With Iran’s attacks, Arab countries fear an expanding conflict

Arab countries, from the United Arab Emirates and Oman to Jordan and Egypt, have sought for months to quell the conflict between Israel and Hamas, especially after it expanded to include Iranian-backed armed groups with deep roots around the world Arabic. Some of them, like the Houthis, also threaten Arab governments.

But the Iranian drone and missile attack on Israel over the weekend, which put the entire region on alert, made the new reality inevitable: Unlike past Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, and even those involving Israel, Lebanon or Syria, this continues to expand.

“Part of the reason these wars were contained is that it wasn’t a direct confrontation between Israel and Iran,” said Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. “But now we are entering this era where a direct confrontation between Israel and Iran – which could drag the region into conflict and the United States – now that the prospect of regional war will always be on the table.”

For now, the only countervailing force is the desire of both the United States and its long-time enemy, Iran, to avoid a widening of the conflict, said Joost Hiltermann, director of the International Crisis Group’s program for the Middle East and North Africa.

“I am heartened by the fact that the only ones who want a war are Israel and Hamas,” he said. “The Iranians are still talking to the Americans,” she said, referring to messages exchanged between the two in recent days by intermediaries including Switzerland and Oman.

The Iranian message, Hiltermann said, made clear that they were trying to demonstrate their power, not expand the war. “They said, ‘There will be an attack, but we’ll keep it limited.’”

Yet for citizens of Arab countries, many of whom saw dozens of drones and missiles streaking across their skies on Saturday, the desire to avoid a wider war is a thin thread on which to hang their future. The dismay over the attack was evident in many public comments, and even private ones, even as others celebrated it.

Officials and analysts in the region were divided over whether Iran’s attack would prompt countries with long-standing ties to the United States to push for even greater commitment – and security guarantees – from Washington or to distance themselves in an attempt to keep itself safe from attacks from Washington. Iran itself.

Most called for a de-escalation in the strongest terms. The only exceptions in the Arab world have been northern Yemen, whose Houthi government is de facto close to Iran, and Lebanon, home to Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed armed group.

Oman has said it is crucial to reach an immediate ceasefire in the war between Israel and Hamas that has been raging for six months in the Gaza Strip. Kuwait “underlined the need to address the root causes” of the region’s conflicts.

And Saudi Arabia, which has sought to cultivate relatively cordial ties with Iran since the two countries re-established diplomatic relations last year, said it was “extremely concerned” about the dangerous implications of military escalation in the region . A statement from the Foreign Ministry calls on all involved “to exercise maximum restraint and protect the region and its population from the dangers of war.”

Even before the Hamas-led attack on Israel that triggered the war in Gaza on October 7, Arab countries had changed their geopolitical relations. Their concern was that they could no longer count on an American government increasingly focused on Asia, as Iranian-backed armed groups became increasingly active.

Arab leaders’ unease has only increased with Israel’s assault on Gaza, which the United States has defended but its own citizens have found abhorrent, said Renad Mansour, senior researcher in the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House.

For Saudi Arabia, this meant establishing a diplomatic relationship with Iran, despite its deep-rooted antagonisms and Iranian missile attacks against Saudi infrastructure as recently as 2019. Saudi Arabia’s approach to Iran is been facilitated by China, which has recently worked to expand its influence in the region. Many Arab countries have turned to China to establish trade and diplomatic ties.

Then the war in Gaza began, dragging the Gulf states, along with Egypt and Jordan, more directly into the dynamics of a conflict they desperately wanted to avoid.

Now, Jordan found itself shooting down Iranian missiles – and then accused of defending Israel. Israel’s military assault on Gaza, often accused of being indiscriminate, has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians, more than two-thirds of them women and children. Around 1,200 people were killed in Israel in the Hamas attack.

The Jordanian government was sharply criticized both at home and by neighboring Arab countries on Sunday for shooting down at least one of the Iranian missiles aimed at Israel. A former Jordanian information minister, Samih al-Maaytah, defended the decision.

“Jordan’s duty is to protect its lands and its citizens,” al-Maaytah said. “What Jordan did yesterday was simply protect his airspace.”

He also said that “Jordan’s position on this conflict is that it is between two parties that have influence and interests: Iran and Israel.”

While Gulf countries’ oil exports have been largely spared, Houthi attacks on shipping lanes in the Red Sea – linked to the war in Gaza – have raised costs and heightened tensions.

It is unclear whether the conflict between Israel and Iran will further strain the relatively new ties between Israel and some Arab states. Since the war in Gaza began, these relations have cooled, but it appears that none of the Arab governments that have recently established ties with Israel are ready to abandon them completely.

Two of the countries that signed the Abraham Accords normalizing relations with Israel in 2020 – the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – have in some cases stopped business or have publicly distanced themselves from that country since the war in Gaza began. And Saudi Arabia, which had explored the possibility of diplomatic normalization with Israel, insisted that any agreement would require the creation of an “irreversible” path to a Palestinian state, an unlikely prospect in the current Israeli political climate.

That estrangement is likely to continue, analysts say, but so far no one has severed relations with Israel or, in the case of Saudi Arabia, excluded them entirely.

One reason Saudi Arabia has remained open to future relations with Israel is that now more than ever the Saudis are hoping for a security guarantee from the United States in the event of an attack by Iran, Yasmine Farouk said , a non-resident scholar at Israel University. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington research group.

“What Western countries under the leadership of the United States did yesterday to protect Israel is exactly what Saudi Arabia wants for itself,” Farouk said.

He added that despite Saudi Arabia’s history of enmity with Iran, the hardening of Saudi public opinion against Israel and the United States over the Gaza war is changing Saudi leaders’ calculations. Their goal now is to push the United States to force Israel to end the war.

Perhaps the most surprising development in the region is the growing push by some Arab countries to take part in crafting diplomatic solutions to prevent the region from descending into wider war. Arab countries held a conference in Riyadh in November to discuss how to best use their influence to stop the conflict.

Qatar and Oman have become increasingly active behind the scenes in trying to secure a ceasefire in Israel and renew diplomatic efforts between Iran and the United States to prevent the outbreak of a broader, more destabilizing conflict.

Qatar’s close ties with Hamas, Iran and the United States have made its ministers and senior officials key to shuttle diplomacy. And Oman has become a conduit of communication between the United States and Iran. In recent days, Washington has communicated with Tehran through messages relayed by both the Omanis and the Swiss, according to a senior security official in Iraq and a senior U.S. administration official in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

The new question, said Slim of the Middle East Institute, is which country can play the role of intermediary and negotiator between Israel and Iran.

“The rules have changed, the lines have changed and they have to be able to communicate,” Ms. Slim said.

Hwaida Saad AND Eric Schmitt contributed to the reporting.