The Shadow Of Israel-Iran Hostility Amidst Diplomatic Détentes In Middle East – Analysis


By Kabir Taneja 

West Asia (the Middle East), known in contemporary history as a region in perpetual geopolitical flux has recently been home to some of the most significant diplomatic rapprochements. To begin with, the resumption of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, brokered by China, normalised relations between Riyadh and Tehran— two giant seats of power in the Islamic world— for the first time in seven years.

Furthermore, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) construct, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ended their tiff with fellow member Qatar, against whom an economic blockade had been enforced. And to stretch it further, the Arab League re-admitted Syria under the rule of embattled president Bashar Al-Assad after being suspended in 2011 following Assad’s heavy-handedness against his own people in the fallout of the Arab Spring protests.

The ‘normalisation’ trend in the region has many shades, reasoning, and realpolitik behind it. Iran and its nuclear programme are, in many ways, a common denominator in these crisis points of the region, and there are differences over the best practices employed to deal with the probability of a nuclear Iran in the Middle East. Under the erstwhile US presidency of Donald Trump, many in the region, including Saudi and Israel, found someone who was not sold on the idea of diplomacy with the Ayatollah, opting instead of taking a hard stance, so much so even the so-called ‘Iran hawks’ in Trump’s White House got worried over what could transpire. A glimpse of this was witnessed in January 2020 when a US drone strike on Baghdad airport in Iraq killed heavy-weight Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani, an operation that also involvedIsraeli input.

However, the success of these strings of normalisations, détentes, and thaws will depend on an overall and overarching idea of peace in the region. Efforts for the same, continue, albeit for various reasons and purposes. The US, under the leadership of President Joe Biden, is pushing for Riyadh to normalise ties with Israel, as others such as the UAE have done as part of the Abraham Accords architecture (which also has its own internal challenges, such as Israel being uncomfortable with partner UAE gaining equitable US military technologies such as the F-35 fighter aircraft).

The US vision here, from a distance, seems more to do with its own domestic politics than being part of any grand thinking of peace in the Middle East. For the Saudis, and more specifically Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), partnership with the US is not a zero-sum game any longer as ties both with Moscow and Beijing also flourish simultaneously. This is not a product of cold relations between MbS and Biden but a more systematic shift in how and where Riyadh sees itself in the global order of the future, which, currently is adrift towards largely unknown territories.

Israel has been watching engagements with Iran take place at a pace which continues to make it uncomfortable. Despite its domestic political upheavals, the question of Iran has a level of bipartisan unity in a usually chaotic Israeli polity. Israel’s closest strategic ally, the US, is continuing to use diplomacy as a primary tool to try and pull Tehran away from attaining nuclear capabilities. This strategy has been approached mostly with scepticism by Israel.

The political space granted during these diplomatic manoeuvres, specifically since 2010, has been expertly used by Iran to build a case for itself with other regional foes. The country’s Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, this month has been on a visit across the Middle East, specifically its Arab neighbours in what many see as a charm offensive to solidify its détentes with the likes of Saudi Arabia, build trust with the likes of the UAE, Egypt, and Kuwait, and develop further dialogue with neutral actors such as Oman and quasi-partners such as Qatar. This charm offensive, of course, is accompanied by a usual dose of parallel Iranian rhetoric largely targeted towards domestic audiences, such as meeting with the leadership of Hamas, vehemently supporting armed Palestinian groups and regular calls for the “demise” of Israel.

The thinking in the Arab world, led by the Saudis and the Emiratis, seems to stem from a lack of intent in Washington to act against Iran if push comes to shove. The 2019 attacks on Saudi oil refineries by drones launched by Houthi militants, in Riyadh at least, was seen as a litmus test for America’s reliability to provide security. In this, the Saudis handed the US an ‘F’ grade. In short, the Saudis decided to take matters into their own hands, and approach the crisis from the point of how the US would approach it today, borrowed from its geoeconomics toolkit of ‘de-risking’.

This ‘de-risking’ in the Middle East somewhat isolates Israel. Despite the US joining Israel in agreeing that all bets are on the table to disallow Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, in incremental gains Tehran has made progress in developing its programme further, and not dismantling it. This, of course, would raise the efficacy of the kind of diplomacy taking place, which as per reports, now includes indirect messagingbetween Washington and Tehran via Muscat

At this juncture, any expectation that Iran will completely let go of its nuclear programme may be unrealistic. This, then begs the question, at what political space would Israel be comfortable about Iran? Reports have been circulating that Israelis have been prepping both their military apparatus and the public for the potential fallouts of retaliatory Iranian actions if they were to initiate airstrikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. Some see this as too risky a move for Israel to try and go alone without US’ military prowess and know-how. “The reality in our region is changing rapidly. We are not stagnating. We are adjusting our war doctrine and our options of action in accordance with these changes, in accordance with our goals which do not change,” Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said.

An unresolved and unaddressed Iran – Israel dynamic ultimately threatens any other regional normalisation beyond a threshold. It is unlikely that the US will be able to stand back if Israel commits to unilateral kinetic action against Iran’s nuclear programme. While this eventuality remains unlikely, it is not impossible. The space for de-escalation between Iran and Israel as of today is next to non-existent, and geographically, any conflict between the two would directly affect the entire region, rendering a host of current normalisation processes and agreements moot for many regional participants.

About the author: Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with the Strategic Studies programme at the Observer Research Foundation

Source: This article was published by the Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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