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Iran and the new reality in the Gulf after UAE-Israel normalisation

Iranian students gather outside the UAE embassy in Tehran, Iran to protest a deal with Israel to normalise ties, on 15 August 2020 [Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency]
Iranian students gather outside the UAE embassy in Tehran, Iran to protest a deal with Israel to normalise ties, on 15 August 2020 [Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency]

After the UAE officially announced normalising relations with Israel and entering into a new phase of bilateral relations, and in light of regional developments over the past decade, we can clearly envision the new reality of the Middle East in general and the Gulf region in particular.

Those observing Iranian politics know the extent of the deep-rooted hostility in the Iranian government for Israel and the strong belief in the idea of eliminating Israel from the regional map. This is according to the political and ideological perspective of Iran.

However, the recent decision of normalisation between the UAE and Israel shocked Iranian politicians, despite their knowledge of the rapprochement between Israel and some Gulf countries. However, for this to be officially announced and publicised in this manner is something Tehran considers to be a provocation and a challenge that must be confronted. It will impose a reality on Iran that clashes with the principle Iran has adopted since the establishment of its Islamic regime after the overthrow of the Shah regime, which was one of Israel's allies in the region.

It seems that those who say that the recent Israel-Gulf normalisation came under pressure from the rivalry between Iran on the one hand and the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on the other hand were correct. Anyone observing the Gulf media close to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi clearly sees that many Gulf citizens today see Iran as the number one enemy, and in return Israel was removed from the list of enemies and added to the list of friendly allies.

Israel was able to benefit from this new reality and exaggerate the danger of the Iranian project. In order to establish a foothold in the Gulf region, Israel also exploited some of the mistakes made in Iranian foreign policy and its lack of flexibility. This made the Gulf countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain find an excuse to move towards Israel.

If we leave aside the dangers arising from Israel's presence in the Gulf region in terms of ideology and religion, and the Zionist greed for the holy sites there, we find that normalisation presents great political dangers to the region. Iran will find itself forced to adopt a more confrontational policy after threats from the UAE, which will be an opportunity for Israel to besiege and tighten the noose around Iran.

In light of this new reality, we can envision three scenarios, one of which may occur in the Gulf region and the Middle East:

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A direct and full-blown clash

Many experts expect that the recent Emirati-Israeli agreement and the decision to normalise relations between the two countries will result in greater Israeli activity, whether on the political and economic level or even on the military level, given the important geographical location of the UAE.

If we take into consideration Iran's ideological position towards Israel, the strongest and most conceivable scenario is for a direct confrontation between Iran and its regional allies (governments and armed groups) on the one hand, and Israel and its new Gulf allies, led by the UAE, on the other hand.

The UAE normalise ties with Israel - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The UAE normalise ties with Israel – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Although it is difficult to predict the outcome of this full-blown war, everyone can imagine the enormous devastation that such a confrontation would leave behind.

It seems that Iran will be forced to engage in this confrontation because it is well aware that the Israeli presence aims in part to undermine its stability and internal security. This makes it imperative for it to take preemptive measures. No one familiar with the Iranian and Israeli mindsets can imagine peaceful coexistence and geographical rapprochement between Iran and Israel. One of them leaving the Gulf region is the most logical scenario that comes to mind.

Limited confrontation

Iran may take steps and actions aimed at deterring the Gulf states that are at odds with Tehran from proceeding with the policy of normalisation and opening the doors for Israel to enter the region. Iran is trying, through the limited confrontation, to make the Gulf states understand that a comprehensive confrontation will be costly to all parties, and that the best option for the Gulf states is to prevent Israel from approaching the Iranian borders.

Under the current circumstances, Iran is expected to undertake this step and confrontation directly, and will not instruct its supporters and regional allies, such as the Yemeni Ansar Allah movement, the Lebanese Hezbollah, and the Popular Mobilisation Forces to carry it out. Instead, it will handle it itself in order to deliver a clearer message to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

This scenario, if implemented, may slip into the scenario of a full-blown confrontation (the first scenario) even if Iran itself does not want it to, given the regional complexity and the severe tension between Iran and the Gulf states.

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The scenario of new alliances and continuous mobilisation

This Gulf-Israeli rapprochement may result in the building of new alliances in the region that are stronger than previous alliances. A new alliance between Iran, Turkey and Qatar may be formed based on an ideological and doctrinal basis, unlike the currently prevalent alliances controlled by interests. Forming this alliance would mean more rapprochement between Israel and other Arab countries, and consequently we will witness mobilisation on both sides and alliances on both sides in anticipation of zero hour.

As for Iran, the second and third scenarios are the least costly, because the option of a direct confrontation must implicate major countries such as the US, and Iran is not undergoing normal circumstances internally and externally, as sanctions have severely damaged the Iranian economy and imposed a kind of isolation in global trade. Therefore, Iran's losses will be greater in the event of a full-blown confrontation compared to the scenario of limited confrontation or the scenario of continuing to mobilise and form new alliances.

Prolonging this mobilisation, despite its cost, is not without benefits and gains for Tehran, as it will strive to improve its image with the Sunni Muslim public after years of clashes and distortion following Tehran's position on the events in Syria and the region. The Arab and Islamic street maintains a deep-rooted historical hostility towards Israel and any Arab or Muslim country that stands in the way of Israel will soon succeed in winning the friendship of the Muslim and Arab public and its mistakes that were committed in the recent period may be forgotten.

This article first appeared in Arabic on Arabi21 on 17 August 2020

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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