The Abraham Accords present a unique opportunity for Israel and the regional Arab states to collectively confront the prospects of a nuclear-armed Iran, but not in the way one might think.
With the incoming Biden Administration planning to re-enter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – also better known as the “Iran nuclear deal” – that the Trump Administration withdrew from in 2018, Israel and its new Arab partners may implore the US not to re-join the deal. However, this will be counterproductive, as it may dilute potential leverage in getting a better deal than before. Rather, a more practical approach may be for Israel and the Arab Gulf countries to work together, not to prevent the US from re-entering a nuclear deal, but to ensure their regional security needs are addressed in a new nuclear accord.
In 2015, Israel opposed the nuclear negotiations without presenting an alternative idea, which sidelined Israel from the get go. As Israeli Author Yossi Klein Halevi recently wrote, “One of Israel’s tactical mistakes in opposing the Iran deal in 2015 was its failure to present an alternative vision for a better deal, allowing President Obama to take the high ground and accuse Israel of opposing any deal at all.” This time, Israel would be wise to embrace the idea of a deal in principle, but one that takes its security needs into account. However, with the Biden Administration coming into office, Israel is falling into the same blunder.
Israel is continuing to prevent a nuclear deal by urging the incoming Biden Administration not to re-enter the agreement. Israel also likely played a role in the recent assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, which many saw as an attempt to prevent the US from re-joining the nuclear accord. Yet, the Biden Administration still plans to enter a deal in one form or another. Therefore, playing the role of spoiler would not only be folly, but would also be counterproductive for the same reasons described above.
Instead of working against the grain, Israel should pursue a more pragmatic approach and work to influence the process as the US re-enters the JCPOA. Only then can Israel constructively push Washington to modify the nuclear deal to be better than it was before, and the Abraham Accords can help Israel do just that.
The Abraham Accords can help Israel address its security concerns in regards to a new nuclear deal in two ways.
One, it enables Israel to form a united and public front with its new partners in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain (and possibly Saudi Arabia later on) to push the Biden Administration to modify the nuclear accord in a way that takes their security considerations into account. In 2015, Israel and the UAE did not have public relations, but, now that they do, a public united front would carry more substantial leverage in pushing for a better deal. For example, Israel and the Gulf states could press Biden to push the sunset clauses farther than they are currently set to expire and to impose limits on Iran’s ballistic missile testing as part of a modified nuclear accord.
A second way the Abraham Accords can enhance Israel’s regional security during and after the US re-joins the nuclear deal is to seek a back channel to Iran via Oman.
The Abraham Accords may have created momentum for other Arab and Muslim states to normalize ties with Israel heading into the Biden era, with the next countries possibly Oman. Unlike many of the other Gulf states, however, Muscat has maintained a foreign policy of neutrality and mediation, which has included preserving relations with Tehran and its allies. For instance, Oman has mediated talks between the Saudis and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Oman was also one of only two members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – the other being Kuwait – that preserved ties with Iran’s ally Qatar during the “Qatar Crisis” in June 2017 and has attempted to mediate a resolution ever since.
Even after the passing of the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said, Oman’s new Sultan, Haitham bin Tariq, has pledged to continue his predecessor’s philosophy of peacemaking, which will help Israel address another potential security concern it has in relation to an Iran nuclear deal. One of Israel’s main criticisms of the JCPOA was that it did not address Iran’s regional ambitions, such as sending its military personnel and proxies near Israel’s border with Syria.
Although a modified nuclear accord may not directly address Iran’s regional ambitions, normalized Israel-Oman relations can provide Jerusalem a back channel to Tehran to make sure Iranian military personnel and their loyal militias are as far away from Israel’s border as possible and to negotiate ceasefires when necessary. For instance, Omani officials would pass along a message from Israel to Iranian officials and vice versa if and when they want to prevent or cease hostilities in the region. Israel, it should be remembered, has spoken to the Islamic Republic before, by conveying messages through Russia, and Oman could provide a similar outlet.
The changing regional dynamics of the Middle East can open the door for Israel and the Gulf states to more collectively confront Iran, but they will have to be smart about it. Rather than recklessly trying to scrap the deal, Israel and the Gulf states should work together to better contain the Islamic Republic while allowing room for diplomacy and rapprochement in the region.