Is an Anti-Iran Alliance Emerging in the Middle East?

The Limits of Cooperation Between Israel and the Arab States

When Iran directed over 300 missiles and drones at Israel on April 13, Jordan helped fend off the attack. Initial media reports suggested that several other Arab states assisted in Israel’s defense, efforts they later denied. Nonetheless, a chorus of Israeli leaders, as well as some observers in Washington, interpreted these acts as a sign of a major shift. These Arab states, the argument went, would side with Israel if its conflict with Iran continued to escalate. Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi, the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff, declared that Iran’s attack had “created new opportunities for cooperation in the Middle East.” The Institute for National Security Studies, a leading Israeli think tank, declared that “the regional and international coalition that participated in intercepting launches from Iran toward Israel demonstrates the potential of establishing a regional alliance against Iran.”

After Israel responded to the Iranian attack with a relatively limited strike on a military facility in Iran, the Washington Post columnist David Ignatius opined that Israel was “behaving like the leader of a regional coalition against Iran.” With its muted response, he wrote, “it appeared to be weighing the interests of its allies in this coalition—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan—which all provided quiet help in last weekend’s shoot-down.” In Ignatius’s view, this represented a potential “paradigm shift for Israel,” one that would give the Middle East a “new shape.”

These assessments, however, are overenthusiastic and fail to grasp the complexity of the region’s challenges. To be sure, Israel’s future strategy against Iran may take regional considerations into greater account, given the unprecedented nature of April’s military exchanges. But the realities in the region that inhibit Arab-Israeli cooperation have not significantly changed. Even before Hamas’s October 7 attack and Israel’s subsequent war on Gaza, the Arab states that signed the 2020 Abraham Accords, embracing normalization with Israel, were growing frustrated with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s support for expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank and his tolerance for his far-right ministers’ attempts to undermine the status quo in Jerusalem. A string of deadly attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinians in West Bank towns in the spring of 2023 further inflamed regional tensions. After Israel launched its military operations in Gaza in October, prompting waves of protests across the Middle East, Arab leaders became even more hesitant to openly back Israel, aware that open cooperation could hurt their domestic legitimacy.

Nothing about the Arab response to this round of Iranian-Israeli confrontation suggests that these positions have shifted. The group of states that many Israelis reductively refer to as a “Sunni alliance” are, in fact, still seeking to balance their relationships with Iran and Israel, protect their economies and security, and, above all, avert a wider regional conflict. They are also likely to continue to prioritize ending the catastrophic war in Gaza over confronting Iran. Yet with tensions rising between Iran and Israel, the Arab states’ enthusiasm to fast-track Israel’s regional integration is more contingent than ever on Israel’s willingness to accept Palestinian statehood.

BALANCE SCHEME
Ahead of Iran’s April 13 attack on Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) shared intelligence about the impending attack with the United States. The U.S. Central Command then used this information to coordinate its response with Israel and other partners. Jordan allowed U.S. and British military planes into its airspace to head off incoming Iranian drones and missiles and directly intercepted Iranian attacks. Early media reports, particularly in the United States and Israel, stressed that a broad regional effort had thwarted Tehran’s assault.

But it soon became clear that the Arab role in repelling Iran’s attack had been limited. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE explicitly denied making any direct military contribution to Israel’s defense. Jordanian officials defended their participation as necessary to protect their own interests. Jordan’s “security and sovereignty” ranked “above all considerations,” Jordanian King Abdullah II declared, emphasizing that his country had not acted to help Israel.

The efforts that Arab states did make to counter Iran were almost certainly driven by a desire to maintain their relationships with the United States, not to align themselves more closely with Israel. Since Israel launched its operation in Gaza, Arab leaders have been surprised that U.S. President Joe Biden has not had more success restraining Israel’s conduct there. But they are still seeking to deepen their cooperation with Washington; they see no alternative source for the kind of security the United States supplies.

Arab states have decided that rapprochement is the best way to temper the risks Iran poses.
In recent months, Gulf Arab states, as well as Egypt and Jordan, have continued to encourage Washington to help manage the Middle East’s security dynamics, contain Iran’s disruptive activities, and prevent a broader regional war. Ending the war in Gaza remains an urgent regional priority, and Arab states are working toward a peace plan with the Biden administration. Saudi leaders still believe that a bilateral defense treaty with the United States must be part of any future normalization deal with Israel. And the UAE has continued to attempt to negotiate its own defense agreement with the Biden administration.

At the same time, however, Gulf states are now engaging more closely with Tehran. They are well aware that their proximity to Iran puts them at risk. In 2019, after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal that the United States and other major powers had agreed to with Iran, Tehran spread instability throughout the Persian Gulf, attacking ships near UAE ports and, for the first time, launching precision strikes against Saudi oil facilities. After the signing of the Abraham Accords, Tehran also explicitly warned Bahrain and the UAE that an Israeli military presence in the Persian Gulf would constitute a redline for Iran.

Well before Hamas’s October 7 attack, Arab states had generally decided that the best way to temper the risk from an increasingly aggressive Iran was to seek rapprochement, not retribution. The UAE and Saudi Arabia restored their diplomatic ties with Iran in 2021 and 2023, respectively. Since October 7, those countries, along with Bahrain and Oman, have relayed messages and warnings between Iran and Israel and proposed off-ramps to manage tensions. Two days after Iran’s April 13 attack, the Egyptian foreign minister got on the phone with his Iranian and Israeli counterparts to try to contain the escalating conflict.

FUTURE INTERESTS
In the coming months, Arab states are likely to try to sustain this balancing act, calling for restraint on all sides and distancing themselves from further Israeli offensive actions. Should escalation between Iran and Israel continue, they will likely be even more reluctant to support Israeli operations. The domestic costs to them for overtly supporting Israel are likely to rise as time goes on, especially if Israeli forces move into Rafah, the city in southern Gaza where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have taken refuge and where Israel claims that Hamas maintains a stronghold.

Many Arab states share Israel’s concerns about Iran’s regional activities, particularly its support for nonstate militias. But the Gulf Arab states, in particular, have clearly calculated that opening direct diplomatic dialogues, exerting pressure with economic incentives, and conducting backchannel diplomacy with Tehran are the safest ways to protect their interests and prevent the spillover of conflict. No matter how much the Iranian-Israeli conflict escalates, the Arab states are not likely to draw back from these forms of engagement. Their efforts to normalize relations with Iran have only accelerated since the Gaza war began, whereas attempts to normalize their relations with Israel have stalled.

In an effort to motivate Israel to think beyond the Gaza war, Saudi Arabia has continued to dangle the prospect of normalization on the condition that Israel commit to participating in a political process aimed at establishing Palestinian statehood. Israel, however, has ignored these Saudi entreaties, perhaps out of overconfidence that, after the war in Gaza concludes, the normalization process could just pick up where it left off. Further Arab-Israeli normalization is unlikely to happen in this climate. Arab states will continue to cooperate with Washington on missile defense, but this cooperation does not require significant direct coordination with Israel. Nor will it approach the level of a formal defense alliance any time soon. That would require a better alignment of Arab states’ defense systems, as well as far more trust, both of which are lacking in the Middle East and will take time to build.

Should escalation between Iran and Israel continue, Arab states will be even more reluctant to support Israel.
Arab states, especially those in the Gulf, will welcome Israel’s efforts to degrade the capabilities of Iran’s proxies. But they will very likely oppose any direct attacks on Iran that could destabilize the region’s already fragile economic outlook or result in an Iranian counterstrike in the Gulf. Even though Arab states maintain an interest in sustaining close defense ties with Washington, they do not want to join a bloc explicitly working against Iran and its global supporters, such as Russia. They prefer to balance multiple regional and global relationships, not to burn bridges.

Despite these limitations, however, the Arab states can play a crucial role in preventing further escalation between Iran and Israel. Strengthening lines of communication between the two countries—and establishing hotlines for crisis management—is more critical than ever. Precisely because a number of Arab states have nurtured ties with both Iran and Israel, they can leverage these relationships to encourage restraint and help pass messages between the two sides, working to prevent conflict or mitigate the damage if conflict starts to spiral. In the long run, to stabilize the region, Middle Eastern countries must establish their own platform for regular dialogue that would be open to both Iranian and Israeli participation. The latest attacks bringing Iran and Israel to the brink of war only underscore how urgent the need for such dialogue has become.

But the world must temper its expectations for closer cooperation between the Arab states and Israel. The strictly technical cooperation that Arab states and Israel have recently enjoyed on areas of common concern, such as energy and climate change, will likely continue. High-profile regional gatherings, however, that openly advertise the Arab states’ political engagement with Israel are not in the cards unless Israel ends its war on Gaza. Until then, Arab states’ efforts to maintain their economic ties to Israel will also remain limited. A more realistic near-term strategy will prioritize supporting their ability to mediate—and prevent—future conflicts between Iran and Israel.

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