A geopolitical realignment in the Middle East is accelerating to confront and contain Iran

New diplomatic and security ties are reshaping the Middle East as former enemies seek unity to contain Iran, the US reconsiders its security role in the region, and Russia and China seek to capitalize on opportunities left by Washington.

A historic summit beginning Sunday in Sde Boker, Israel, illustrates the shifting alignments and brings Arab, Israeli and US officials together for the first time on Israeli soil for talks on expanding their burgeoning partnership. Ahead of the summit, Arab and Israeli leaders spoke privately about expanding military and economic ties and a common strategy for Iran.

Much of the realignment is being fueled by fresh cracks between the US and its allies over ongoing negotiations over a nuclear deal with Iran and now over the war in Ukraine, while the Biden administration struggles to keep Israel and Saudi Arabia away to convince Tehran to take their positions on a commitment and Russia’s isolation.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to meet Sunday with the top diplomats of Israel, as well as Bahrain, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates – the three Arab countries that normalized relations with Israel in 2020 in the so-called Abraham Accords – in the city of Sde Boker the Negev desert, where Israel’s founding father David Ben-Gurion retired. Egypt’s top diplomat is also joining the last-minute summit, the latest signal that the country, which first signed a peace deal with Israel in 1979, is poised for warmer relations.

“A more stable, integrated region gives us a stronger basis to address common threats like these,” Mr Blinken said on Sunday, calling the summit a meeting that would have been “unthinkable a few years ago”.

US and Israeli officials met in Jerusalem on Sunday ahead of the broader summit.


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Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

But talks on Sunday and Monday are unlikely to provide an answer on whether the Abraham Accords could be expanded into a formal defense alliance and what role the US would play in a new military relationship. Nor will they focus on the future of the Palestinian territories, the issue that has long separated Israel from its Arab neighbors.

Privately, Israel and its new Arab partners are accelerating talks on establishing new regional defense ties focused on missiles and air defense systems aimed at countering Iran’s vast arsenal of intermediate-range missiles and armed drones.

Saudi Arabia, which has held back on normalizing ties with Israel, has been in tacit talks with Israel over closer military cooperation, according to a senior US official. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have watched their cities and oil facilities come under attack by Iranian-supplied missiles and drones in recent years — sometimes with only a token US response.

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Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett traveled to the Egyptian resort city of Sharm El Sheikh to meet Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi and the Emirates’ de facto ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. According to people familiar with the talks, the leaders discussed deepening security and economic ties and fighting Iran as a nuclear deal approaches.

Rejoining the nuclear pact was President Biden’s top foreign policy campaign promise, but it is divisive in the Middle East, where Israel and most Arab governments oppose it. They fear that lifting sanctions on Iran will embolden its leadership and that the US will further withdraw from the Middle East following Mr Biden’s abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer and his long-term foreign policy goal of turning to China.

Mr Blinken was expected to brief officials at the summit on the final stages of the nuclear negotiations, officials said. US and Iranian officials say they are close to a deal, but final sticking points surrounding sanctions on Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard have stalled a deal for weeks.

Other long-standing rivalries and relationships are changing, reshaping the geopolitics of the region. Qatar is back in the Gulf Arab chain after a three-year boycott by its neighbors. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are holding talks with Turkey, another regional heavyweight, after years of animosity. The UAE is leading Arab efforts to resume ties with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad despite his actions in a brutal civil war in hopes of reducing Iran’s influence in the neighborhood.

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Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met March 22 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.


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Hamad al-Kaabi/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Another sign of this shift is that the oil-rich Persian Gulf monarchies and Israel remain neutral or soften their criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, despite Washington urging them to support Kyiv. The de facto leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE have spoken with Russian President Vladimir Putin but have declined calls from President Biden in the weeks leading up to the invasion. Riyadh has also invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit this year and accelerated talks with Beijing on pricing oil sales to China in yuan, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The Gulf states have forged close ties with Moscow in recent years, creating an Energy Alliance between the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries that did little to stem oil price surges during the Russian invasion.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also seeking closer diplomatic and economic ties with Iran to raise the bar on a possible regional conflict. Those talks stalled this month after Saudi Arabia executed 81 people, including dozens of Shia Muslims, in the largest mass execution in the country’s history.

“I don’t believe the idea that the US is going to be a security provider as much as I used to,” said Steven Cook, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank. “All incentives seem to work in the opposite direction.”

US officials privately say the White House hopes the nuclear deal will help ease tensions with Iran. It could easily be withdrawn if the nuclear deal falters or if Tehran and its supporters step up attacks that threaten oil supplies or Israel.

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Yemenis in Sana’a on January 31 watched a television report showing the destruction of a missile launch site allegedly operated by Houthi rebels in Yemen after a Houthi attack on the UAE


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Yahya Arhab/Shutterstock

When Abu Dhabi was attacked by missiles launched by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen in January, the Pentagon sent a guided missile destroyer and F-22 fighters to the UAE. The region’s top US commander, General Frank McKenzie, visited Abu Dhabi to pledge continued US aid to the country.

Addressing fears of a US withdrawal in January, President Biden said during a visit to the ruler of Qatar’s Oval Office that he had urged Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to “do everything possible to ensure United States support for the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and everywhere the Gulf to communicate.”

But the Gulf states and Israel say relaxing economic sanctions on Iran could threaten their security, giving the Islamic Republic a windfall to spend more on its missile program and its network of Shia Muslim allies, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, which Houthi rebels in Yemen and a constellation of Iraqi militias.

Rather than calming the region, the nuclear deal could embolden Iranian hardliners and lead them to increase military pressure on US bases and partners in the region as part of Tehran’s long-standing goal of driving out the US, current and former US officials have said . The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps claimed responsibility for a missile attack in northern Iraq on March 13, allegedly targeting links used by Israeli spies.

Iran, too, could very well take a more cautious path, at least in the first few months after the deal was signed, as it seeks to revitalize its oil sector and stabilize an economy crippled by inflation and international sanctions.

If the nuclear talks succeed, some diplomats in the region are hoping they would be quickly followed by international negotiations on Gulf security that would include Iran and the US. Tehran and Washington have separately raised the possibility of follow-up talks to resolve unresolved issues in the nuclear deal, according to a Middle East diplomat.

But some analysts doubt Iran will agree to hold back the Revolutionary Guards.

“I have a hard time imagining an Iran that just signed a less stringent nuclear deal than the original one and then wants to sit down and negotiate its regional behavior,” said Grant Rumley, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East politics and a Pentagon Middle East official during the Trump administration.

The merger of a new Arab-Israeli alliance marks the shattering of a long-held notion, often held by Arab leaders themselves, that Israel must first end its centuries-long conflict with the Palestinians before being welcomed into the region. Nevertheless, Jordan, a close Palestinian ally, did not send its own foreign minister to the Israeli summit, despite being invited.

King Abdullah II of Jordan is scheduled to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Monday, and the two will have a tripartite meeting with Egyptian President Sisi in Amman on Tuesday, according to an official in Mr Abbas’ office.

write to David S. Cloud at david.cloud@wsj.com and Stephen Kalin at stephen.kalin@wsj.com

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https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-middle-east-geopolitical-realignment-accelerates-to-confront-and-contain-iran-11648397242 A geopolitical realignment in the Middle East is accelerating to confront and contain Iran

Ethan Gach

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