By Marc Champion | Bloomberg,
For more than half a century, conflict between Israel and the Arab nations that surround it has been a defining feature of the Middle East, producing periodic wars, lost opportunities for trade and uncountable hours of fruitless diplomacy. The rift is far from resolved. Yet there’s been a shift. Israel has made peace deals with four Arab countries late this year, underscoring that it’s now Iran — rather than Israel — that’s the common enemy uniting many Arab rulers.
1. Why were the new accords a big deal?
Egypt and Jordan normalized relations with Israel in 1979 and 1994, respectively, but other Arab nations said for years that they would withhold recognition of the Jewish state pending the formation of an independent country for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, two territories Israel conquered in a 1967 war. Some Arab states developed covert relationships with Israel, but it was still extraordinary when one of them, the United Arab Emirates, agreed to formalize ties in August. Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco followed, and Israeli officials predicted Oman and Saudi Arabia would be next. The agreements telegraphed that Arab relations with Israel are no longer tied to the Palestinian cause. And they clarified the growing focus of Arab leaders belonging to the Sunni branch of Islam on countering the rise of Persian Iran, whose people are mostly Shiite Muslims.
2. Why is Iran so mistrusted?
Iran’s influence in the Middle East has grown significantly since 2003, when the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq removed its primary foe, the Sunni-dominated regime of President Saddam Hussein. Iranian leaders have since used their control of militias drawn from Iraq’s majority Shiite population to shape governments in Baghdad. In Syria, Iran called on the same Iraqi militias as well as Hezbollah, the militant Shiite Lebanese group, to help preserve its only state ally, President Bashar al-Assad, from defeat in a civil war that began as a popular uprising in 2011. In Yemen, Iran backed Shiite rebels in their fight against forces supported by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in a war that broke out in 2015. The International Institute for Strategic Studies calls Iran’s influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen today “a new normal,” a concept once unthinkable even for leaders in Tehran.
3. What’s the role of the U.S.?
Starting in 2016, the U.S. under President Donald Trump adopted a more aggressive approach to Iran, withdrawing from the nuclear deal world powers had struck with it in 2015. That agreement had released Iran from punishing economic sanctions in exchange for rolling back its nuclear program. Under Trump, the U.S. also dropped its stance of neutrality in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem — claimed as a capital by both sides but controlled by Israel — and downplaying the goal of a two-state solution, under which Israel and the Palestinians were to end their conflict by delineating a new Palestinian state.
4. Do Iran and its foes fight directly?
Since Iran and Iraq battled each other to a standstill at devastating human and economic costs in the 1980s, Iran’s theocratic leaders have avoided direct conflict with the U.S. and its allies in the region, a contest in which they would be spectacularly outgunned. Instead, the Islamic regime has become expert at hybrid warfare. Over time that has included the use of terrorist tactics and proxy militias. The U.S. accused Iran of being behind recent attacks on vessels in the Persian Gulf, U.S. forces in Iraq and targets in Saudi Arabia, including a huge oil-processing facility. The U.S. struck back in January 2020, killing Qassem Soleimani, the general in charge of Iran’s foreign operations. Israel, for its part, has flown numerous bombing missions against Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Syria. In cases where Iran does not deny involvement, it says it is protecting fellow Shiites and allies from U.S., Israeli or Gulf state aggression.
5. Apart from Syria and Iraq, are all Arab governments united against Iran?
No. Oman and Kuwait remain friendly with Iran, as does Qatar, with which it shares a gas field. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic and transport links to Qatar in 2017, in part because they said it was too close to Tehran.
6. Where does this leave Palestinians?
With diminished leverage and poor prospects. Palestinian leaders criticized the accords with Israel for giving the country the benefits of peace without requiring it to relinquish its grip over the lands it seized in 1967. The UAE says it helped the Palestinians as part of its agreement by securing Israel’s promise to freeze a plan to annex part of the West Bank, but for how long is unclear.
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