is rapidly increasing its missile and drone capabilities and its range of unconventional cyber weaponry. The U.S. move to amp up strategic coordination with its Gulf allies affects Iran’s game in two ways: first, by consolidating Israel’s role and policy position in the Gulf, strengthening the anti-Iran front with significant military cooperation. Second, it effectively enables Washington to reduce its heavy military presence in the region and shift its own strategic focus further east toward the “Indo-Pacific”, by replacing it in part with a new security architecture that includes Israel’s formidable military and intelligence capabilities.
For Iran, this makes U.S. targets in the region harder to attack physically, while, at the same time, potentially offering Israel more room to pursue policies that differ from Washington’s, notably to take unilateral action against Iran’s nuclear program even if the JCPOA is revived.
Israel is therefore now also a player at the table, though territorially at a remove from the Gulf, its presence now guaranteed by the Abraham Accords, but also because of its security focus on Iran as its greatest regional threat. Unlike the other players, it is engaged in a low-grade war with Iran, and the two sets of negotiations now underway between the U.S. and the Gulf players clearly indicate that this strategy is in the ascendency.
This also has implications for the Palestine issue, which has been eclipsed by this strategic shift in the Gulf, and become a backwater problem that the Gulf states now accept is an internal one for Jerusalem. That does not mean that the flare-ups between Israelis and Palestinians are not closely watched, or that Gulf silence in the face of serious developments, such as the new Iraqi law, means they accept Israel’s tactics.
However, the game has moved on. The U.S., which used to loom over the shoulders of each of the players, is now standing further back as it hedges its strategic bets, particularly in the event of any possible war in the Gulf. Instead, the spotlight is on the deals the players on all sides of the Gulf can make, whether under the table or with the winning cards in their hands.