Cartoon by Emad Hajjaj

It’s Not a Peace Deal. It’s a Powder Keg.

By Kenneth M. Pollack

Foreign Policy: ... Because the United States was the most powerful force in favor of the status quo, so our withdrawal has emboldened those actors seeking to overturn the regional order. Iran and its allies are the most obvious and successful of these beneficiaries, but so too are various radical Sunni Islamist groups. Predictably, America’s detachment has terrified our allies, and that fear has pushed them to take actions they never otherwise would have—some good, some dangerous, some both at the same time, like Israel-UAE normalization.

For all its economic and military strength, Israel remains a small, beleaguered country, at least psychologically. Of course, Iran is trying to do everything it can to turn that perception of menace into a strategic reality: bolstering Hezbollah and Hamas; building a vast military infrastructure in Syria; reaching out to radical Palestinian groups in the West Bank and Jordan; mounting cyberattacks against Israeli infrastructure, and so on. Because of its small size, extreme casualty sensitivity, and historic ghosts, Israel’s inclination—and its strategic doctrine—is to strike hard and fast at potential threats before they can become existential. That is what it has been doing for years in Syria, waging a war of attrition with Iran and its allies to try to prevent Tehran from building a military base there to open a new front against Israel.

The UAE has pursued a similar approach to its security concerns over the past two decades, albeit without quite the capabilities or psychological scars of the Israelis. Along with Saudi Arabia, the UAE intervened with conventional land and air forces in Yemen, employed its air force and covert support in Libya and Syria, and led the blockade of Qatar by the other Gulf states. Yemen is a particularly important case to understand. There, the UAE and Saudi Arabia decided to intervene in 2015 to prevent a military victory by what they saw as an Iranian-allied Shi’a militia, the Houthis. However, they did so only after repeatedly asking the United States to do more to prevent the expansion of Iranian power in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq to no avail. Their leaders explicitly said that since the United States wasn’t going to act to limit the Iranian threat, they felt they had no choice but to do so themselves. Thus, the fear of growing Iranian power in the face of a retreating America pushed the Emiratis and Saudis to embark on a risky and bellicose course of action.

It is no accident that both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have begun nuclear programs in the past dozen years. These are both ostensibly for power generation and to save their oil supplies for export, not for producing weapons. Of course, so too was/is Iran’s nuclear program, Tehran claimed, and Saddam’s, and North Korea’s, and the list goes on. In private, Gulf leaders will say that they fear that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons and without the United States to protect them, they feel they may have no choice but be able to match Iran to deter it.

It gets worse when you recognize that none of these countries -- not even Israel -- has the same military or intelligence capabilities as the United States. We are usually better able to gauge the level of threat in the Middle East than our regional allies, the Iraq WMD fiasco notwithstanding. Other countries, starting with Iran, won’t pick fights with the United States the way that they will with one another. Iran is wary of Israel, but it may be less so in future as its own capabilities and those of its allies expand. Meanwhile, it has never shown any fear of the Arab states.

Thus, just as the 1907 Anglo-Russian convention closed out one of the great conflicts of the 19th century only to help enflame the great conflict of the 20th century, so the Israel-UAE agreement must be seen as part of the ending of a 20th -century conflict, but also as potentially the beginning of a new 21st -century conflict that may dominate the Middle East. In that Middle East, without an American hegemon to keep a lid on aggression, status quo powers as diverse in other ways as Israel and the UAE have no choice but to find common cause. To band together as best they can to fight their common enemy, as the British and Russians did in 1907. All of this is a recipe for greater tensions, fear, conflict, and potentially outright war.

We may be putting to bed one great regional conflict, only to watch another arise. And that should temper our enthusiasm for the latest turn of events, no matter how positive it may seem in the short term >>>