Thursday, April 01, 2021

Understanding the Abraham Accords is pretty straightforward and its benefits appear to be real.

On the one hand, the agreement unites Israel with Arab states that feel threatened by Iran, creating an alliance that allows them to counter that enemy and defend themselves against it.

On the other hand, there is also an economic component as well, creating all kinds of opportunities for business and investment that are beneficial for all sides.

Peace based on both military and business interests.

Foreign Policy magazine has its own understanding of the first component. According to one of its articles, the Abraham Accords is not a defensive reaction to a powerful threat, creating a binary Israel/allies vs Iran/proxies dynamic. Instead, according to the article, there is a 3-way struggle going on in the Middle East -- and the Arabs are not even part of it.

Vali Nasr, a professor of Middle East studies and international affairs at Johns Hopkins writes that The Middle East’s Next Conflicts Won’t Be Between Arab States and Iran. Nasr believes that the key competition in the Middle East is no longer between the Arab states and Israel or between Sunnis and Shiites. Instead, the key power struggle in the Middle East will be among 3 non-Arab "rivals," namely Israel, Iran and Turkey.

While Iran has been getting most of the attention in the Middle East, Turkey has also been busy, expanding its influence and presence in the region. As Nasr describes it, Turkey:
occupies parts of Syria 
has influence in Iraq
o  is pushing back against Iran’s influence in both Damascus and Baghdad
o  has increased military operations against Kurds in Iraq 
o  has inserted itself in Libya’s civil war 
o  intervened in the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh
o  are eyeing expanded roles in both the Horn of Africa and Lebanon
o  supports for the Muslim Brotherhood 
o  claims to have a say in Arab politics.
Against this background of Iranian and Turkish expansion, Nasr writes that the Abraham Accords -- instead of setting the Middle East on the road to peace -- actually signal that the competition of these 3 countries is going to become more intense:
In fact, it could lead to larger and more dangerous regional arms races and wars that the United States neither wants nor can afford to get entangled in. So, it behooves U.S. foreign policy to try to contain rather than stoke this new regional power rivalry. 
An interesting twist on what are intended as peace accords.

While Iran is working on expanding its power, influence and the number of proxies acting on its behalf as Turkey is pursuing its dream of a new Ottoman Empire -- how does Israel fit in?

According to Nasr:
Israel, too, has expanded its footprint in the Arab world. In 2019, Trump recognized Israel’s half-century-old claim to the Golan Heights, which it seized from Syria in 1967, and now Israeli leaders are planning out loud to expand their borders by formally annexing parts of the West Bank.
Compared with everything Turkey is up to while Iran is inserting itself into Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Libya -- we have Israel in comparison inserting itself into...the Golan Heights? 

This is an area with security implications that Iran itself has shown an interest in for its strategic position overlooking Israel. The West Bank, formerly known as Judaea and Samaria, is an area with a long Jewish history where Jews lived for thousands of years, except for the 19 years it was illegally controlled by Jordan and ethnically cleansed of Jews. Not only was the "annexing" actually an issue of applying Israeli law and not physically taking it -- Israel put a hold on the idea anyway as a condition for the UAE agreeing to the Accords.

Nasr's case for Israeli expansion is less than overwhelming as he compares Israel with Iran and Turkey.

Perhaps that is why Israel alone does not comprise the 3rd component of that 3-way rivalry between Iran, Turkey and Israel. It is the addition of other Middle East countries:
Turkey’s current regional posture—extending into Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and the Horn of Africa while staunchly defending Qatar and the Tripoli government in Libya’s civil war—is in direct conflict with policies pursued by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt.
Taking all of the alliances and overlapping interests into account is what actually makes the situation so combustible.

But also confusing:
This all suggests that the driving force in the Middle East is no longer ideology or religion but old-fashioned realpolitik. If Israel boosts the Saudi-Emirati position, those who feel threatened by it, like Qatar or Oman, can be expected to rely on Iran and Turkey for protection. But if the Israeli-Arab alignment will give Iran and Turkey reason to make common cause, Turkey’s aggressive posture in the Caucasus and Iraq could become a worry for Iran. Turkey’s military support for Azerbaijan now aligns with Israel’s support for Baku [Azerbaijan], and Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have found themselves in agreement worrying about the implications of Turkey’s successful maneuver in that conflict.

As these overlapping rivalries crisscross the region, competitions are likely to become more unpredictable, as will the pattern of tactical alliances.
The analysis starts off with a description of Turkey and Iran making common cause against Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but ends with Israel and Turkey with a common interest in Azerbaijan while Iran worries -- along with the Saudis and the UAE -- about Turkey.

The inclusion of Russian and Chinese interests in the area only makes it harder to keep a scorecard.
And Biden may not be making matters any easier.

In an article by Anchal Vohra, a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy, the Biden administration might be following in Obama's footsteps in strengthening the alliance against Iran:
Biden’s animus toward Mohammed bin Salman over the killing of the Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and in general over human rights violations in the kingdom as well as the UAE and Egypt, is actually cementing ties.
Or he may be undercutting what Israel can offer potential Arab allies:
Other Israeli analysts said they worried Israel may lose its leverage in the Gulf under Biden’s presidency. For decades, Arab nations have eased ties with Israel to seek U.S. pardons for their excesses at home. But as Israel itself is under the Biden scanner now, it can hardly put in a word for them.
Nasr concludes that the best way to achieve some kind of stability is for the US to step in. He makes the intercessionist argument that in order for the US to be able to remove itself from the Middle East and avoid future engagements, it will have to "counterintuitively" first invest more diplomatic resources now. 

Of course, one could argue that it is the diplomacy that led to the JCPOA and the billions that were given to Iran that may have had a destabilizing effect on the region, to begin with -- and that the Abraham Accords are a way to address past decisions made by the Obama in the region.

The calculations of interests and cross-purposes of the various parties may be accurate, but if Biden wants to help stabilize the regions, perhaps he should just support the Abraham Accords and encourage other Arab states to join it.


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