Iran’s Crisis of Legitimacy
An Embattled Regime Faces Mass Protests—and an Ailing Supreme Leader
On February 3, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that a predawn raid by U.S. Special Forces in northern Syria had resulted in the death of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, the leader of the Islamic State (or ISIS). The surprise operation was a powerful reminder that despite frequent claims about its retreat from the Middle East, the United States continues to have the most capable military forces in the region among the world powers. But the raid was also notable for how unusual it was: in recent years, the United States has often seemed reluctant to employ those forces for strategic purposes.
As Washington increasingly shifts its attention to Asia, the Middle East has slid down its priority list. The Ukraine crisis has exacerbated the slide, drawing urgent attention to Europe. Accordingly, there have been growing questions about what this means for Middle Eastern security, particularly for Washington’s longtime ally Israel. Noting decade-long statements about pivoting to Asia, and observing the U.S. withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, many commentators have suggested that the United States was leaving the region. Indeed, some fighter jets and missile defense batteries have been removed from Middle Eastern bases. Yet the larger story is less about actual military assets than about the appetite to use them. As the recent raid in Syria demonstrated, the United States can still effectively “bite” when it wants to. The more important issue, then, is given Washington’s diminishing interest in direct military engagement, how do the region’s powers reshape their own security policies?
For Israel, this question carries particular importance. It is clear that Washington and Jerusalem continue to share many common security concerns: maintaining regional stability, countering Iran’s nuclear ambitions and proxy warfare, promoting a safe global commons, and fighting terrorism. Yet waning U.S. engagement in the Middle East has emboldened Iran, which is posing a growing threat to Israel and other nations throughout the region. For Jerusalem, this new reality holds large perils but also significant promise. Even as it continues to benefit from U.S. assistance and backing, Israel has sought new regional partnerships to buttress its security. And in a future in which the United States is increasingly standing back, stepping up these relationships will be an essential part of Israel’s security strategy.
While U.S. military superiority in the Middle East remains unquestioned, Washington’s choices in recent years have shown that its willingness to use force is limited and diminishing. The Obama administration succeeded in disarming most of Syria’s chemical arsenal under threat of attack, yet it failed to strike after the Assad regime crossed the redline and used these weapons against the Syrian opposition. In January 2020, the Trump administration executed a stunning strike on Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of an Iraqi Shiite militia, yet it failed to respond to Iran’s attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities and on the U.S. RQ-4 Global Hawk drone in 2019. The Biden administration, despite its recent raid in northern Syria, insists on not being drawn into a tit for tat with Iran and its proxies’ recurring attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria. Following several Houthi drone and missile attacks on the United Arab Emirates, including on the U.S. Al Dhafra Air Base, the United States supported Emirati air defenses and sent the USS Cole and some F-22 jets to the UAE. But reportedly, these assets were not used in any offensive action.
In these and other recent examples, governments in the region have begun to doubt the resolve of the United States as a security guarantor. Although U.S. officials continue to stress Washington’s commitment to allies’ security, there has been a growing perception that the United States is absent without leaving. Even with the presence and might of its military forces, the United States suffers from a deterrence deficit and its reputational footprint in the region is shrinking. And although China and Russia are increasingly engaged in the region, neither appears able or willing to take on a major new military role in the Middle East. As a result, a few jackals have become more daring in the face of an evidently uneager lion.
Iran has been emboldened by flagging U.S. interest in the Middle East.
Iran, in particular, has been emboldened by the perception of flagging U.S. interest in the Middle East. In its military activities, Iran continues to provide drones, rockets, missiles, military training and support to a growing number of proxy militias in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and the Palestinian theaters. Tehran has also stepped up its proxy attacks on Saudi and Emirati targets, U.S. forces in the region, and, occasionally, maritime targets, such as Emirati vessels and merchant ships belonging to Israelis. A recent Iranian military exercise called “Great Prophet 17” was an effort to showcase a potentially devastating response to forces throughout the region, including Israel, if they dare to tackle Iran and its nuclear program.
At the same time, Iran has taken a notably harder line with its nuclear program. In talks with the world powers and indirectly with the United States over resuming the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran has insisted on a total lifting of sanctions but has shown little willingness to give much ground on its nuclear capabilities. Even as the talks are underway, Iran has accelerated its uranium enrichment to 60 percent purity, just below the level needed for a bomb, allowing it to remain just months or even weeks away from having enough fissile material for its first nuclear weapon. In the absence of stronger pressure from the United States that is backed by a credible threat of military force, Iran continues to violate the limitations set forth in the 2015 nuclear deal while harassing and crippling the International Atomic Energy Agency’s monitoring of its nuclear program.
Tehran’s growing assertion of power has already been felt across the region. Some Arab countries have softened their approach in an effort to avoid confrontation. Notably, the UAE, which remained a vocal opponent of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood through much of the Trump years, pulled out of the war in Yemen against the Iran-backed Houthis in 2019 and has since signed a maritime security memorandum with Iran. This thaw with Tehran has done little to protect Abu Dhabi from Houthi drone and missile attacks launched from Yemen using Iranian weapons. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, which has often been Iran’s most bitter rival in the region, has started talks with the Iranian regime that seem to be motivated more by apprehension than a genuine desire for rapprochement. At the same time, Iran’s growing nuclear threat has spurred increased interest in nuclear technology from several regional governments, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey.
But no country has felt Iran’s aggressive military posture more than Israel. In addition to the potentially existential threat posed by an Iranian bomb, Tehran’s decades-long support for Hezbollah has created a lethal military threat on Israel’s borders, with the Shiite militia now equipped with a formidable arsenal of precision guided missiles, attack drones, and air defense systems. Against Iran’s ongoing efforts to build a military power base in Syria and militarize another of Israel’s borders, Israel wages its so-called campaign-between-wars to prevent Iran’s military entrenchment and disrupt the arming of Hezbollah. Even so, Hezbollah’s continued military buildup and its growing arsenal of advanced weaponry has significantly raised both the probability of a conflict and its future cost.
In short, the United States’ perceived retreat from the Middle East and its diminishing focus on the region have unleashed a chain reaction, flowing from diplomacy to nuclear proliferation and increased military aggression by Iran and its proxies. More immediately, the failure to stop Iran’s nuclear program well in advance of attaining weapons-grade uranium could lead to a large-scale military crisis in the coming years and accelerate a regional nuclear arms race.
Amid shrinking U.S. involvement, Israel has taken significant steps to forge a new approach in the region. And in contrast to its military image, Israeli security is increasingly being driven by diplomacy. Although the 2020 Abraham Accords—establishing formal relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan —were brokered by the United States, the agreement amounts to an important breakthrough in Israel’s regional posture, allowing it greater room to act both independently as well as in concert with the United States. Not only did the accords establish direct government-to-government relations between Jerusalem and these new partners; they also paved the way for people-to-people relations, as seen in the new air travel links between Israel and the UAE, for example. Cooperation between the partners is also expanding on economic and technological issues, as well as on policies relating to energy, water, and the environment.
Although no new countries have since joined the accords, the initial signatories have held firm despite shifting developments in the region, including the conflict in Gaza in May 2021. The Biden administration continues to strive to bring other Muslim countries, including Indonesia, into the pact, although the most important candidate, Saudi Arabia, seems unlikely to join anytime soon. For Riyadh to accede to the pact may require a royal succession, a rapprochement between Washington and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and, possibly, some significant progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Even so, Saudi Arabia now allows flights destined to or coming from Israel to overfly in the kingdom’s airspace, greatly facilitating Israeli travel to the Gulf and beyond.
Nor have Israel’s diplomatic efforts been confined to the signatories of the Abraham Accords. Leveraging its newfound maritime gas reserves, Israel has recently reached agreements to sell gas to Egypt and Jordan, some of it transiting to Lebanon through Syria. Israel has also joined the Cairo-based East Mediterranean Gas Forum, which includes Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority among its members. In addition to building Israel’s energy footprint, such initiatives have also helped expand other economic opportunities, such as the energy-for-water partnership between Israel, Jordan, and the UAE that was announced in November 2021.
At the same time, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has signaled a new willingness to improve Turkish-Israeli relations, which had deteriorated over the previous decade. Erdogan has raised the possibility of new gas arrangements with Israel, and Israeli President Isaac Herzog is scheduled to soon meet with Erdogan in Turkey. Even with Saudi Arabia, the Israeli government continues to pursue discrete backchannel contacts, principally to address mutual security concerns such as Houthi firepower in Yemen and Hezbollah’s dominance in Lebanon. Further afield, Jerusalem’s pursuit of international partnerships has also expanded to the Indo-Pacific, as reflected, for example, in the new dialogue that was established in late 2021 between India, Israel, the UAE, and the United States.
Israel’s advanced capabilities are helping forge new alliances.
A larger question is how these new relationships can bolster Israel’s security and counter Iran’s growing threat to the region. Foremost, of course, is Israel’s longtime security alliance with the United States, which was further advanced last year with the inclusion of Israel in U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility. As U.S. military assets are needed elsewhere, Israel can increasingly share the burden of some U.S. security missions with its intelligence, air, and cyber defenses. It can also bridge gaps left when U.S. assets have been transferred elsewhere and enhance joint operations among the United States’ regional partners.
But Israel’s advanced security capabilities also have a growing role to play in its regional partnerships. Some of these ties are not new. For years, Israel has shared intelligence and cyber-capabilities with the Gulf states. Over the past decade, Israel has also supported Jordan’s border security and Egypt’s counterterrorism efforts in Sinai, while its Iron Dome missile defense system has intercepted incoming rockets targeting both Eilat in Israel and neighboring Aqaba in Jordan.
The Abraham Accords, however, have allowed these ties to be significantly strengthened and publicly exhibited. In recent weeks, for example, Israel has enhanced its relations with Bahrain and the UAE through direct high-level diplomacy. The recent visits of President Herzog, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid to Abu Dhabi surely harbinger a growing Israeli-Emirati security relationship, especially after a Houthi strike on the UAE coincided with Herzog’s visit. Likewise, the visits of Bennett and Defense Minister Benny Gantz to Bahrain suggest a similar path with that country, as does the announcement that an Israeli naval officer will be stationed in Manama as the liaison to U.S. Central Command, the U.S. Fifth Fleet, and perhaps other partners. Already, the potential of such security and defense partnerships has been demonstrated in the joint Red Sea naval drills held last November between the U.S. Fifth Fleet and the navies of the Bahrain, Israel, and the UAE.
As Iran’s drones and ballistic and cruise missiles threaten an increasing number of regional states, the demand for Israel’s air defense capabilities has grown, too. For Israel, sharing advanced weapon systems will always be subject to export controls and concerns about technology leaks, but the general trend is already clear. Israeli defense technology, including the development of next-generation air defense laser systems, in conjunction with coming U.S. defense priorities, seems likely to play a key part in a new security umbrella taking shape in the region. Even if the establishment of an “Arab NATO” is far-fetched given the current geopolitical realities, a regional defense partnership against Iran’s air and missile threats could well be achievable and perhaps develop as a Middle East Air Defense Alliance.
Since the United States’ alliance with Israel is one of the main pillars of Israeli national security, one could expect that diminishing U.S. engagement in the Middle East would result in a weakened Israel. In important ways, however, that misstates the nature of the bilateral relationship. Indeed, Washington’s strategic support is vital for Jerusalem, yet the most important elements of this support are independent of the size of the U.S. military forces in the region and even the readiness of the White House to use them. Far more important are two pillars of U.S. policy that have nothing to do with its own military deployments. First is Washington’s veto power in the UN Security Council, without which Israel would likely face international censure from its detractors, often supported by China and Russia, as it does in the UN Human Rights Council. Second is the United States’ legal commitment to maintain Israel’s so-called Qualitative Military Edge, assuring that Israel can defend itself with access to cutting-edge U.S. industries and technologies. Thus, Israel’s advanced defense force, well-established deterrence capabilities, and U.S. strategic support continue to buttress its security posture even as Washington reduces its focus on the Middle East. Moreover, Israel is used to fight its own battles and does not rely on the United States or on any other friendly nation’s troops to protect it.
Nonetheless, Iran’s nuclear ambitions pose significant challenges in the emerging strategic landscape in the Middle East. Against Iran’s nuclear threat, Israeli officials will continue to hope for a “longer and stronger” deal, but they also believe that without a credible military threat, the chances of reaching such a deal are slim. Thus, Israel prepares its own military options against Iran for two purposes: to create a credible threat to impel Tehran to a diplomatic solution but also to serve as a backstop should all other efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear program fail. Concurrently, Israel will likely continue its covert campaign against Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs in order to disrupt and impede its progress toward making a bomb.
Fortunately for Jerusalem, reduced military forces of the United States in the region need not directly affect Israel’s ability to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Yet the U.S. commitment to countering the Iranian threat remains critical. Regardless of the extent of its military presence in the region, Washington’s robust support for Israel is essential, at the UN Security Council, by balancing other great powers, and in its guarantee of Israel’s overall deterrence. And by supporting Israel’s new regional alliances, the United States can help strengthen Israel’s regional posture despite its shifting priorities, seemingly weakening it.
Israel’s relations with the United States are built on a bedrock of shared values and commitments to democracy, the free market, and human rights. These ties have been established over decades of close relations and common trust—if not always agreement—between leaders and officials. But they have also been based on strong people-to-people relations, including the relations between the world’s two largest Jewish communities. Changes in both societies, however, are challenging those foundations. Both countries still share strategic interests and goals. Yet both sometimes differ, even strongly, on the means of achieving them, such as how to prevent a nuclear Iran.
In the short and medium term, Jerusalem and Washington should urgently work together to prevent nuclear proliferation in the region and its potentially catastrophic repercussions, including by promoting credible and effective military alternatives to a diplomatic agreement or as its backstop. Recent reports of joint U.S.-Israeli strategy discussions may indicate that some work is being done in this direction. Further ahead, it will be vital for Israel and the United States to adapt their strategic relations to the new age of strategic competition and its challenges. As the United States takes a less active role in the Middle East, regional powers and other world powers will take up the slack. On the negative side, this means a more aggressive Iran and a heightened threat to regional stability and security, including to Israel and to U.S. forces in the region, as well as to the United States’ regional partners. On the positive side, the new dynamics will make Israel, with its advanced security and technology and its economic assets, an increasingly attractive partner for regional players in bilateral, regional, and U.S.-enabled partnerships.
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