The US is breaking away from the Middle East as it shifts its focus elsewhere, a move widely perceived in the region as a sign of an impending American awakening. Many in Israel were concerned that doing so would strengthen Iran and its influence in the region. Instead, Israel has come out stronger.
For years, Iran has been demanding the withdrawal of US forces from the region, particularly after they arrived in large numbers in the Middle East following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Iran viewed the presence of US forces on its borders in Iraq and Afghanistan as a threat to its national security. She also saw the US military presence as an aid to Israel, her main regional enemy. For the Iranian leadership, the weaker the US military presence in the region, the more vulnerable Israel would feel. Furthermore, a reduced US presence would allow Iran, either directly or through its proxies, to expand its influence in the Middle East and further isolate Israel.
Contrary to Iran’s prediction, however, Israel has emerged strengthened from the US withdrawal from the region. Ironically, Israel owes this, at least in part, to the Iranian leadership. Rather than taking concrete steps to improve ties with countries in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Iran continued to support US enemies: the Houthis in Yemen during the gradual US withdrawal. Although Iran has been in talks with the Saudis since April 2021, its continued military aid to the Houthis has severely undermined those efforts. This is also indicated by the fact that the Saudis have not yet confirmed whether they will participate in the fifth round of talks.
Consequently, the Saudis have accelerated their rapprochement with Israel. This was recently made clear in early February 2022 when the Saudi Armed Forces agreed to publicly participate in a US naval exercise alongside the Israeli Navy. Another sign of improving relations came when CNN revealed in December 2021 that Saudi Arabia is building missiles with China’s help. Had this happened from the 1980s to 2010, Israel would have opened hell. For many years, Israel was vehemently opposed to the sale of arms, particularly offensive arms, to the Saudis because of the kingdom’s hostile policy towards Israel. After the CNN revelation, however, there was no sign of resistance or condemnation from Israel. The CNN report also shows how Iran’s policy towards the Saudis is angering some of its allies. The Chinese, whom the Khamenei regime counts among its allies, are now helping the Saudis build missiles that could theoretically reach Iran.
Iranian policies also played a role in the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain in September 2020. Concerned about Iran’s hostile actions and rhetoric towards them and the US withdrawal from the region, both Bahrain and the UAE to normalize relations with Israel. Of course, other factors also played a role in the two countries’ decision, but it was important to see Israel as an alternative to the US as a regional bulwark against Iran. Recent Houthi missile and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attacks on the UAE have further cemented Israel’s ties with both the UAE and Bahrain. The attack on the UAE was a strategic decision by the Houthis, made in response to the involvement of UAE proxy forces in the ongoing war in Yemen and, more importantly, a series of casualties suffered by the Houthis at the hands of the Giants Brigade, a deputy of the UAE, suffered force in Yemen.
It can be argued that the Houthis do not consult Iran on every tactical decision. However, with a strategic decision as important as attacking the UAE – especially when it comes to Iran-supplied weapons – it is unlikely that the Houthis would proceed without at least the green light from Iran. In this case, the Houthis even admitted to using the Iran-designed Zulfaqar missile to attack the UAE. This will likely result in efforts to improve Iran-UAE relations being halted, at least in the short to medium term.
Instead, there is now talk of Israel selling radars that could help the UAE detect and destroy missiles. Additionally, on February 1, 2022, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett hinted that Israel could share its new anti-missile laser system it is developing with the UAE. While a dispute between Israel and the United Arab Emirates over security at Dubai Airport has recently surfaced, it is unlikely to develop further as both the Israeli and Emirati governments are making intensive efforts to resolve it.
Relations between Israel and Bahrain have also reached new heights. On February 2, 2022, an Israeli Air Force plane carrying Defense Minister Benny Gantz landed on Bahraini soil for the first time ever. The two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in support of military and intelligence cooperation. Undoubtedly, these efforts will aim to confront Iran.
Israel is concerned that a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) would allow Iran to maintain and expand its presence in the region through its proxies. This is a logical concern. However, should the US return to the 2015 nuclear deal, this time Israel will be able to count on its new and improving diplomatic, economic and military ties with regional countries, particularly the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Israel’s relations with the Saudis are also likely to improve, given Iran’s reluctance to relinquish its influence in Yemen by supporting the Houthis.
Meir Javedanfar teaches Iranian Diplomacy and Security Studies at Reichman University, Herzliya. He tweets as @Meirja. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
Photo by MC2 Class Dawson Roth. The appearance of visual information from the United States Department of Defense (DoD) does not imply or constitute Department of Defense endorsement.