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The well-coordinated show of force comes at a time when Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have again extended that country’s civil war by firing missiles at targets inside the United Arab Emirates in recent weeks. It happened during a visit by Israeli President Isaac Herzog in the UAE, activating defenses at a base that houses American soldiers.
The backdrop to all these postures is the international haggling over Iran’s nuclear program, who reached a critical period. After long delays and a month of talks, negotiators from Iran, the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany returned home on January 28 to brief their governments on the progress made and unresolved sticking points.
An agreement by all parties to renew the 2015 nuclear deal would certainly cool the rising security temperature in the region, but there are two main hurdles.
First, the United States 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 that the Americans will not promise not honor?
Second, Iranian leaders can be confident that their economy can withstand the pressure of continued, if not intensified, US sanctions. Oil prices, now at their highest level in years, are bringing new revenue to Tehran’s coffers. Russia and China have struck new trade deals with Iran, and its nuclear program is advancing rapidly. Moreover, Iran has already endured so much economic pain that its leaders can calculate that it can tolerate this misery indefinitely.
The United States and Iran could still reach an agreement, especially since the terms of the agreement will expire in 2026 anyway, and neither party will have to remain attached to the terms for long. Getting to “yes” could postpone a crisis that no one around the table wants.
But if negotiations fail, it will matter far more than Israel, the Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and the United States are all working together to increase military pressure on Iran. No one wants a war that could quickly destabilize the entire Middle East, but Israel and the Saudis will not sit idly by as Iran piles up enough highly enriched uranium for several bombs, spins centrifuges progress and is getting closer than ever to the unveiling of a nuclear weapon.
In short, if there is no deal in the coming weeks, all sides will brace for real trouble, which could start with increasingly sophisticated cyber attacks and sabotage strikes on the ground. interior of Iran. The risk of spillover into a larger conflict cannot be ignored.
Increased cooperation between Israel and Gulf states could also come with a big silver lining for peace in the region. First, the normalization of relations between the Israeli and Arab governments creates great trade and investment opportunities that drive growth across the region. The Israeli government has opened formal relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in 2020.
Second, at a time when the United States is less willing to accept the risks of conflict management in the Middle East, the alignment between the Israelis, the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates – with the support of the United States – could still persuade Iran to avoid fights it cannot win.
Israel conducted naval exercises with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in November 2021, and Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz this week signed a defense cooperation agreement with Bahrain. And these historic naval exercises will advance cooperation.
For now, however, it is the fate of the nuclear deal that will determine the height of mercury in the Middle East this year.