Anshel Pfeffer

Israel’s Arab-Sunni alliance is piling pressure on Iran

Israeli PM Naftali Bennett prepares to travel to Bahrain (Getty images)

The world’s eyes are, naturally, all on Ukraine. But elsewhere in Europe, diplomats are locked in a series of talks to prevent an altogether different war in another region. In a hotel in Vienna, negotiators from Britain, Germany, France, Russia and China have been meeting their Iranian counterparts. In an adjacent hotel, negotiators from the United States are waiting to see Iran’s latest proposals. This is the eighth — and perhaps the last — round of talks which have gone on intermittently for the past ten months over the potential return of the US to the Iranian nuclear agreement, which Donald Trump’s administration withdrew from in 2018.

The expectation last week was that a deal was about to be reached: Joe Biden had already made it clear he was determined to salvage his old boss, Barack Obama’s main foreign policy legacy — engagement with Iran. But as the hours passed and Iran kept adding demands for the immediate removal of American sanctions as a precondition for the resumption of controls on its nuclear programme, talks in Vienna came to a standstill. Then began the usual series of reports of a ‘critical stage’ and leaks of draft agreements. At any moment we may hear of a final breakthrough or that the sides are going home without a deal.

Some 2,400 miles away, however, not far from Iran’s shores, separate talks were progressing. Naftali Bennett landed last Monday in Manama for the first visit by an Israeli prime minister to the tiny kingdom of Bahrain. A couple of years ago such a trip would have been unthinkable.

Israel’s relations with the Sunni-Arab states in the Persian Gulf were kept well beneath the radar. They may have shared an enemy in Shia Iran, but 70 years of Arab hostility towards the Jewish state was deemed an obstacle to open relations.

Israel’s relations with the Sunni-Arab states in the Persian Gulf were kept well beneath the radar

All that was changed by Trump’s foreign policy, which reversed Obama’s course, and focused on building an anti-Iran axis in the region. In what has grandly been called ‘the Abraham Accords’, the United Arab Emirates, the thrusting new power-base in the Persian Gulf, signed a diplomatic agreement with Israel, and Bahrain joined in as well.

Suddenly, the arrival of an Israeli leader, greeted by a guard of honour and military band playing Israel’s national anthem at the palace of Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, is the new normal in the Middle East. Bahrain may be one of the smallest Arab countries, but it has plans to become a major trading hub in the region, taking advantage of its location on a peninsula just off Saudi Arabia, in the centre of the Persian Gulf.

The youthful and exuberant Bennett isn’t one to hide his feelings after a day of meetings with the Bahraini leadership and a reception with the king. He told us reporters that ‘for an Israeli of my generation who grew in the 1980s, this is big stuff’. A more discreet member of his delegation with a long record of secret meetings in this region cast an eye over the waters of the Persian Gulf, where Iran is hidden behind the mist on the horizon, and told me: 

‘We’re really sticking it to the Iranians just by being here.’

Someone in Tehran is feeling the pressure, and on Thursday and Friday Iranian drones, operated by its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, flew over Israel’s northern border. They didn’t seem to have a set target, beyond making a statement. This isn’t the same kind of incident we’ve seen in recent months and years in the Gulf, where swarms of Iranian-made drones, operated in this case by the Houthi rebels in Yemen, hit targets and caused casualties, just as they have done previously with Iranian rockets. But it was a stark reminder that proliferation is not just of nuclear knowhow. Drone warfare by its very nature is extremely mobile and can easily be subcontracted to helpful proxies, which is what Iran has done.

Israel has been facing Iranian rockets and drones used by Hezbollah to the north and Hamas to the south for decades now. It has developed a number of missile-defence systems, the most well-known of which is Iron Dome, to counter this threat. A potentially even more efficient defence in the shape of a mobile laser interceptor will be fielded next year near Israel’s border with Gaza. For now, this missile shield covers only Israeli territory. But as Israel’s alliance with the Arab-Sunni nations intensifies, a regional defence umbrella, utilising Israeli technology and paid for with Arab Gulf money, is no longer the stuff of fantasy. Some have even been calling it a ‘Middle East Nato’.

In another sign of the new regional norm, earlier this month it was announced that for the first time an Israeli officer would be stationed permanently in an Arab country. The officer will be part of the US-led international naval taskforce based in Bahrain to enforce freedom of navigation in the Gulf. Not so long ago this would have been unthinkable.

In their public statements, the Israelis and Bahrainis mentioned Iran only fleetingly, preferring to talk in the open about flights and commerce. In private Iran is front and centre, and the security and economic issues are entwined. Bahrain is a Sunni monarchy with a Shia majority. Iran is not just across the Gulf. It’s an internal threat. Which is why the Saudis promptly sent their security forces over the King Fahd Causeway in 2011 when protests broke out and Bahrain looked for a moment like it may be swept up in the ‘Arab Spring’ upheavals. Bahrain remains something of a Saudi protectorate, and the Israelis wouldn’t be visiting here so openly if Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hadn’t quietly given his endorsement.

The unruly MBS is still meeting Israeli leaders only in secret. He is, of course, a pivotal part of the new Sunni-Israel alliance, but formal ties will have to wait until his more conservative father, King Salman, shuffles off the scene. The Crown Prince is currently an international pariah due to his involvement in the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Biden refuses even to speak with him over the phone. An official treaty with Israel can’t happen until he is once again received at the White House. So for now, the Emiratis and Bahrainis are MBS’s proxies.

The new Sunni-Israeli alliance against Iran is part of a much wider tectonic shift in the region — and Bahrain is a focal point. Bahrain’s main port houses the base of the American Fifth Fleet, which Bennett also visited during his trip. Next door is the Royal Navy’s HMS Juffair base. The Russians now have air and sea bases in Syria, a reward for saving the Syrian regime, while China has a new base in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa. Both countries are backing Iran as part of their long-term strategies of disrupting American global influence. Obama spoke of a ‘pivot to Asia’, but that pivot still moves through the Middle East.

Under its previous prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel focused mainly on Iran’s nuclear programme. Bennett has broadened Israeli strategy and is putting more emphasis on countering Iran’s regional ambitions, both through covert operations and open alliances. Whatever the outcome of the Vienna talks and the future of Iran’s nuclear programme, the Islamic Republic will remain the region’s main disruptor and is just as likely to provide a battlefield for the next major conflict as Ukraine.

Written by
Anshel Pfeffer

Anshel Pfeffer is the Israel correspondent for the Economist, a correspondent for British and Israeli newspapers and the author of Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.

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