Jordan has a problem with Iran. Can Israel and Saudi Arabia unite to fight it?
In a conversation last week with former US national security adviser HR McMaster, King Abdullah II of Jordan expressed concern that Iranian forces in Syria could soon destabilize his country. Russia may soon redeploy assets and forces from Syria to its bogged down war effort in Ukraine, and Iran is looking to fill the void.
The Jordanian monarch said: “This void [left by the Russians] will be filled by the Iranians and their proxies. So, unfortunately, we may be looking at an escalation of the problems at our borders.”
But challenges can also offer opportunities. In this case, Jordan’s security concerns may help cement an emerging alliance between Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. These two unlikely partners both see Iran as a mortal enemy that threatens the wider Middle East. They both share borders with Jordan. And they both see Jordanian stability as essential to their national security.
Saudi Arabia is already mulling a move in this direction, especially after the signing of the Abraham Accords in September 2020. When neighbors the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain normalized relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia seemed next in line. the list. However, Riyadh’s leaders are acting more slowly and deliberately than their Gulf partners.
A Saudi-Israeli agreement was widely expected during Donald Trump’s second term. But this second term was not to be.
When the Biden administration arrived, the tides turned dramatically. For months, the White House has refused to acknowledge the Trump administration’s normalization achievements (State Department spokesman wouldn’t say the words “Abraham Accords”). The new pacts were clearly not a priority.
That could change now, with reports that the Biden administration is helping broker the transfer of two Egyptian Red Sea islands (Tiran and Sanafir) to Saudi Arabia. The deal requires Israel to join, in line with the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace accord. The deal could be a first step towards normalization.
For Saudi Arabia, this is all a welcome change. During the election campaign, Joe Biden not only shunned the possibility of brokering a normalization deal, he openly vowed to blackball the Saudis in Washington. Once sworn in, Biden followed to the delight of a handful of anti-Saudi lawmakers, releasing known information about the Saudi killing of journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi. After that, the White House withdrew its support for the Saudi war in Yemen and removed the Houthi terror group from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, even as the Houthis fired rockets at civilian and oil infrastructure. saudi.
Things seemed to be bottoming out before the war in Ukraine. The resulting energy crisis, however, prompted the Biden administration to rekindle ties with the government sitting atop the world’s largest proven oil reserves. According to Saudi officials, the relationship is getting back on track.
Meanwhile, Israel continues to demonstrate its value to Saudi Arabia as an ally. In recent years, the Israelis have fought with the Iranians in Syria, in cyberspace, on the high seas and beyond. It is an asymmetrical campaign that the Israelis call “the war between wars”. This proved two things to the Arab states. First, Israel is not afraid to fight Riyadh’s mortal enemy. Second, the Islamic Republic is not as strong as many believed.
All eyes are now on Syria, where Israel has stepped up its strikes against Iranian assets. The pace should quicken if and when Russia redeploys its forces and assets in Ukraine. The freedom of operation could provide new opportunities, even as Iran seeks to expand operations in the war-torn territory.
Part of Iran’s expansion effort, as noted by the Jordanian monarch, includes destabilizing Jordan from the north, where drug traffickers are already wreaking havoc. Jordan also faces a threat from the south, with Iranian assets apparently operating in the Red Sea. All of this amounts to a direct threat to Saudi Arabia and Israel. Both view the Hashemite Kingdom as a valuable asset. Stability at their respective borders is something both countries will protect at great cost.
Building on the momentum of negotiations over the Red Sea islands, the White House has an opportunity to nudge both sides in the right direction. After Abdullah’s recent visit to Washington, the Biden administration renewed its commitment to Jordanian security. Seeking help from Riyadh and Jerusalem, separately and together, is the next logical step.
To be sure, Saudi Arabia and Israel remain suspicious of Biden’s stated intention to re-enter the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Talks have stalled in Vienna over the regime’s demands to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the US terror list. Biden refused, bringing relief to Israelis and Saudis. But the White House has yet to back down from a deal. If a deal were to be reached, the Israelis and the Saudis both fear that the sanctions relief could bring hundreds of billions of dollars to the regime in Tehran. This windfall would only help Iran destabilize Jordan, not to mention other countries in the region.
This is a message that Riyadh and Jerusalem can now convey to Washington. They can also offer an alternative to the Biden administration. They can offer the White House the opportunity to negotiate a new defense pact, leveraging their participation in CENTCOM. Israel was recently added to this strategic region, which has already presented opportunities for Saudis and Israelis to work together.
Saudi Arabia and Israel can also go further. Building on the Red Sea talks, they can now conclude the most important normalization agreement to date. Such a deal would be seen as an unprecedented diplomatic achievement in the region, given Saudi Arabia’s leading role in the Arab world.
For a White House still seeking to differentiate itself from the previous administration, this is the long-awaited moment. And given Saudi Arabia’s leadership role in the Arab and Muslim worlds, it’s not hard to imagine a domino effect, with other countries seeking to follow suit.
Does the road to regional peace pass through Jordan? It’s time for President Biden to find out.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the United States Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president of the nonpartisan Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.