Israeli-Iranian escalation | motives and repercussions on Gulf security
Away from the tensions in Iran’s nuclear file, and Europe’s endeavours and the US’ desire to find a diplomatic solution to this file, tension has escalated in the Gulf waters between Tehran and Tel Aviv. This came after a merchant ship belonging to the Israeli company - Helios Ray Ltd - was subjected to two unknown explosions in the Gulf of Oman waters on February 26. Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, accused Iran of being responsible for the explosions and threatened retaliation.
Iran rejected the accusations and Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Saeed Zadeh, accused Israel in a press conference following the incident of seeking to destabilise security in the Gulf region. He highlighted the importance of the Gulf waters’ security for Iran, and Tehran's ability to respond accurately and directly against any threat in the region.
This attack, which is the first of its kind targeting an Israeli ship in the Gulf waters, comes as a continuation of the increasing escalation between Iran and Israel. The incident was followed by Israeli raids in response to the bombing that targeted Iran’s interests in Syria. This demonstrates the continuing escalation between Tehran and Tel Aviv, far from the ongoing peaceful negotiations to address the nuclear file.
Will there be an Israeli response to the attack? How big will this response be? Will the Gulf states be affected if any decision is taken against Iran, and to what extent?
A narrative of Israeli-Iranian tension in the region
Since the withdrawal of the US from the nuclear agreement in 2018 under former President Trump, tension has increased in the Gulf waters, and military moves in the region have multiplied. In addition to increasing US presence in the Gulf waters, Israel began to move its submarines towards it, placing its military forces on alert. This all followed the killing of Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, on 27 November 2020, where Iran accused Israel of carrying out his assassination.
Israeli movement extended from its military presence at sea to its direct targeting of Iran’s naval vessels or vessels serving Iran’s interests in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. This was revealed by the US Wall Street Journal on 11 March 2021, where it stated that Israel has targeted at least 12 Iranian oil tankers, or ships carrying Iranian oil bound for Syria, since late 2019.
Israel’s military action has expanded lately to include striking Iranian sites in Syria. Israel’s annual army report for 2020 confirmed the aiming of more than 50 targets in Syria, without providing details. However, reports from inside Syria indicated that there were casualties from pro-Iran elements; the destruction of several weapon stores run by Iran; as well as losses among the Syrian regime forces by several strikes. The most violent of these strikes was on 13 January 2021 where Israel targeted weapon stores and military sites, resulting in the death of at least 57 people.
In addition to its military operations, Israel is constantly demonstrating its readiness to do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The Israeli Chief of Staff, Aviv Kochavi, stated in a speech at the National Security Research Centre last January that the Israeli army is ready to confront any Iranian nuclear threat. He also announced that they have possible scenarios to launch operations against Iran if they get closer to obtaining a nuclear bomb.
In an interview with Fox News on March 5, the Israeli Defence Minister, Benny Gantz, also confirmed that the Israeli army is updating its plans to strike Iran’s nuclear sites and is ready to operate independently. The Israeli Defence Minister accused Hezbollah in Lebanon of possessing hundreds of thousands of rockets which could be directed at civilian targets in Israel, and showed his country's readiness to strike Hezbollah targets along the Israeli borders.
In the context of Israel’s threat of being ready to confront Iran, they announced their intention to establish a security alliance, similar to NATO, to deal with Iran’s growing threat in the region. Gantz announced on 2 March 2021 on official Israeli radio that his country seeks to establish a security arrangement with several Gulf countries, without naming them, to confront Iran's efforts in the region.
The Israeli radio revealed a secret meeting between Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Israeli Defence Minister Gantz to discuss the idea of security cooperation to confront Iran. They also announced talks by high-level officials of a number of Arab countries with their Israeli counterparts to consult on the same issue. At the forefront of these talks were the phone conversations between Netanyahu and Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, and between Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi and his Emirati and Omani counterparts Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Yusef bin Alawi respectively.
In response, Iran warned against destabilising the region’s security and stability, and affirmed that it would not allow it. Former Iranian Defence Minister and member of the Iranian Expediency Council, Ahmed Wahidi, declared in a statement on RT channel on March 3, that in the event that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain enter into an alliance against Iran, they will receive very strong blows.
Reasons for escalation
The security of the Arab region, along with its borders, has become more vulnerable to direct penetration or attacks by enemies of the countries in the region. This comes as a result of the spread of chaos in a number of countries and the absence of a joint action plan to deal firmly with security threats, as well as the stagnation of the role of Arab entities in protecting countries of the region from the increased external interference in its affairs.
While Iran was able to penetrate the Arab region by adopting a hostile policy towards Israel and emerging as a protector of Muslim land and its sanctities, Israel’s moved towards increasing normalising relations with a number of Arab countries. These steps are in pursuit of establishing a comprehensive recognition from all countries of the region, and even extended to penetrate Arab unity by creating alliances far from those that were based on the centrality of the Palestinian cause.
In light of the volatile conditions in a number of countries in the region, the statements between Tel Aviv and Tehran regarding military action between them escalates as the two sides push towards mobilising the region towards a new conflict. Each side seeks to show its ability to mobilise the countries of the region against the other side. Israel appears as a regional power capable of gathering the regional countries in one front against Iran, while Iran appears as a regional power capable of drying up Israel through its loyalist elements present throughout the Arab region.
Despite the high level of escalation between Tehran and Tel Aviv lately, the two sides have maintained clear limits to the escalation without allowing the situation between them to turn into a direct confrontation. Therefore, it can be said that the main objective of the current escalation between the two parties is the eagerness of each of them to exercise their influence in the Arab region and to protect their national interests.
A number of other causes may be considered:
1- Coordination of efforts between Washington and Tel Aviv in confronting Iran’s moves by authorising Tel Aviv to play a military role in the region, imposing more pressure on Iran. This could serve the Biden administration with regards to managing the nuclear file that was confirmed by the Israeli Foreign Ministry's announcement on 2 March 2021. The announcement indicated that understandings were reached with Washington stipulating that neither party makes surprising moves with anything related to the nuclear deal negotiations.
2- The instability of the domestic situation in Israel as it approaches the holding of a fourth election within only two years at the end of March, allowing political opponents to use Iran’s threat to enhance their chances in the elections. This is evident in the statements of the Israeli leaders competing in the elections about Iran’s threat and their plans to confront it.
3- Iran is about to hold presidential elections in mid-June of this year, and the competitors are trying to exploit external influences domestically. While conservatives tend to exploit the current administration’s inability to achieve anything pertaining to Iran’s nuclear file, lifting sanctions, and responding to Israeli threats to consolidate their position in the elections; the reformists are trying to strengthen their position by being able to obtain understandings with Washington that leads to the lifting of sanctions and ending the social and economic crises besides the clashes with Israel, demonstrating the government's ability to defend Iran's interests and security.
Repercussions of Israeli’s moves on the security of the Gulf states
The Middle East region is witnessing a radical shift in its political relationship with Israel which began with the Camp David agreement between Egypt and Israel in 1978, and was followed by the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel in 1994. This expanded to include the normalisation of relations with a number of Gulf and Arab countries by the end of 2020.
The political ability of Israel to expand the scope of its recognition among countries of the Arab region (especially the Gulf states) under many pretexts, and facing Iran’s threat to the region, may negatively affect the unity of the Arab and Gulf body. This is because of the opposing positions in the normalisation with Israel, which could lead to the elimination of a unified Arab and Gulf vision towards common issues in the Arab region.
Both sides exploit the expansion of normalisation from political, military and other aspects to divert the battlefield to the water and Gulf borders. Thus, exposing the security of the Gulf to military penetration with any escalation between the two sides.
Iran seeks to counter any Israeli move in alliance with some Gulf countries by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz which would cause the blocking of the flow of oil. This could cause great damage to the economy of these countries, and indeed, may extend to the global economy and the international movement of oil.
If the security coordination project is established under Israeli leadership, the instability in the Arab Gulf region may worsen because the alliance is confined to a few countries in the region in face of other regional states. This may lead to an increase in the security turmoil in the region resulting from opposing military alliances and intensified military anticipation, negatively affecting development and construction plans and budgets of the countries of the region.
It is worth considering the exchanging roles between the US and Israel in managing the nuclear file, in which one side practices diplomacy and the language of negotiation, and the other threatens with force and military strikes. This essentially imposes diplomatic blackmail on the Gulf states, where in order to defend their security and the stability of their borders, they increase their military purchase from the US. Furthermore, they may interact with the Israeli project to provide logistical and military support to counter any military escalation by Iran in the region.
Although an all-out war between Israel and Iran, which would impact all countries in the region (especially the Gulf ones), is excluded, it is expected that the two sides will continue to exchange threatening statements and escalate military alertness. In the event of clashes or strikes between them, the purpose would be limited to sending warning messages and demonstrate capabilities, without being drawn into a direct confrontation.
The continued escalation between Tehran and Tel Aviv aims to maintain the media and political exploitation of the dispute between them, with the aim of achieving internal and external gains for both sides. In all cases, the threat of an external penetration that weakens the states’ sovereign ability continues to face the Gulf and Arab countries’ security. Therefore, countries of the region should reactivate a joint Arab action plan and restore a unified coordination amongst them to ensure the stability of the region and protect their national interests, instead of relying on temporary external alliances that consider their interests only.
Gulf states should also pressure the European negotiators in Iran’s nuclear file to include the countries of the region - Saudi Arabia in particular - in a new agreement that guarantees the national and security interests of the Gulf. If the Gulf states are unable to participate in a new nuclear agreement, they should proceed to initiate direct talks with Iran, involving regional countries who could sponsor these talks, to guarantee the stability, sovereignty and security of all countries in the region.