April 16, 2024

IntelBrief: October 7 Might Not Fundamentally Change the Region

AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Most of the fundamental trends in the Middle East that existed before the October 7 Hamas attack are likely to resume after the Gaza conflict concludes.
  • Arab leaders’ efforts to de-emphasize the Palestinian national cause and their open distrust of Iran reflect their national interests.
  • Despite public unrest, Arab leaders will not downgrade close security ties to the United States but might avoid public discussion of the relationship.
  • Iran-backed attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, Tehran’s attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf, and the Israel-Iran conflict long predate and transcend the October 7 Hamas attack.

A key question for U.S. and global policymakers is whether the Israel-Hamas war will transform the alignments and trends observed in the Middle East before the October 7 Hamas attack or whether the Gaza crisis produces only a temporary deviation from underlying fundamentals. Hamas committed the October 7 attack, in large part, to restore the Palestinian national cause to the front and center position it occupied globally until a decade or so ago. Iran and its “Axis of Resistance” allies are trying to take advantage of regional criticism of Israel’s conduct of the war to try to shift the regional balance of power in their favor and accomplish a longstanding goal of driving a wedge between the United States and its Arab partners. Yet, judging from the actions and statements of many of the region’s governments and global stakeholders, many, and perhaps all, of the underlying trends and power balances that existed before October 7 appear set to endure after the Israel-Hamas war ends. The Iranian missile and drone barrage targeting Israel over the weekend was intended to move the red lines in the region, yet how this evolves is still to be determined.

Prior to October 7, the region’s major Arab powers, with selected exceptions, had essentially de-linked relations with Israel to the Palestinian national cause. In 2020, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan agreed to formally normalize relations with Israel under the “Abraham Accords.” The Accords offered the Arab parties to the pact minimal and mostly non-binding and face-saving Israeli concessions to the Palestinians still under occupation in the West Bank. Despite widespread demonstrations of support for the Palestinians suffering at the hands of Israel’s offensive in Gaza, no Abraham Accords party, or Jordan, or Egypt - Arab states that earlier formally made peace with Israel – has abrogated their relations with Israel. Arab leaders have undertaken more modest steps that signal displeasure but can easily be reversed after the crisis eases. Jordan recalled its ambassador from Israel in November and Israel’s ambassadors to Bahrain, Morocco, and Egypt have largely remained in Israel since the war began. The diplomatic chill has left Israel’s Embassy and consulate in the UAE as its only fully functioning diplomatic mission in the Arab world, and several government-owned airlines also suspended flights, leaving the UAE as the only country in the Middle East where people can still fly directly to Israel. The UAE has refused to move forward on an official visit by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, but at least one Israeli minister has been hosted in the Emirates to attend multilateral meetings, including the gathering of the World Trade Organization in February. UAE leaders have justified their continued adherence to the Abraham Accords as advancing their efforts to help the Palestinians in Gaza. In a written statement to The New York Times, the Emirati government highlighted how its officials used their relationship with Israel to facilitate the entry of humanitarian aid for Gazans, as well as the medical treatment of injured Gazans taken to the Emirates. Although Arab leaders have said they would only contribute to Gaza reconstruction if concrete steps are taken to establish a separate Palestinian state, it is not clear how strenuously the Arab leaders or Western powers will push for the “two-state solution” if Israel continues to oppose that outcome. Seeking to retain their roles as key regional brokers, Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait have ruled out joining the Abraham Accords. The Gaza crisis rendered these Gulf states no less willing to normalize with Israel than they were prior.

Nor has the Israeli response to the October 7 attack generated a new paradigm in relations between Iran and the major Arab powers, particularly the Gulf Arab states. Because of the widespread popular sympathy for the plight of the Gaza Palestinians, Arab leaders have been reluctant to openly criticize actions by Iran and its regional allies against Israel, U.S. forces in the region, and against commercial shipping in the Red Sea. Yet, all the Gulf and other Arab leaders have become alarmed at Iran-backed attacks throughout the region, viewing the actions as an Iranian attempt to lead the region’s response to Israel’s Gaza operations and to demonstrate the reach of Iranian influence throughout the region. Gulf and other Arab leaders have expressed alarm at attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea by the Houthi movement in Yemen, as well as Iran’s seizure of a container ship in the Strait of Hormuz on Saturday. The Gulf states depend on the freedom of navigation through the region to export their hydrocarbon products, just as Western and Asian consumer nations depend on seaborne trade for their energy purchases and general trade. Early in the crisis, the Gulf states roundly rejected Iranian suggestions to try to punish the United States and its Western partners for their assistance to Israel by imposing an oil embargo or oil export limitation. It was reported yesterday by the Jerusalem Post that Saudi Arabia was part of the multinational coalition that helped to blunt the Iranian missile and drone attack targeting Israel in response to Israel’s attack on Tehran’s consulate in Damascus on April 1, which killed several high-ranking Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force (IRGC-QF) officers. The Israeli attack represented an escalation of its efforts to disrupt Iran’s strategic relationship with Lebanese Hezbollah, but low-level Israel-Iran conflict, often conducted covertly, has been under way for many years, and has only intensified modestly in the context of the Gaza crisis.

Contradicting Iran’s hopes that the Gaza crisis would drive a wedge between major Arab leaders and the United States, Gulf and other Arab leaders have not used the Mideast crisis as a cover to expand security relations with China or Russia or in any way distance themselves from close strategic cooperation with the United States. In the context of the Gaza crisis, Saudi Arabia’s de-facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has continued to negotiate with U.S. officials the possible normalization of relations with Israel, enticed by the prospect of an expanded and binding U.S. security guarantee for the Kingdom in exchange. After this weekend’s attack by Iran on Israel, there could be an even greater sense of urgency for the Saudis to conclude such a guarantee.

U.S. officials, for their part, have held out the prospect of a Saudi-Israel pact to try to modulate Israel’s offensive in Gaza and its stance on Palestinian governance of post-war Gaza. Bahrain has gone further than its Gulf allies, openly joining the U.S.-led, 20+ nation Operation Prosperity Guardian maritime security mission, established in December to try to deter attacks by the Iran-backed Houthi movement in Yemen against commercial shipping in the Red Sea. Bahrain has signed on to the 13-nation joint statements warning the Houthis of coalition military action if they continue their attacks in the Red Sea. Seeking to avoid a restart of their ground war against the Houthis, Saudi Arabia and the UAE reportedly have cooperated with the maritime coalition as unnamed partners. At the same time, in the context of the Gaza crisis, the Gulf states have sought to mute their public cooperation with any U.S. military action to retaliate against Iran.

Iranian leaders appeared to try to take advantage of the Gaza crisis to unleash their allies in Syria and Iraq in repeated rocket and armed drone attacks on U.S. forces deployed in the two countries. Iran’s efforts, intended to try to expel the approximately 2,500 U.S. military personnel still in Iraq, have been underway for more than five years. Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani’s visit to Washington D.C. the week of April 15 will discuss transitioning the U.S. presence in Iraq from a multilateral effort to combat Islamic State to a bilateral defense and security cooperation relationship. However, even though the Iraqi population resents U.S. support for Israel in the Gaza crisis, there are no indications al-Sudani will demand a complete U.S. departure from Iraq. Despite regional public opinion that agrees with Iran’s strongly anti-Israel stance, Iran’s longstanding objectives to drive the U.S. away from Iran’s borders or interrupt the trend towards greater Israeli integration into the region are likely to be thwarted.