Allies Step Up Confrontation with Iran as U.S. Looks to Scale Back from the Middle East
by Yaakov Lappin
November 14, 2021
In recent months, the United States has sent unmistakable signals that, 20 years after 9/11, the era of its Middle East counter-terrorism mission is drawing to a close.
The August withdrawal from Afghanistan marked the end of an era in which counter-terrorism was the U.S.’s central international focus. It now seems clear that Washington feels that its main global issue is its competition with China.
The new situation is evident to all Middle East actors, and particularly to the two main blocs that are locked in a fateful struggle over the region’s future – Iran’s radical Shi’ite axis and the moderate bloc, which is made up of pragmatic Sunni states and Israel.
With the vast majority of negative developments in the Middle East are linked to Iran, and with Iran building terrorist proxies throughout the region – in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and the Gaza Strip – the need to stop the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) from entrenching itself in the region has become top priority for America’s allies.
Israeli defense officials who look at a map today see Iranians on their northern border, compared to 20 years ago, when Iranians were 1,000 kilometers away in Iran. The chief concern regarding the Islamic Republic in 2001 was its nuclear program. Today, it is both the nuclear program and the Iranian terror armies that are being built throughout the region.
Iran is pursuing a long-term strategy of encircling Israel with armed militias, firepower capabilities, and smuggling arms from its powerful defense industries to its proxies. To that end, Iran is managing a broad proliferation network of advanced weapons across several countries.
America’s shifting focus has its Sunni allies – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan – feeling uneasy, leading American officials to reiterate their commitment to their security, as well as to Israel’s security.
The United States also is committed to maintaining a footprint in the Middle East, with small forces in Iraq and Syria. But ultimately, America’s allies, led by Israel and Saudi Arabia, understand that the time has come to take on more regional challenges by themselves, enabling the U.S. to prioritize other areas.
The Iranian axis, for its part, senses what it perceives as growing American weakness, a development underscored by last month’s armed drone attack on the U.S. military base of Al-Tanf in Syria. The radical Shi’ite axis also is confident enough to try to eliminate regional leaders who are U.S. friendly, as the Nov. 7 armed drone assassination attempt on the Iraqi prime minister in Baghdad’s Green Zone starkly demonstrated.
In response to these developments, the region has seen an intensification of grey zone war fighting between Israel and the Iranian radical axis, particularly in Syria, and an intensification of Saudi-led economic and political pressure against the Iran-Hizballah bloc.
Recent weeks have seen stepped up reported Israeli strikes on Iranian weapons smuggling runs in Syria, including three reported strikes in the past two weeks. Some of those attacks occurred in daytime and early evening hours – an unusual occurrence in Israel’s grey zone campaign to rein in Iran’s takeover attempts of Syria. These unusual timings signal apparent urgency in the intelligence information about the movement of advanced weapons by Iran. The daytime attack on Oct. 30 appears to have been aimed to stop the transfer of advanced weapons to Hizballah’s depots in Lebanon.
In recent days, meanwhile, a major diplomatic, political, and economic crisis erupted between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, after Lebanese Minister of Information George Kordahi defended the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, who routinely target Saudi cities and strategic sites with explosive drones and missiles.
Kordahi, a Maronite Lebanese Christian, belongs to the pro-Hizballah March 8 political camp, and so his anti-Saudi comments are no coincidence. Riyadh wasted little time in responding, expelling the Lebanese ambassador and freezing bilateral trade. The Saudis were joined by their Sunni allies Bahrain, Kuwait, and the UAE, who all expelled Lebanese ambassadors as well, and called on their citizens to depart Lebanon.
According to the Alma Center in Israel, “the economic implication of the trading halt has the potential for an annual loss of Lebanese exports totaling $750 million. And the inability of Lebanese workers in the Gulf (Saudi Arabia alone has about 400,000 Lebanese citizens) to transfer billions of dollars from their salaries to the faltering Lebanese economy, which (to say the least) needs it like breathable air.”
The Sunni countries that have retained their sovereignty in the Middle East are extremely disturbed by Iran’s aggression, and this has led them to cooperate with Israel. A new, moderate regional architecture is taking shape, made up of the Abraham Accord partners who have joined Egypt and Jordan in establishing official ties with Israel.
All of these countries want the same thing: Stability and prosperity in the region. These countries’ anti-Iranian priorities are more important to them than the need to patiently wait for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be resolved before setting up ties with Israel.
The historic visit of the commander of the UAE’s Air Force to Israel last month to attend the Israeli Air Force’s international Blue Flag air drill, is evidence of this trend. According to reports, the Royal Jordanian Air Force also took part in Blue Flag.
While the Israel-Sunni bloc is not an explicit military alliance against Iran, its existence is bad news for the Islamic Republic. Khamenei is unhappy to see growing numbers of states joining the anti-Iran bloc.
Khamenei is likely well aware that this cooperation can evolve into trends that could severely disrupt his long-term hegemonic plans. Gulf states could give Israeli aircraft overflight rights, and could purchase Israeli air defense systems like Iron Dome. Joint military training, and additional capability and technology sharing could follow. As time goes by, Israel and the Sunni states increasingly recognize one another’s comparative advantages. They could also cooperate in intercepting Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles, by pooling together radar data, enabling better tracking and interception abilities.
Israel’s entry into the U.S.’s CENTCOM area of responsibility in September could make such cooperation even more effective.
According to a report by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), reassigning Israel to CENTCOM has the potential to lead to regular combined military exercises among the United States, Israel and partner Arab countries. “Such training would be crucial for developing effective theater missile defenses, as well as boosting readiness and interoperability in cyber, counterterrorism, special operations and maritime security, among other key areas.”
Under CENTCOM, Israel “also could work more closely and effectively with U.S. forces in the Middle East and Arab partner militaries, under U.S. auspices, on regional military aspects of strategic planning, command and control, logistical support, intelligence sharing and even procurement,” said the report.
Ultimately, the fact that Israel is the only state consistently militarily targeting Iranian assets in the region has increased the value of its ‘stock’ in the eyes of Sunni powers, and made them more interested in cooperating with Jerusalem.
With the U.S.’s growing focus on the Far East, America’s Middle Eastern allies are increasingly stepping up to the Iranian challenge by themselves.
IPT Senior Fellow Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the military correspondent for JNS. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence.