Jostling between the US, Israel and Iran The Excelsior 13 Feb 2024
The Middle East was witnessing a period of reproachment. Saudi Arabia and the Houthi’s had agreed to a peace deal, resulting in ceasing of Houthi drone attacks on the kingdom. Relations between Riyadh and Tehran were on the mend as were ties between the UAE and Iran. Turkey was looking to normalize relations with Egypt, while the US was pushing for a deal whereby it would provide security guarantees to Saudi Arabia as also civil nuclear energy, in return for its recognition of Israel. This would have changed the character of the region.
Then came the Hamas attack on Israel. For Hamas, normalization of ties between Riyadh with Tel Aviv could spell doom to the Palestinian cause, as Riyadh’s support is essential. Much of it has now been put on hold. Saudi Arabia refuses to move forward until the war ends, the Palestinian issue is resolved and a two-state solution arrived at. This ensures that Iran is now not the only nation unwilling to normalize ties with Israel.
The drone attack on the US base in Jordan on 28th Jan, resulting in deaths of three US troops and injuring forty, opened doors for US retaliation. President Biden announced that the US would target Iranian proxies (termed as the ‘axis of resistance’) in the region. On being questioned on his decision, Biden stated, ‘I do hold them (Iran) responsible in the sense that they’re supplying weapons to the people who did it. I don’t think we need a wider war in the Middle East.’ Iran denied involvement in the attacks.
There was a gap between Biden’s announcement and US strikes possibly to enable Iran to pull its military personnel out from the camps of its proxies. The US, aware that the proxies were being armed by Iran, was unwilling to enlarge the conflict by engaging Tehran directly.
Iran is also avoiding getting involved in conflict with the US, preferring to employ its proxies. US troops deployed in bases in Iraq, Syria and Jordan could face multiple attacks in retaliation in case it launches an aerial assault on Iran.
Simultaneously, Israel, fighting the Hamas in Gaza, has been launching air and missile strikes on Hezbollah positions in Lebanon and army camps in Syria, all Iranian proxies or allies. For Israel, Iranian expansion into Syria is a matter of concern. A recent Israeli strike in Damascus, Syria, killed five Iranians armed forces personnel, over which Iran promised a credible response.
To add to the confusion, from Mid-November, Houthi’s from Yemen, again an Iranian proxy, have begun targeting commercial shipping in the Red Sea. The US and Britain have launched a series of air strikes on Houthi positions, but these have failed to deter them. If shipping companies abandon the Red Sea, it would increase consumer prices as also impact global shipping. Delays in production due to ships taking the alternate route via the cape of Good Hope is already visible. Other nations, including India, not part of the US security initiative, have deployed naval assets to support commercial shipping.
The Houthi’s have stated that their action is in support of Gazans and would continue till Israel declares a ceasefire. While they claim to target Israel interests, however their attacks have been at random. Reports indicate that Iran continues to supply weaponry to the Houthi’s enabling them to keep the west engaged.
US attacks on Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria were criticized by both these nations as also Iran, while backed by the EU. In the UN Security Council, Russia led the charge against the US, claiming it violated the sovereignty of Iraq and Syria. Post the strikes, the US defence spokesperson stated, ‘We had good effects and the strikes destroyed or functionally damaged more than 80 targets at seven facilities. There will be additional actions taken to hold the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) and affiliated (Iranian) militias accountable for their attacks on U.S. and coalition forces.’
Attempts at pushing for peace in the Middle East by the US has come to naught. The US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, who made his fifth visit to the region, since war broke out, suggested a ceasefire proposal put forth by Qatar and Hamas, but was rebuffed by Netanyahu who vowed to continue fighting until Israel achieves ‘absolute victory.’ Continuation of conflict and increased civilian casualties will enhance tensions in the region, opening doors for Iranian proxies to play a larger role.
Instability in the Middle East benefits Iran, which has worked to be an influential player. It also pushes Iranian security concerns away from its borders as it compels the west to challenge its proxies, spread across the Middle East, leaving Iran to concentrate on its internal problems. Attacking Iran would imply an enlarged war enabling their proxies to play a decisive role. Thus, the US is avoiding engaging Iran. US and Israel’s concentration towards the Middle East enables Tehran to enhance its nuclear enrichment to the point where it can develop its nuclear weapons.
Israel, which had sworn to deny Iran a nuclear weapon is watching from the sidelines as it manages its own conflict. It cannot afford to target Iran at this stage. The general Middle East population visualizes Israel as an occupier, are pro-Palestine, and have largely been against reproachment of Arab states with Israel. The continuing deaths of Gazans in Israeli air assaults would have only hardened this belief.
For them, Iran is no longer be a pariah state as it has backed anti-Israel forces. Supporting proxies has been a low-cost strategy of Iran, which has provided it with leverage in the Middle East, despite the fact that in some cases, its proxies tend to ignore its instructions.
Israel has always believed that it alone should dominate the region maintaining control over Palestine as also some form of oversight on Lebanon and Syria, which have ties with Iran. The US has sought to isolate Iran by having Arab states forge diplomatic ties with Israel. Iran, which considers Israel and the US as its sworn enemies and challenges them by employing its proxies will work to prevent them from succeeding. The three nations will continue jostling for dominance in the Middle East without engaging directly.