Escalation in the Gulf – The Broader Implications for Israel



By Col. (res.) Udi Evental | September 23, 2019

U.S. Secretary Pompeo visit to Saudi Arabia
Photos: U.S. Department of State


A week after the attack on Saudi Arabia's critical oil infrastructures, the Saudi and American response to Iran's aggression appears to be hesitant.


Both countries charged Iran with responsibility for the attack, but have so far refrained from unambiguous determination that the cruise missiles and drones were launched from Iranian soil. The U.S. announced that it would deploy more soldiers to Saudi Arabia, but qualified that their mission would be defensive. In addition, the U.S. announced that it would focus on imposing additional economic sanctions on Iran and carry out a diplomatic campaign at the UN General Assembly to form an international coalition.


Once again, official statements revealed gaps within the U.S. administration – mainly between the combative approach of Secretary Pompeo and President Trump's attempt to downplay the significance of the events. While Secretary Pompeo defined the attack as "an act of war", President Trump pointed out that he did not seek war, that the U.S. no longer depends on Middle East oil, and that the attack was carried out against Saudi Arabia, and not against America.



These developments reflect several strategic implications for Israel


First, Israel must adjust to the idea that the importance of the Middle East in America's strategic priorities and national interests is declining. Even if the U.S. will, once again, realize eventually it cannot disentangle itself from the region, the main driver of U.S. strategic priorities is Asia and the Chinese threat.


Second, Iran's series of aggressions in the Arab Gulf reveal a decline in America's deterrent posture in the Middle East. When America's deterrence is weakening, the risk of miscalculation and escalation rises. The timid American response might bolster Iran's resolve – also against Israel – using the territories of Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq as launching pads. Under these circumstances, Israel will have to enhance its readiness for a possible confrontation between Iran and the U.S. and to escalatory scenarios along its own borders.


Meanwhile, the U.S. "maximum pressure" policy is not achieving its stated objectives – not on the ground across the Middle East, nor on the nuclear file. A policy solely based on economic sanctions without a credible threat to use military force – will not end Iran's nuclear program. Against this backdrop, Israel must maintain close coordination with the U.S. administration to assure that once negotiations are resumed, the U.S. will insist on a deal that will address the substantial flaws of the JCPOA. Furthermore, Israel will have to be in a position to defend itself by itself and to create an independent capability to thwart Iran's nuclear program as a last resort option.


Developing normal relations with the Arab Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia, is of high value for Israel in terms of recognition as a legitimate country in the region and to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. However, recent events in the Gulf demonstrated that Israel should maintain a prudent approach that will take into account the risks related to its efforts to promote normalization with Arab countries.


Saudi Arabia does not appear to be an effective ally in the campaign to stop the growing Iranian influence. In some scenarios, if Saudi Arabia would doubt the American commitment to its defense, it might try to appease Iran. This would be similar to the recent adjustment of UAE's policy vis-à-vis Iran that reflects mistrust in American assurances.


In any case, Saudi's regional influence is in decline following a series of reckless policies of the Kingdom's Crown Prince, aka MBS, having entangled Saudi Arabia alone in Yemen and have placed the Kingdom in odds with the international public opinion and the U.S. Congress.


Despite the Gulf countries' desire for closer relations with Israel and weariness towards the Palestinians, Saudi Arabia will not normalize relations with Israel over the Palestinians' heads. The Saudi leadership will be reluctant to expose itself to additional risks in face of the Iranian threat, which might undermine its domestic legitimacy.


Therefore, it was no surprise that on the day after the Iranian attack, the Saudi foreign minister declared at the OIC meeting that the recent statement of Prime Minister Netanyahu regarding annexation is a "dangerous escalation" and that despite the challenges, the Palestinian issue will remain the main priority of the Arab countries. The attack on Saudi oil facilities came at a bad timing also for the Trump administration seeking to unveil the "Deal of the Century" that necessitates Saudi endorsement.


The Iranian reverberating attack on Saudi Arabia and a prolonged oil export crisis might undermine domestic stability in the Kingdom and increase resentment against the leadership of MBS. This is particularly the case since his grip on power within the large royal family seems to be based on fear, rather than the gradual building of consensus, as it used to be.


The domestic instability and the scenarios of reorientation – both possible turning points – could leave a huge arsenal of advanced Western weapons at the disposal of irresponsible leaders. Saudi Arabia has failed to use these advanced weapons effectively in Yemen and the chance that they will be used against Iran is low. Therefore, Israel will have to make sure that it maintains its qualitative military edge in the region.


At the end of the day, Israel has to be cautious not to over-estimate the value of open relations with the Arab countries. The Gulf countries might face domestic instability and from a military perspective one cannot count on them, particularly not in a campaign against the threats posed by Iran.




Authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental



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