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History has been made as Arabs fought alongside Israel

In Europe
April 17, 2024
Iran is increasingly isolated in the Middle East

Iran is increasingly isolated in the Middle East – Atta Kenare /AFP

Iran’s Islamist ruler Ali Khamenei made history with his unprecedented direct attack on Israel on Saturday night, but not, perhaps, in the way he intended.

By dispatching a barrage of more than 300 missiles and drones into Israeli territory, the Islamic Republic of Iran removed any doubts about its ambition to wipe Israel from the map, even if its execution fell woefully short. However, the supreme leader quickly discovered that many of his Arab neighbors do not share his genocidal goal – one key reason why the attack has left Iran, not Israel, appearing vulnerable and isolated politically and militarily.

The operation to thwart Khamenei’s assault was led by the Israelis with support from the US, the United Kingdom and other countries. Yet what was historic was the role played by Sunni Arab nations, who “quietly passed along intelligence about Tehran’s attack plans, opened their airspace to warplanes, shared radar tracking information or, in some cases, supplied their own forces to help.”

The list included Arab countries who maintain a cold peace with Israel, like Jordan, and those who may one day have a warm peace but don’t yet recognise the Jewish state, like Saudi Arabia. Tehran informed the Arab countries of their plan of attack in advance, information that was immediately telegraphed to the US. Once the attack began, the Iranian weapons were tracked by radar in the Gulf countries and relayed to US Central Command in Qatar, which then transmitted the intelligence to fighter jets and warships in the region, including those of the Jordanian Air Force, decisively repelling the Iranian barrage.

This first instance of live military cooperation between Israel and Arab countries in the face of a common enemy went way beyond the mere intelligence sharing under the table which had been the norm. The Arabs had a choice; they could have acceded to the Islamic Republic’s aggression, and stayed out of the fight which would have been unsurprising given their fear of Tehran and their skepticism of American resolve.

But they elected to combat the threat. They did so because it is the Islamic Republic, not the Jewish state, that is regarded in most Arab capitals as the far greater threat, and because, contrary to conventional belief, it is Khamenei’s regional ambitions and not the unresolved Palestinian question that keeps Arab leaders awake in the small hours.

This burgeoning strategic reality in the Middle East represents a golden opportunity to definitively remove the principal threat to peace and stability in the region. Since the Hamas atrocities in southern Israel on October 7 and the subsequent war in Gaza, all the focus – from governments, NGOs, the UN and other international agencies, and the media – has been on Israeli motives and Israeli actions. Utterly lost in the mix has been Tehran’s role in arming, financing and sustaining its Hamas proxy and its proxies elsewhere in the Middle East.

Khamenei’s most dangerous proxy, Lebanese Hezbollah, has launched nearly constant missile strikes that have already driven 60,000 residents of northern Israel from their homes. Last weekend’s Iranian attack has underlined that Khamenei sits at the head of an octopus whose tentacles extend into Israel and across the region, challenging not just Israel’s right to exist, but the internal order and well-being of the Sunni Arab countries.

Any initiative to weaken and ultimately remove the regime in Iran from power is not going to come from the Arab countries; but should the United States or Israel take such a course of action, they have signaled their willingness to act as reliable, if silent, partners. A number of options for achieving such an outcome are now in the frame.

Diplomatically, the US and the EU are already preparing a new round of sanctions against the Islamic Republic, whose economy is dominated by companies and front organisations linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – a foreign terrorist organisation designated by the US. There is now growing pressure among EU member states for Brussels and for the United Kingdom and Canada, separately, to make a similar determination.

In addition, the US, the UK, France or Germany also must individually or collectively snap back the UN arms embargo, which expired in 2020, and the UN missile embargo which expired in 2023, as part of the ill-fated 2015 nuclear deal arrangement. That unilateral snapback expires next year. It must be used now or lost soon. It’s also long past the time to crack down on Iranian oil exports, the lifeblood of the regime, that have spiked since President Biden abandoned the economic pressure campaign of his predecessor.

Most importantly, there is an opportunity for the “deal of the century” that would build upon the historic Abraham Accords that laid the foundation for the Israeli-Arab-American cooperation that we saw over the weekend. The US, which has prevailed upon the Israelis to show “restraint,” should push the Saudis to recognise, and make a permanent peace with, the Jewish state.

On the military front, there are effective pathways short of an all-out assault on Iran. As the regime proceeds with the most dangerous phase of its nuclear program – weaponisation – Israel, in tandem with western intelligence agencies, should concentrate its efforts on assassinating or recruiting the scientists leading it. There is also an urgent need to disable a subterranean new facility in Natanz, in central Iran, that reportedly will go more than 100m underground to be used for nuclear weapons enrichment. Predicted to be heavily fortified, it could be impervious to Israeli and even American bombs.

While these nuclear capabilities may not be targets for an immediate reprisal, it takes time to execute such complicated operations. Israel has special weapons and cyber capabilities to target immediately Iran’s missile and drone capabilities, energy infrastructure and leadership assets.

The alternative is to lose the positive momentum from the failed Iranian attack. The regime would impose a “new normal” on Israel by joining with its proxies in further missile and drone attacks and changing the risk calculus of Israeli military planners the next time they need to take out the Islamic Republic’s dangerous men and capabilities. Those western countries insisting that Israel’s air defenses are sufficient to rebuff Iranian ambitions forget that while the Israelis share our liberal democratic order, they do so in a tough and merciless neighborhood.

Israel’s neighbors aren’t Scotland or Canada. Deterrence by denial through air defenses is not enough – what’s also required to establish real deterrence is a strong stick and a willingness to punish enemies who seek your destruction. When it acts, Israel may risk losing support from Europeans or Americans who prefer the niceties of defense but lose their spine on the offense. But, in the Middle East, as our Arab allies well understand, it’s better to be alive than popular.

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