Carrie Hart
News Analyst

An emerging Middle East regional détente as America’s influence wanes

A flurry of high-level diplomatic activity is occurring in the Middle East, as Arab countries embark on new regional policies, repairing relations with each other and with Iran. New power-brokers, like China, are filling the gap since America’s perceived lack of engagement in the region has begun, once again. The US administration seems to have sidestepped its prominent role as a safe ally that can be trusted to come through — diplomatically and militarily. Reports have indicated an emerging regional détente. Nations such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia are set on re-establishing diplomatic ties with Iran. Syria and the UAE continue to patch up their disagreements. Turkey is restoring its ties with Egypt.

In some cases, these attempts at reconciliation could affect Israel’s burgeoning bonds with the Abraham Accords countries. Additionally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hope of reshaping a Middle East policy that includes peace with Saudi Arabia, does not seem to be a priority for the Saudi Kingdom in the near future.

Since Iran’s intent is to annihilate the Jewish State with the eventual use of nuclear weapons, the focus of Iran’s détente with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, as well as Iran’s continued entrenchment in Syria, are worrying developments for Israel.  Yet, Israel’s domestic problems are preoccupying its government with continued internal strife over judicial reform, and increased terrorism within its borders.

When the Obama Administration decided to retreat from being the main power-broker in the Middle East, Russia filled the vacuum. Russian President Vladimir Putin sent advanced weapons into Syria, and built a naval port on its seashore. Israel had to implement a deconfliction policy with Russia. This was to avoid conflicts in the airspace over Syria. Today, Russia uses this policy as leverage with Israel, especially when Israel takes actions to stop the building of Iranian missile bases in Syria. Russia has been known to threaten Israel in its continued preemptive military strikes against Iran in Syria.

In the future, what advantages will other countries have over Israel when new players, like China, fill the US vacuum that has occurred during the Biden Administration?

One of the achievements of former Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz was building a new stronger military pact between Israel and the United States. It was meant to be a military umbrella for the Abraham Accords countries. The hope was that this defense shield would be an incentive for other nations in the region to join in peacemaking efforts with Israel. The idea was that this US-Israel advanced shield could protect Gulf states against the wiles of Iran. That dream is fading as Gulf states are making their own deals to protect their own interests.

It’s true that Israel is advancing in the areas of business, trade, and economic prosperity with the Abraham Accords alliance, but this new diplomatic shift in the Middle East is making it clear that this is not enough for Gulf nations to feel secure when Iran or its proxies attack Gulf interests in the region.

The crucial need these nations have is for peace and stability, resulting in this current change in the regional balance of power. The new power-brokers are the new influencers, as American power recedes. For Gulf nations, it’s a matter of survival. For Netanyahu, it’s a setback in trying to isolate Iran with the help of old and new partners.

Middle East analyst, Jonathan Spyer, agrees that there is a Saudi perception about America which goes back more than a decade to the actions of the Obama Administration, but also takes in former President Donald Trump’s policies, and then, very strongly, Biden’s attitude. “The sense that the Saudis have is that the Americans are not keen on them. The Americans are not keen on strong new involvement in the Middle East.”

Spyer says that, with Obama, there was a sense of a strong and clear ideological outlook that was bad for the Saudis. With Trump there was inconsistency and a certain amount of chaos. Trump’s actions were sometimes liked and sometimes not. “And, with Biden, its been pretty clear — referring to Saudi Arabia as a pariah; in taking the Houthi’s off the terror list; in removing Patriot batteries from Saudi Arabia. The Saudis got the impression that this guy doesn’t want to play the role of protecting us from Iran.”

As a result, Spyer claims, the Saudis have drawn their conclusions and now are backing up those conclusions with diplomatic action. From the Saudi point of view, Spyer emphasizes, “there isn’t some strong American camp in this region that they can join, which would be the only basis in which they would seriously consider moving forward with Israel.” He adds that if the Saudis thought that existed, “they would then join the most powerful gang on the block, so to speak, against our dangerous enemies in Tehran and elsewhere.”

According to Spyer, everything has to do with Iran, as Iran is the challenge. First, the Iranian nuclear program. And, secondly, the Iranian goal of trying to achieve regional hegemony through its use of proxies. “I think what it would take for Gulf Arab states and other players in the region, to look up and change their minds, would be strong American action against both.”

Spyer says that, without a return to the negotiating table over the JCPOA agreement, America needs a Plan B. America should be showing greater concern that, according to the IAEA, the Iranians are now enriching uranium up to 83.6%, which is close to the amount needed for weaponizing a nuclear device. Plan B requires a credible possibility of armed force against Iran on the nuclear issue.

America is not projecting weakness, Spyer acknowledges, “it projects indifference.” He points out, that Middle East powers think America is not that concerned about this region right now. The US is not prepared to put resources into holding back enemies here. Its interests are in other regions of the world, and so are its military resources.

Analysts agree that the Abraham Accords have been seen by Israel as the birth of the emergence of a counter alliance against Iran. But, that is not the way the Gulf states see things now.  In terms of contacts with Israel, according to Spyer it’s, “a kind of hedging of bets rather than a clear allegiance to a particular block. They want to deal with the Iranians, and deal with the enemies of the Iranians. And, by so doing, kind of make themselves as safe as possible.”

It’s about bargaining too, Spyer admits. It’s not about the kind of confrontational stance towards Iran, which Israel takes by necessity, because Israel has no choice. Israel has no diplomatic maneuvering it can use with Iran. Iran is committed to Israel’s destruction. “But, that is not the case in regard to the Gulf Arab states. They have a different sort of territory to maneuver in.”

What seems to be obvious, Spyer alleges, is that America is not committing to the clear defense of its allies against its enemies here in the Middle East. It’s doing something else. Spyer sees the way forward is to get Iran to stop its nuclear ambitions. “The only thing that I think can realistically stop them is the fear of military action. If there is a real fear on the part of Iran that military action, led by the U.S., will take place, then they may well think twice.”

In the meantime, the shifting of alliances in the Middle East will continue until Gulf states feel protected and safe from any future confrontation with Iran. They seem to hold no allegiance to the U.S. or to Israel in achieving this goal.

About the Author
Carrie Hart is a news analyst reporting on political, diplomatic, military and social issues as they relate to Israel, the Middle East, and the international community.
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