A rapprochement justified by the looming Iranian threat
More than twenty years after its foundation by Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic of Iran still remains an unparalleled political construction, a singular case, an object of curiosity for political science. Admittedly, a number of states in the Muslim world, such as Pakistan, Comoros or Mauritania, also use the label “Islamic Republic”, but these republics, from the point of view of power structures, the nature of the constitutional regime, the origin of the ruling elites and even the ideology of the state, bear almost no resemblance to the Iranian political system.[i]
The withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in 2011 has allowed Iran to be an even more important player than it was in the geopolitical dynamics of the Middle East. President Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw the bulk of U.S. troops from Iraq has left the way open for the Iranians to intervene in Iraq even more strongly. Let us recall that the Shiites are in the majority there and that the most important places of Shiite pilgrimage (Kerbala and Najaf) are located there, as well.[ii]
Many observers have stressed the central role of the perception of the Iranian threat by the various parties in justifying this rapprochement. Indeed, Israel has not stopped repeating since the Islamic revolution of 1979 that Iran represented a threat to the Jewish state, which became existential since the revelation in 2002 that Iran was carrying out a clandestine nuclear program.[iii]
Besides, the United Arab Emirates is in conflict with Iran over islands in the Persian Gulf, whose Iranian sovereignty is disputed by Abu Dhabi. The Kingdom of Bahrain, for its part, does not cease to see the hand of Iran in the recurrent uprisings of a part of its population, mostly Shiite, against the government in power. The rapprochement between the Emirates, Bahrain and Israel thus makes it possible to constitute a new anti-Iran axis in the Middle East, in response to the Shiite Arc which has been denounced many times by Gulf states and which extends from Tehran to Beirut.[iv]
But even if the common opposition in Tehran is certainly one of the determinants of these rapprochements, it is certainly not the only one. The opportunities hoped for by the United Arab Emirates, particularly in the context of an extended collaboration with the Jewish State are also to be taken into account. Israeli companies are already active in the Emirates, providing the Emirati authorities with large-scale surveillance systems. Standardization could thus enable further deepening of bilateral collaboration. Moreover, Abu Dhabi must also capitalize on this rapprochement in order to strengthen American support for the Federation, which is no longer considered a potential enemy of Israel.
The Palestinian cause has become secondary for the petro-monarchies confronted with the Iranian Shiite rival. Hence the rapprochement that intersects animosity and common hostility with Israel against Iran. This process is political, but also geostrategic. Regional actors are practically playing their own scores, in agreement with Israel and the American administration. The fact is that three of the most powerful countries in the region (Israel, Iran and Turkey) are non-Arab. On this basis, can the hypothesis of a consistent and more inclusive regional dialogue eventually take shape and content? Could the Emirates take advantage of this new conjuncture to push more strongly for Syria’s reintegration into the region? The idea that increasingly prevails in this regard is this: in Syria, the civil war is over; it is time to move on to “something else.
A new paradigm
The Abraham Accords are peace agreements in the Middle East and North Africa: a new political initiative after peace with Egypt (Camp David Accord of 1978,) Jordan (1994) and the Oslo I Accord, signed in Washington, D.C., in 1993; and the Oslo II Accord, signed in Taba, Egypt, in 1995.
But why choose the name “Abraham Accord”? The patriarch Abraham is a central figure in the biblical narratives of the Old Testament and the Qur’ân. According to the scriptures, he is said to be married to a barren woman named Sarah. Sarah, aware of her barrenness, asked a servant named Hagar to give Abraham a child. This was the birth of the patriarch’s first son, Ishmael/Isma’îl.
When Abraham reached his hundredth year, God came to him and instructed him to make a covenant with his descendants and announced the birth of his second son Isaac. Isaac would be, according to the scriptures, the ancestor of the Jewish people of which Moses would be a part, while Ishmael/Isma’îl would be the ancestor of the Prophet Muhammad and the Arab peoples of the peninsula. This reflects the symbolism behind the symbolic name Abraham. Abraham is the figure that unites Arab and Hebrew peoples.
The historical rivalry between Persia and Arabia, which today takes the form of a struggle between Sunni and Shia Muslims, poses an existential threat to the Sunni Gulf states. For example, as a result of centuries of Persian domination and influence, 60% of Bahrain’s population is Shia Muslim. This represents a threat to the absolute Sunni monarchy that rules the country with an iron fist. During the popular protests in 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring, Bahrain saw the hand of Iran behind the mobilization.[v]
The country of the ayatollahs has gradually strengthened its influence in the region. In Iraq, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Shia majority in the country took power and Iraq is moving closer to Iran. Bashar al-Assad’s Syria drew closer to Iran during the civil war. Iran has become “an unavoidable interlocutor” for international negotiations on this civil war and a privileged ally for Russia in its will to support the Syrian regime. Hezbollah has even sent men to Syria to support the regime in its struggle against the Islamic state.[vi]
A true state within the state, Hezbollah is the Shiite party of Lebanon. It has seats in the Lebanese parliament and an army of its own. Iran’s stranglehold on this movement is indisputable. In Yemen, Iran supports and arms the Houthi rebels positioned on the border with Saudi Arabia. In the zero-sum game in the Middle East, where a strategic victory for one player constitutes a loss of influence for the other, Iran’s rise to power is a threat to the interests of the Sunni petro-monarchies of the Gulf, which justifies the objective alliance with Israel.
The Abraham Accords, however, showed unequivocally that the Palestinian question, while deserving a solution for itself, has been cut off from global and regional affairs. The inability of the Palestinians to extract even lukewarm verbal condemnation of the Abraham Accords from the Arab League is further evidence of the Arab world’s withdrawal from the conflict, which is now taking on the most manageable proportions of a clash of nationalisms in the former Palestinian mandate, rather than being a much more problematic Arab-Israeli confrontation covering the region.
By removing the Palestinian question from broader regional considerations and projecting Israel as a legitimate part of the Middle East, these agreements have effectively eliminated a powerful source of incitement and radicalization in the Arab world. It has also sharpened the delineation between regional forces of moderation and extremism.
Jeffrey Goldberg, tongue-in-cheek, writes in The Atlantic:[vii]
“The agreement is a victory for Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the de facto ruler of the Emirates; Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia; Benjamin Netanyahu, the forever prime minister of Israel; and President Donald Trump. Each of these men needed this agreement rather urgently:
(A) Bin Zayed, because he realizes that the U.A.E. is deeply unpopular with Democrats (the U.A.E. leadership put itself on President Barack Obama’s bad side and was a bit too ostentatiously relieved when Trump came into office), and so understands that he needs to make his country look helpful and constructive to Joe Biden, just in case.
(B) Bin Salman, without whom these Gulf states, Bahrain in particular, would not dare make such a bold and public move, needs this agreement for much the same reason: He has to prove to Democrats (and to Europeans) that he is a constructive and moderate leader, and not merely a murderer of dissidents.
(C) Netanyahu benefits in at least three ways: First, he diverts attention from his miserable handling of the coronavirus pandemic (Israel is moving into a new, three-week lockdown on Friday). Second, he manages to make “peace” with Arabs who are not Palestinians, the particular group of Arabs he’d most like to avoid. And third, he buttresses his reputation among Israeli voters as a statesman on the world stage.
- d) Donald Trump, because he can tell his followers, particularly his more gullible followers, that he has brought peace to the Middle East. (Not that American voters reward presidents who bring peace to the Middle East; just ask Jimmy Carter.) “
Another paradigm seems to be taking shape. In the past, normalization with Israel was linked to the peace process with the Palestinians: it was to serve as a bridge to relations with the first Arab world and the Muslim world in general. This is no longer the case today. What prevails now, from the point of view of Tel Aviv and Washington, is rather the normalization with the Arab countries that will eventually push the Palestinians to a peace agreement with Israel.
Nature of the Accords
These agreements, the fruit of long tripartite negotiations, represent in themselves a major geopolitical break in the Mena region. They were hailed as the beginning of a “new era” by the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and of “victory” by Abu Dhabi.
These agreements, negotiated largely under the aegis of the U.S. administration, allow the Hebrew state to alleviate its regional diplomatic isolation linked to the Palestinian question and to open up significant economic prospects in the Persian Gulf. For the UAE, this agreement allows it to reaffirm its position at the center of the regional geopolitical chessboard, especially vis-à-vis Iran and Saudi Arabia. As for Bahrain, which was only able to sign such a declaration with the endorsement of Saudi Arabia, its adherence to the Abraham Accords must certainly be understood as a “signal” given by Riyadh to the United States as to the “feasibility” of a later normalization between the kingdom and the Jewish State.
Over the past decade or so, several Gulf monarchies (mainly UAE and Bahrain) have discreetly developed their cooperation with Israel, including in the security domain. This policy has been particularly energized in recent years by the Israeli Prime Minister who has always believed that an alliance with the Gulf States would be the best defense against Iran and that these countries also constitute formidable opportunities for Israeli high-tech industry. For the Hebrew State, an alliance with the Gulf States is also a formidable means of making the Palestinian question forgotten by the various Arab nations.
Evidence of this diplomatic warming, two Israeli ministers (Minister of Telecommunications and Minister of Culture) made a trip to Abu Dhabi in late 2018. In May 2020, two aircraft of the Emirati company Etihad made a first direct flight between the UAE and Israel as part of medical aid related to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the same context, Israeli laboratories have partnered with UAE laboratories to try to find technical solutions to improve the speed of detection of COVID-19 cases.
The Abraham Accords between Israel and the UAE thus seem to represent a break with the existing diplomatic and strategic status quo. First of all, they reinforce a certain political realism on the part of Arab countries that have chosen to decouple, for their own interests, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from relations between the Hebrew state and its regional neighbors. They also consecrate the constitution of a political axis that is at once anti-Iranian and anti-Turkish that “binds” the most militarized US allies in the region and undoubtedly considered in Washington as the best bulwarks against Iranian and Turkish “imperialism”.
These agreements could thus eventually strengthen the American will to subcontract regional issues to its most loyal allies, which paradoxically probably runs counter to the final objective sought by Israel and the UAE. Finally, the abandonment of the Palestinian question by the Arab countries could tip it into the radicalism represented by the two non-Arab powers of political Islam, This Israeli-Arab normalization has therefore probably not revealed all its secrets and further geopolitical bursts are certainly to be expected in its wake.
Finally, it is a significant diplomatic victory for the American administration, since these accords are both a significant step for peace in the Middle East and a nightmare for Iran. On the other hand, they have fueled the anger of Palestinians, Iran and Turkey, who believe that a political axis unfavorable to them is now being established in the region.
The UN, however, has been out of touch for ages, Antonio Guterres says the normalization agreement could create an opportunity to resume substantive negotiations leading to a two-state solution in accordance with UN resolutions. His Special Coordinator for the region, Nickolay Mladenov, explained that this was “a new chance for peace between Israelis and Palestinians” and that Israel’s suspension of its annexation plans “removes an immediate threat that could disrupt the peace process… ”It remains to convince the Palestinians of this!
The loss of centrality of the Palestinian question in the Arab world
How long ago was the time when the Arab summit in Khartoum proclaimed its three “Nos” to Israel, in the aftermath of the 1967 defeat: “No to peace, no to recognition, no to negotiation“. Ten years later, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat visited Jerusalem and signed the Camp David Peace Accords, the League of Arab States excluded Egypt and moved its headquarters to Tunis. Today, this same League rejected the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) request to convene an Arab summit to condemn the announced peace between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The Arab regimes’ abandonment of the Palestinian cause began in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. The Arab states that had championed this cause brutally sacrificed it to defend their own regimes, accused by Washington of collusion or weakness with regard to Islamic terrorism. This trend became more pronounced after the Arab tsunamis (Arab Spring) and the arrival of ISIS (Daech), which supplanted al-Qaeda, as did the worsening Iranian threat.
For Shahrzadah Rahim[viii] this abandonment is the beginning of a new regional process:
“In contrast, the recent tremendous changes in the foreign policy orientation towards Israel across the Arab world indicates the beginning of new regional peace process. As a matter fact, Israel as a nation state is a living reality, which cannot be ignored and the continuing Arab confrontation with Israel is not in the best interest of Palestinians. The recent diplomatic step taken by United Arab Emirates to normalize relationship with the state of Israel is a positive step towards new regional peace and security architecture.”
The first observation following these normalizations is the now apparent lack of interest of Arab political leaders in the Palestinian cause. By normalizing relations with the Hebrew state while the prospect of a viable and independent Palestinian state is fading away, the Arab leaders confirm the relegation of the situation in Palestine to the background of the regional agenda. Indeed, the Palestinian question has not been at the heart of the Arab political agenda for several years now.
Since the Arab Spring started at the end of 2010, the Arab world has been divided by the yardstick of popular revolutions, focusing in particular on the crises in Egypt, Syria, Libya etc. In fact, the colonization of the territories, the status of Jerusalem and the situation of Palestinians in Gaza no longer have the same centrality for Arab leaders as was the case in the early 2000s during the second Intifada. The Arab autocrats are more willing to protect their regimes and to counter Iranian influences deemed threatening. Iran’s support for Palestinian groups, as well as the links between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, may be among the main determinants of these ruptures.
It should also be noted the lack of large-scale reactions in the Arab street following these normalizations: no more major demonstrations, no more portraits of burned leaders in all Arab capitals.[ix] Only a few hundred protesters here and there, in Rabat and elsewhere, to denounce this historic geopolitical rupture. Although the pandemic may partly justify the absence of such demonstrations, it seems to indicate a decrease in the interest of Arab crowds in the Palestinian cause, as the people have probably adopted a form of fatalism.
Obsessed by the threat posed by Iran, economically weakened but militarily very powerful, the Arab countries believe that the alliance with Israel prevails over the Palestinian question.[x] In recent months in the Gulf media, several Arab intellectuals denounced the intransigence of the Palestinians and their parasitism vis-à-vis the oil monarchies. The announcement of the agreement of Gulf states With Israel did not require any concessions on the part of the Jewish state except the suspension of a process of annexation of the West Bank that had not yet begun. “An agreement has been reached to put an end to any further annexation,” said Crown Prince Mohammed ben Zayed Al-Nahyane. Except that the Israeli Prime Minister hammered home the opposite, saying that Israel had “postponed” but “not given up“. “I brought peace, I will achieve annexation,” he summarized.
Yes, solidarity with Palestine is sincere, authentic and mobilizing, but it is not the people who are in charge. Leaders do not have much freedom of decision because the “Arab streets” – as they say so well in the West – are eruptive and if necessary telluric if “red lines” are crossed. Isn’t it the case today, however? After all, didn’t Egypt in 1979, in the wake of the Camp David agreements, and then Jordan in 1994, sign diplomatic normalization agreements with Israel? To this, to be complete, we must add another agreement between Lebanon and Israel, during the Israeli invasion in 1983. This put an end, on May 17, 1983, to the state of belligerence of the two countries involved in the war in Lebanon. It was adopted by the Parliament and then cancelled by the Government on March 5, 1984.
In the case of Egypt and Jordan, a state of war was ended by treaty. In the case of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain today, we find ourselves in a different configuration. The Gulf countries, one after the other, seem to have been assuming a fact that has been implicit for years: marginalization and even a certain lack of interest in the Palestinian question. This state of mind is equally prevalent among Mohamed Ben Salmane (MBS), Saudi Crown Prince, who no longer believes so much in the two-state solution.
According to some analyses, MBS is now counting on a fait accompli on the ground with a balance of power that is unquestionably in favor of Israel and a future in which the Palestinians would be dispersed throughout the countries of the Middle East. An approach that is a complete break with the “Arab Peace Initiative” of 2002 defended at the time by King Abdullah, and which had been rejected by the Israelis. This plan was agreed upon at the Arab Summit held in Beirut and is based on the following principles:
- Total withdrawal from the territories occupied since June 1967;
- Formation of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem (Quds Ash-Sharif) as its capital; and
- A viable and just solution for Palestinian refugees.
This plan was again validated and readjusted at the Arab Summit in Riyadh at the end of March 2007 by all the member states of the Arab League, except for the absent Libya.
You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu
[i] Frederick W. Kagan. “Islamic Republic of Iran. “Critical Threats dated March 1, 2009. https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/political-structures-of-iran
“The Islamic Republic of Iran is a revolutionary theocratic state formed in 1979 following the overthrow of the last Shah (monarch), Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was the leader of the revolution and then of the Islamic Republic until his death in 1989. Khomeini had long opposed the increasingly secular rule of the Shah, for which the Shah exiled him in 1964 first to Turkey and then to Najaf in Iraq. In Najaf, Khomeini perfected the religious philosophy that is the basis of the current Iranian regime. In particular, he established the principle that the only legitimate ruler over a Muslim state is the jurisprudent best qualified to interpret the Qu’ran, the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (hadith) and of the First Imam, Ali ibn Abi Talib, and the traditional behavior of the early Muslim communities (see Islam). This principle, known in Iran as the “guardianship of the jurisprudent” (velayat-e faqih), is an extension of some elements of the Shi’i sect of Islam, but it is not generally accepted outside of Iran. Even within Iran, the only other Grand Ayatollah to accept the principle before the revolution was Hossein-Ali Montazeri, who was to become Khomeini’s designated successor until 1988. The Shi’i clerical establishment in Najaf in particular never accepted this principle, which remains largely unpopular in Iraq. Very few Sunni Muslims have ever accepted it. “
[ii] Tim Arango. “Iran Dominates in Iraq After U.S. ‘Handed the Country Over’. “The New York Times dated July 15, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/15/world/middleeast/iran-iraq-iranian-power.html
“From Day 1, Iran saw something else: a chance to make a client state of Iraq, a former enemy against which it fought a war in the 1980s so brutal, with chemical weapons and trench warfare, that historians look to World War I for analogies. If it succeeded, Iraq would never again pose a threat, and it could serve as a jumping-off point to spread Iranian influence around the region.
In that contest, Iran won, and the United States lost.”
[iii] Full text: Netanyahu’s Speech on Iran in Munich (Munich Security Conference) addressing global leaders, Netanyahu compares Iran to Nazi Germany and threatens action if it continues to build a military presence in Syria. Haaretz, dated February 18, 2018. https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/full-text-netanyahu-s-speech-on-iran-in-munich-1.5826934
[iv] Martin Chulov. “From Tehran to Beirut: Shia militias aim to firm up Iran’s arc of influence. “The Guardian dated June 16, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jun/16/from-tehran-to-beirut-shia-militias-aim-to-firm-up-irans-arc-of-influence
See the following article for an opposite view:
Sarabiev A.V. “The Middle East Shiite Arc: A Real Threat or Geopolitical Chimera? “Moscow University Bulletin of World Politics. 2019;11(2):39-64. (In Russian). https://fmp.elpub.ru/jour/article/view/13?locale=en_US#
[v] Scott Peterson. “How Iran, the Mideast’s new superpower, is expanding its footprint across the region – and what it means. “Christian Science Monitor dated December 17, 2017. https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2017/1217/How-Iran-the-Mideast-s-new-superpower-is-expanding-its-footprint-across-the-region-and-what-it-means.
[vi] Saudi political officials have blamed Iran’s 1979 revolution for triggering the rise in Sunni extremist ideologies. See Patrice Taddonio. “Saudi Official Makes Rare Reflection on Kingdom’s Role in Rise of Extremism. ”Frontline dated February 20, 2018. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/saudi-official-makes-rare-reflection-on-kingdoms-role-in-rise-of-extremism.
[vii] Jeffrey Goldberg. “Iran and the Palestinians Lose Out in the Abraham Accords: From authoritarian leaders to White House aides to the Palestinians, tallying the winners and losers. “The Atlantic dated September 16, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/09/winners-losers/616364/
[viii] Shahzada Rahim. “Arabs have abandoned Palestine longtime ago. “Modern Diplomacy dated September 14, 2020. https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2020/09/14/arabs-have-abandoned-palestine-longtime-ago/
[ix] Aaron David Miller. “How Israel and the Arab World Are Making Peace Without a Peace Deal. “Carnegie Endowment dated May 27, 2020. https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/05/27/how-israel-and-arab-world-are-making-peace-without-peace-deal-pub-81918
“Three significant factors. The rise of Iran and Sunni jihadists spewing terror across the region has created a narrow but important coincidence of interests between Israel and the Arab world. Increasing exhaustion and frustration with the never-ending Palestinian cause has opened up more space for Arab states to follow their own interests. But behind it all, lay a White House enamored of Arab money for arms sales and investment in the U.S. and eager to marshal the Arabs in the service of its anti-Iranian and pro-Israeli agenda. Indeed, in an effort to court the Gulf Arabs, Trump and his Middle East envoy son-in-law Jared Kushner have given the Saudis carte blanche to pursue disastrous policies while holding their coats. And Arab nations, sensing opportunities with an autocrat-friendly U.S. president, have been only too happy to follow. “
[x] Shahzada Rahim. “Arabs have abandoned Palestine longtime ago. “Op. cit.