US resets the containment of Iran

Israel’’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (R) welcomes UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan at  the Negev Summit, March 27, 2022.

The summit of Arab diplomats on March 27-28 hosted by Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in the southern Negev Desert is doubtless a landmark event. The UAE’s Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Bahrain’s Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, Morocco’s Nasser Bourita, and Egypt’s Sameh Shoukry are the Arab participants, while the visiting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken becomes the sole “extra-regional” participant.

The expectation that more West Asian countries would join the Abraham Accords failed to materialise, but the security and military ties between Israel, UAE, Bahrain — and Saudi Arabia behind the curtain — have deepened. Egypt also joins the nascent partnership.

There is much symbolism surrounding the venue of the Arab-Israeli summit: Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, lived at Sde Boker and he is buried there, overlooking the Zin wilderness. Lapid hopes to take his guests to visit the gravesite. 

To be sure, wherever Blinken goes, the agenda would include Ukraine conflict and he is sure to make a pitch for isolating Russia and urge his Arab interlocutors to join Western efforts in support of Ukraine, but it has had limited success even with his Israeli hosts, much less so with the US’ Arab allies. 

For a variety of reasons, Israel is wary of antagonising Russia (although under US pressure it set up a field hospital inside Ukrainian territory to treat those injured by Russian forces and has also sent several shipments of humanitarian supplies to the war zone.) Israel has refused repeated requests from Kiev for weapons. 

Israel also opted out of imposing sanctions against Russian oligarchs. This rankles the Biden administration. The acerbic tongue of US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland lashed out during a Channel 12 interview, “You (Israel) don’t want to become the last haven for dirty money that’s fuelling Putin’s wars.” 

Israel ignored her barb. Israel sought a mediatory role in the conflict initially but lately stepped back, and, at any rate , Russia does not really need mediators to bring this conflict to an end once its special operation is successfully concluded. On the whole, Israel tries to walk a tightrope to maintain good relations with both Ukraine and Russia. 

As for Gulf states, they do not even pretend to take a neutral stance. None of them has rallied to the western call to impose sanctions against Russia. The foreign ministers of Qatar and the UAE visited Moscow recently to discuss expansion of bilateral relations. 

The crux of the matter is that the major oil producing countries of the Gulf would have congruence of interests with Russia to preserve OPEC+ not only to maintain their present income level, but also are in anticipation of the lifting of US sanctions against Iran leading to full flow of Iranian crude back into the global oil markets. 

The point is, Iran remains a great oil power, with an estimated 157 billion barrels of proven crude oil reserves, nearly 10 percent of the world’s total and 13 percent of those held by the OPEC. Its habitation within the OPEC+ is an absolute must for all oil producing countries. Now, Russia has a major role to play to leverage both short-term and longer-term bearish effects of Iran’s entry on global oil prices. 

Experts estimate that Iran could see an 80 percent recovery of full oil production within six months and a 100 percent recovery within 12 months, and in the immediate terms, once sanctions are lifted, its overnight impact may already manifest as a 5-10 percent fall in the oil prices. 

Nonetheless, Ukraine conflict aside, the real significance of the Israel-Arab diplomatic summit in the Negev Desert should be sought somewhere else. Prima facie, it is a diplomatic coup for Israel, as its efforts to integrate into the Arab family are making progress. What lends enchantment to the view is that this bucks the overall trend of the US’ regional influence in West Asia. 

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s accent on diplomacy to win friends and influence neighbours is proving productive and Israel is no longer depending on the US to cut new paths for it to navigate as a regional state. This is a paradigm shift. 

Principally, Israel taps into the angst in the Arab world that Iran is poised to surge as a regional power very shortly and the future trajectory of Iranian policies remain unclear. In fact, this is the leitmotif of the diplomatic event in the Negev Desert. 

In immediate terms, Israel and the Arab states believe that the intensifying drone attacks by the Houthis lately is only possible with the help and even participation by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which provides missiles, rockets, drones, intelligence equipment and training. They apprehend that Iran’s resistance politics are signalling a new cutting edge, as the recent missile strike on alleged Israeli assets in Erbil in northern Iraq showed.

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE have been depending on US-made anti-missile defences, mainly the Patriot systems, but their performance so far has been less than satisfactory. Thus, a stunning idea has taken shape lately in the nature of building an architecture of “joint air defences” between Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. 

After all, Israel has the expertise in developing a multi-layered air defence system devolving upon the famous Iron Dome, David’s Sling systems (which can intercept missiles up to 200km away) and Arrow batteries, which are capable of intercepting and destroying long-range missiles at ranges of up to 2,000km, including ballistic missiles. The three layers of Israeli systems are integrated and assisted by advanced radars and other early warnings equipment. 

Interestingly, coincidence or not, the Israeli air defences are also linked to a powerful American radar, stationed in the Negev Desert which is where the Arab diplomats from Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE have gathered for the 2-day event.

Blinken’s mission at the summit is principally to get the regional allies accustomed to the imminent conclusion of the negotiations at Vienna leading to the removal of US sanctions against Iran. The Biden administration is yet to take the plunge on lifting the designation of the IRGC as a “Foreign Terrorist Organisation”. The US’s regional allies, especially Israel, have opposed such a move tooth and nail. 

But the US has a sense of urgency about Iran’s increased oil output entering the world market. That said, however, Washington’s containment policy against Iran is not going to be mothballed. Rather, it will continue in a newer form. In fact, the lifting of sanctions without any reciprocal assurances from Tehran as regards its regional policies necessitates that the containment strategy will have to remain as the US’ geopolitical tool for the foreseeable future.  

The Arab-Israeli summit with Blinken’s participation underscores that the US-Iran entanglement is being reset. There is no question that the JCPOA is of vital importance to check Iran’s nuclear programme. Israel also tends to go along with that thinking lately. The Abraham Accords is providing the foundation for a new US-backed security architecture in West Asia to counter Iran.