Is a Strategic Realignment Coming to the Middle East?

Written by: Cooper Stewart

On December 10, 2020, Israel and Morocco agreed to formalize relations with one another in a landmark deal mediated by the United States. This makes Morocco the fourth Arab League member to open official ties with Israel in 2020, following the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, which signed the Abraham Accords in September 2020. Sudan then followed suit, agreed to formalize ties in November, and signed the Abraham Accords on January 6, 2021.

A key stipulation of the Israel-Morocco agreement is the U.S.’s formal recognition of Morocco’s claim to the disputed Western Sahara territory. This recognition is an example of the kinds of benefits Arab nations could receive from normalizing relations with Israel. For the UAE, the U.S. agreed to a $23 billion arms sale to the kingdom that involves F-35 combat aircrafts and advanced drones. Similarly, Bahrain and the U.S. are exploring a possible arms deal. Furthermore, Sudan was officially removed from the U.S.’s list of state sponsors of terrorism and has cleared its debt with the World Bank enabling the nation to loan more than $1 billion annually from the institution.

In broader geopolitical terms, the agreements are an amplification of the U.S. strategy to confront and contain Iran in the Middle East. The normalizations of ties between Arab states and Israel further isolate Iran as it strengthens the cohesion among American allies in the Middle East. Considering how critical American military hardware was for UAE support of the agreement, the Abraham Accords highlight how Arab states wary of an aggressive Iran now see an alliance with Israel as a necessary means to ensure Iran’s containment. This represents a fundamental shift in the dominating geopolitical underpinnings of the region, whereas prior to the Accords, only two Arab League members officially recognized Israel’s existence since many solely recognized Palestine’s claim to sovereignty.

However, the status quo was beginning to change before these agreements were made. Saudi Arabia, a formidable state in the region and a key foe of Iran, traditionally took a hardline stance on Israel and any Arab nations that may support them. This idea was articulated when the Saudi government broke diplomatic ties with Egypt in 1978 when Egypt signed the Camp David Accords, demonstrating their resolve to keep Israel diplomatically isolated. This anti-Israeli attitude has faded to some degree in the 21st century, as Saudi Arabia acknowledged in 2017 that Israelis should be allowed to reside on their land while simultaneously recognizing Palestinian rights to sovereignty.

Although Saudi Arabia has not signed the Abraham Accords, the general shift in Arab attitudes toward Israel coincides with a collective concern over the rise of Iran. Considering that Saudi Arabia is a regional leader that wields tremendous influence over Middle East affairs, a softening stance on Israel could potentially gain traction among other Arab states who look to Saudi Arabia for leadership. Overall, an increasingly hospitable relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia, coupled with growing Arab recognition of Israel, highlight how the Palestinian cause now sees a reduced role in Middle Eastern politics in the wake of a rising Iran. 

The Iranian reaction to multiple Arab states signing the Abraham Accords has been anger and condemnation, as Iran has no formal relations with Israel and considers that nation to be a hostile presence in the Middle East. In the case of Morocco, Iran lamented that the peace settlement is betrayal of the Palestinian people. Iran extended this sentiment in its condemnations of the other agreements made between Israel and Sudan, the UAE, and Bahrain.

Furthermore, the Iranian response to news of the UAE signing the Abraham Accords foreshadows future conflict. Iran warned the UAE that the Abraham Accords will increase tensions in the region and forces them to reevaluate their relationship with the state. This aggressive posturing could potentially result in Iranian retaliation against the U.S. and its regional allies. Iran possesses a navy that has the potential to severely disrupt international shipping in the Strait of Hormuz and has connections to many hostile non-state actors across the region that it can utilize to strike other states far from its border.

Lastly, Iran also has the potential to attack American cyberspace as it has participated in large operations before, targeting both private American companies and the American government over the internet. This potential Iranian response should serve as a warning about the potential risks any strategic realignment could have in the Middle East, as Iran will not accept any Israeli gains without retaliation.