As the world waits to see if Russia will invade Ukraine, other military tensions continue to mount in the Middle East. This week, for the first time, naval vessels from Israel and Saudi Arabia operated alongside 60 nations in a US-led training exercise.
This remarkable political and military milestone suggests that both countries, many of their Arab neighbors and the US Navy are now actively preparing together for a moment when tensions with Iran, their common enemy, could lead to open conflict .
This show of well-coordinated strength comes at a time when Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels have further escalated that country’s civil war by firing missiles at targets in the United Arab Emirates in recent weeks. This happened during a visit by Israeli President Isaac Herzog to the United Arab Emirates, during which the defenses of a base housing US soldiers were activated.
The background to all this fuss is the international negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, which has reached a critical phase. After long delays and a month of talks, negotiators from Iran, the US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany returned home on January 28 to update their governments on the progress made and unresolved issues.
An agreement by all sides to re-engage with the 2015 nuclear deal would certainly cool the region’s rising security temperature, but there are two main obstacles.
First, the US cannot guarantee that a future US President will not decide to abandon the deal like former President Donald Trump did in May 2018. Why, Iran asks, should we commit to a plan the Americans will not comply with?
Second, Iran’s leaders could be confident that their economy can withstand the pressure of ongoing, even tightening, US sanctions. Oil prices, at their highest level in years, are bringing new revenue to Tehran’s coffers. Russia and China have agreed new trade deals with Iran, and its nuclear program is making rapid progress. Moreover, Iran has already endured so much economic suffering that its leaders assume it can endure this misery indefinitely.
The US and Iran could still reach an agreement, especially since the terms of the agreement expire in 2026 anyway and neither side would have to stick to the terms for long. Getting a “yes” could delay a crisis that nobody at the table wants.
But if the negotiations fail, it will be far more important that Israel, the Saudi-led and UAE-led Gulf states, and the US all work together to increase military pressure on Iran. Nobody wants a war that could quickly destabilize the entire Middle East, but Israel and the Saudis won’t be sitting on their hands when Iran amasses enough highly enriched uranium for multiple bombs, spins more advanced centrifuges, and gets closer to disclosure than ever a nuclear weapon.
In short, if no agreement is reached in the coming weeks, all sides will prepare for real problems, which could start with increasingly sophisticated cyber attacks and sabotage attacks in Iran. The risk of spilling over into broader conflicts cannot be ignored.
Increased cooperation between Israel and the Gulf States could also come with a major silver lining for peace in the region. First, the normalization of relations between the Israeli and Arab governments is creating major trade and investment opportunities that are fueling growth across the region. The Israeli government established formal relations with the UAE and Bahrain in 2020.
Second, at a time when the US is less willing to accept the risks involved in conflict resolution in the Middle East, a rapprochement between the Israelis, Saudis and the United Arab Emirates – with US backing – could still strike Iran convince to avoid fights he can’t win.
Israel conducted naval exercises with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in November 2021, and Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz signed a defense cooperation agreement with Bahrain this week. And these historic naval exercises will take cooperation one step further.
For now, however, the fate of the nuclear deal will decide how high mercury will rise in the Middle East this year.