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Middle East

Saudi Arabia and Israel have formed what I’ve come to refer to privately as “The Aqaba Connection” (after the Gulf of Aqaba, on which both nations border) What, exactly, that connection consists of is hard to say. There is some loose diplomatic co-ordination. There are signs of outreach, like the new economic zone Mohammed bin Salman wants to establish across the Gulf from Israel. I guess the extreme theory would be that they are official secret allies, but I don’t think that’s the case—yet.

The force bringing them together is Iran. Iranian extension of force into Iraq and Syria has made historic dislike into active opposition. For the first time, the Islamic Republic has a line of communication to the Israeli border, through Iraq and Syria. A shaky one, to be true, but it’s there. If the Iranians want to attack the Golan Heights, they can.

Israel will not allow this situation to continue. For a while in April I honestly thought they might launch a ground offensive. They did not, and in retrospect that seems a little off. A ground offensive would be far too risky a proposition, and Israel has other avenues of attack.

For instance: it now seems that Israel and the Saudis have successfully brought Donald Trump onto their side. Maybe they’re bribing him, maybe they’re blackmailing him, or maybe they just have the Republican-stimulating juice he wants. The Aqaba Connection seems to have lobbied Trump to scrap the nuclear deal with Iran and reimpose sanctions. At the same time, they’ve apparently been urging him to lift sanctions on Russia, in hopes that Russia in return will squeeze the Iranians out of Syria.

John Bolton this week said regime change in Iran is not a U.S. goal. I doubt that. Certainly, neither of the Aqaba Connection will feel 100% safe until the Islamic Republic is replaced. All three parties are hoping the resulting economic decline from the reimposed sanctions topples the regime. The trick is what happens afterwards. Will Iran become another Syria? The Saudis might wish they had stayed with the ayatollahs.

So I don’t expect open warfare at this point, with one hitch. If the militant wing in Iran becomes convinced they could lose either their foothold in Syria or their power at home, they might decide, out of desperation, launch an offensive against Israel. Like the Japanese in 1941, withdraw would be psychologically impossible, so attack is the only option. But that is unlikely to happen.