As Iran And Israel Escalate Conflict, Arab States Stick To Their Guns – Analysis


By Michael Scollon

(RFE/RL) — As the world anxiously awaited the outcome of Iran’s large-scale attack against Israel, some Arab countries had already taken steps to blunt its impact.

When the dust from the April 13 attack settled, the vast majority of the hundreds of drones and missiles launched by Iran had been shot down — by Israel, its Western allies, and Jordan, despite its strong opposition to Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza.

At least two other Arab states — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), which have been highly critical of the Gaza war and have joined Iran and other Muslim states in pushing for a cease-fire — also reportedly played a role in intercepting the Iranian assault by sharing intelligence information.

The actions by the Sunni Arab countries, all of which have tenuous relationships with both Israel and majority-Shi’a Iran, led to speculation that they may have chosen sides. But experts say that their involvement in thwarting Iran’s attack does not mark a major shift in their positions — either for or against Israel or Iran.

Not Taking Sides

“Some went so far as saying that this is an indication that the threat perception among Arab states vis-à-vis Iran is rising, and the equation has changed and the Arab countries may side with Israel against Iran,” said Hamidreza Azizi, a fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “I don’t see the picture like that.”

Azizi explained that the Arab countries’ contribution, whether shooting down Iranian drones or missiles or providing intelligence, “was more about preventing a war than siding with one side against another.”

On X, formerly Twitter, geopolitical and security analyst Michael Horowitz said that while several countries participated, directly or indirectly, in the effort to limit the impact of Iran’s attack, Jordan clearly “acted out of self-interest.”

Noting that Iranian projectiles had flown over Jordanian airspace during the attack, Horowitz, the director of security consultancy Le Beck International, asked: “What sovereign country would let a third party fly hundreds of missiles and drones over major urban centers without budging?”

Others acted following significant pressure by Israel’s key ally, the United States, he said, or out of “fear of a regional escalation.” This fear, Horowitz said, alluding to recent steps by Saudi Arabia and others to improve ties with Tehran in recent years, “was the same fear of escalation that has led them to renew communication and broker normalization deals with Iran.”

Gaza And Security Above All

Through the smoke of the Israel-Iran showdown, observers who spoke to RFE/RL said, Arab countries sent a message that their desire to maintain regional stability and to see a cease-fire in the Gaza war trumps all.

“I don’t see any kind of change in the Arab states’ approach toward Israel’s war in Gaza,” said Azizi. “They are still opposed to it and it seems to be still the main priority of the Arab world and the Muslim world, more broadly speaking.”

In fact, Iran’s attack — which Tehran launched in retaliation for a suspected Israeli strike on an Iranian diplomatic compound in Syria on April 1 — may have been seen by Arab states as an unwelcome distraction from the Gaza situation, according to Azizi.

“What might have irritated the Arab countries is not Iran’s strike or retaliation, per se, but the timing of it amid all the efforts for bringing a cease-fire to stop the war,” Azizi said. “And also in the sense that, you know, the [Iranian] attack has already shifted international focus from basically pressuring Israel into reconsidering its approach in Gaza to the Iran-Israel confrontation.”

The other major considerations in the eyes of the Arab countries, Azizi said, were maintaining regional stability and avoiding a war with Iran.

“They simply don’t want further instability in the region. They want to focus on their developmental projects. There are a lot of ambitious initiatives that all states separately or together have been pursuing. So, further instability would be a big challenge to that,” Azizi said. “And the last thing they would want to have is a war with Iran itself.”

Out Of The Shadows

Iran and Israel have long been engaged in a shadow war that followed a general code — Iran used its proxies and partners in the so-called “axis of resistance” against Israel to strike against its archenemy, and Israel did not hesitate to hit Iran’s militant partners.

This was underscored by the events of October 7, when the Iran-backed and U.S.- and EU-designated terror group Hamas launched a deadly assault on Israel that prompted Israel to invade the Gaza Strip to root out Hamas. The war has left tens of thousands of Palestinians dead and has been accompanied by attacks on Israel by Iranian-backed proxies, as well as strikes by Israel against Iranian-backed militants and even members of the Iranian military in the region.

But all the while, Iran and Israel were careful not to strike each other directly.

That changed with the April 1 aerial strike that targeted the grounds of the Iranian Embassy in Damascus, which killed Iran’s top regional commander and six other members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Blaming Israel for the deadly strike that hit a consular annex building, Iran vowed direct retaliation. And while it telegraphed its response 12 days later with advance warnings to regional states, Tehran’s launching of hundreds of missiles and drones was a dangerous signal that Iran’s “strategic patience” with Israel had run out and it was willing to take Israel on directly.

Speaking about the options Iran had prior to deciding to launch its barrage against Israel on April 13, experts who spoke to RFE/RL noted that it was Israel that took the first step to engage with its Iranian adversary directly.

“I think the one that [Iran] chose was one that signals that they took this seriously. They were trying to remind Israel that Israel might face military consequences if it continued [such] actions,” Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard University, told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda. “But they didn’t want to raise the ante to do something even more extensive or more damaging.

“I think the Iranians felt they had to respond, but wanted to do so in a way that didn’t provoke a wider war,” he added.

Now that Iran and Israel’s long-standing conflict has emerged from the shadows, the question is whether it could spiral into a direct war or return to a proxy war.

Both Israel and Iran have suggested that their standoff is not over. Israel has vowed to respond to Iran’s attack, without saying how or when. Iran has said that it considers its tit-for-tat with Israel concluded with its unprecedented attack on Israeli territory, while warning that even the “tiniest” retaliation on Iran’s territory would bring a “massive and harsh” response.

“We are still in, in a sense, the realm of a shadow war, assuming that Israel does not now respond by hitting Iran back,” Walt said. “Assuming it does not now escalate further, then I think we will see a return to the shadow war of the last few months.”

Safety In Deniability

Azizi said that is something Iran was comfortable with, even in the event its interests or proxies were hit by Israel, because there was always “some room for deniability” that Iran itself was attacked.

On the other hand, Iran benefited from plausible deniability that it did not direct attacks on Israel carried out by its partners like Hamas, or Huthi rebels in Yemen, or Lebanese Hizballah.

By attacking Israel, Azizi said, “Iran actually abandoned plausible deniability, taking not only responsibility but credit.” This, he added, “was an attempt to push Israel toward the old rules of engagement — to say, let’s go back to the gray zone.”

None of the actors on the sidelines — including the United States, which has worked to improve or establish relations between Israel and Arab states, and Russia, which commended Iran’s attack on Israel as justified — wants to see an all-out war.

Those closest to the conflict, the Arab states, have made it clear that they want stability and an end to the Gaza war. Some major players and regional rivals of Iran — notably Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. — have in recent years restored their relations with Tehran in an effort to minimize the threat.

While Arab countries have criticized and, in some cases, helped thwart Iran’s attack on Israel, they did not condemn Tehran for its actions. Iran, while sending a vague warning that Jordan could be “the next target,” has avoided criticism following months of diplomacy with Arab states over the Gaza war and humanitarian crisis.

“I think both sides (Iran and Arab states) are quite clear that they want to continue going toward this path,” Azizi said, even suggesting a possible mediation role for an Arab country in resolving the Iran-Israel crisis.

Written and reported by Michael Scollon with contributions by Radio Farda correspondent Saeed Jafari.


RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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