The agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel to establish full diplomatic relations in exchange for the suspension (or from Israel’s point of view, merely the postponement) of the annexation of the occupied Palestinian West Bank follows nearly two decades of unofficial ties between the occupation state and Gulf Arab rulers. The gradual warming of such relations is a by-product of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative spearheaded by Saudi Arabia which offered Israel full recognition in return for it pulling back to the pre-1967 “Green Line”, more correctly the 1949 Armistice Line.
Tragically, the Palestinians who rightfully consider Abu Dhabi’s move as a betrayal of their cause are not really the main issue at the centre of the nominal peace deal. At its core is actually the enmity and security concerns towards and about Iran that Israel and the Gulf Arab states have in common.
“The Gulf Arabs understand the currents of history,” wrote former CIA officer Robert Baer in his book The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower. “They know what Iran’s rise means, how the balance has shifted against them. It’s the reason that Saudi Arabia has started to bend on the issue of Israel.” Baer wrote that in 2009.
Although there is creeping normalisation between Riyadh and Tel Aviv, including intelligence coordination, the Saudis have yet to follow in the UAE’s footsteps by recognising Israel formally. A senior member of the royal family, Prince Turki Al-Faisal, reiterated on Friday that the Kingdom’s acceptance of Israel’s political legitimacy is dependent on the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. That’s basically the same exhausted adherence to the improbable “two-state solution”.
What has been publicised widely in the past week, however, is that the Arab states expected to be next in normalising relations with Israel are Bahrain and Oman in the Gulf, as well as Morocco. This is hardly surprising when we look at the region through the prism of the competing blocs: on the one hand there is the intertwined interests of the US, Israel and Sunni Arab states, (Shia-majority Bahrain is ruled by the Sunni Khalifah family while Ibadi-majority Oman has deviated from decades of neutrality in regional affairs), while on the other there are those Arab states and non-state actors which are allied with Iran.
In a blog last week, a retired USAF intelligence officer and self-described Arabist wrote that, “The Israelis are smart to try and work with the Sunni Arabs.” Why? “They share a common threat: the Islamic Republic of Iran and its Shi’a syndicate in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen,” explained Rick Francona.
It has been said by those opposed to Iranian influence in the region, and even some Iranian officials, that Tehran controls four Arab capitals: Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus and Sanaa. Although these claims are exaggerated, the influence that Iran has among its Arab allies is considerable. It is no coincidence that these states are all consistent and unwavering in their staunch opposition to Zionism and the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
The Iraqi government has reiterated that its position is unchanged and it does not have any relations with Israel. Although one politician from a secular party in Baghdad has been arguing for normalisation, Iran’s influence is too great to let that happen.
Iran’s close ally Syria is still technically at war with Israel, having not offered the occupation state formal recognition, as Egypt and Jordan did. Speaking in June about renewed US sanctions against Syria, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said that they would fail to pressure Damascus into “abandoning our alliances and our support for the resistance and to embark on the path of normalisation with Israel.”
Condemning the agreement between the UAE and Israel as a betrayal of Islam and Arabism, the Secretary-General of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, said in a televised speech that it was merely a favour to US President Donald Trump ahead of the presidential election in November.
Decades of Saudi exploitation and meddling is one of the contributing factors that pushed many Yemeni Zaydis into Iran’s sphere of influence. It is the Houthi-led government in Yemen, as I have argued previously, which wields the most power and governs most of the country in terms of population centres, and not the Saudi-based Yemeni government in exile; it has also been constant in its support of the Palestinians. “The Arab regimes supporting the Zionist regime are indeed partners in crimes against Palestinians,” said Houthi leader Sayyid Abdulmalik Al-Houthi in a Friday sermon.
This contrasts starkly with the position taken by the UAE-backed separatists of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) who spoke favourably about Israel months before the UAE-Israel deal was made public. It is for this reason that their ambitions should be treated with caution as they could enable Israel to have a foothold in Yemen. As expected, the STC welcomed normalisation between its Emirati patron and the occupation state. I have written previously that an intensified conflict is inevitable between the pro-Houthi Yemeni military and the STC forces, and the latter will undoubtedly have unspoken Israeli support.
However, it would be unfair not to point out that there are other Arab states unequivocally opposed to the illegal Israeli occupation. Tunisia and Algeria, for example, are against normalisation with Israel. Both are, coincidentally, on cordial terms and enjoy long-established bilateral ties with Tehran. Last month Tunisia and Iran signed a memorandum of understating (MOU) to expand tourism ties despite the coronavirus pandemic, and last year following the election of Algeria’s President Abdelmejid Tebboune, the Iranian Foreign Ministry expressed hopes of a new era of mutually enhanced relations.
North African neighbour Morocco, though, is geared to be one of the next Arab states to normalise relations with Israel. The government in Rabat severed ties with Iran in 2018 following accusations that Tehran was interfering in the Western Saharan independence movement.
The reshaping of the region’s alliances also presents greater opportunities for Turkey and its Gulf ally Qatar. Both have competed with Iran in championing the Palestinian cause, and Turkey in particular has also stepped up as a contender for influence in the Sunni Muslim world. Nevertheless, both countries have complex and contradictory ties with Israel. Turkey’s diplomatic relations are well-known but often overlooked, while Qatar, as with other Gulf States, has had more clandestine interactions with Tel Aviv. Historically, of course, Iran itself is not entirely innocent in this respect; the nascent Islamic Republic was involved in the Contra Affair as was Israel.
The Arab states aligned with Iran are also experiencing the most turmoil in the region. Some may argue that the Iran connection is a direct cause of this, while conveniently omitting the fact that what we are witnessing is a result of such states’ non-compliance with the diktats of the US-Israel-Gulf axis. Without Hezbollah, Lebanon would probably be another pro-Zionist Arab state, and arguably still under Israeli occupation in the South. In Syria, “rebel-held” Idlib offers an insight into what the rest of the country would be like were the government in Damascus to be toppled, with “democracy declared to be shirk” (idolatry) and multiple factions only united in so far as their opposition to the central government is concerned, otherwise they will continue with their infighting as they vie with each other for power.
Yemen wouldn’t be a free state if left under the current Saudi-backed government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, which aims to maintain the status quo of Riyadh exploiting its resources and keeping it as the “poorest country in the Arab world”.
The truth is that without Iran’s support for its allies, both state and non-state actors alike, the region would submit to the interests of the US and the settler-colonial state of Israel, neither of which have Palestinian statehood on their agenda. The turmoil affecting the Middle East is as much to do with a conflict of interests as it is to do with being the price paid for independence, which Iran knows all too well in the form of US-imposed sanctions. It is obvious from all of this that only Arab states aligned with Iran will oppose Zionism, regardless of what that price might be.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.