Jordan Has an Iran Problem. Can Israel and Saudi Arabia Unite to Combat It?
The situation also presents an opportunity for the Biden administration.
In a conversation last week with former U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Jordan’s King Abdullah II expressed concerns that Iranian forces in Syria could soon destabilize his country. Russia may soon redeploy assets and forces from Syria to their mired war effort in Ukraine, and Iran seeks to fill the void.
The Jordanian monarch asserted, “That vacuum [left by the Russians] will be filled by the Iranians and their proxies. So unfortunately, we are looking at maybe an escalation of problems on our borders."
But challenges can also yield opportunity. In this case, Jordan’s security woes can help to cement an emerging alliance between Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. These two unlikely partners both view Iran as a mortal enemy that threatens the broader Middle East. They both share borders with Jordan. And they both view Jordanian stability as critical to their national security.
Saudi Arabia is already mulling a move in this direction, particularly after the signing of the Abraham Accords in September 2020. When its neighbors United Arab Emirates and Bahrain normalized relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia seemed next in line. However, the leadership in Riyadh moves more slowly and deliberately than its Gulf partners.
A Saudi-Israeli agreement was widely expected in Donald Trump’s second term. But that second term was not to be.
When the Biden administration came in, the winds shifted significantly. For months, the White House refused to acknowledge the Trump administration’s normalization achievements (the State Department spokesman wouldn’t utter the words “Abraham Accords”). New pacts were clearly not a priority.
That may be changing now, with reports that the Biden administration is helping to broker the transfer of two Egyptian islands in the Red Sea (Tiran and Sanafir) to Saudi Arabia. The deal requires Israeli buy-in, pursuant to the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement of 1979. The transaction could amount to a first step toward normalization.
For Saudi Arabia, this is all welcome change. On the campaign trail, Joe Biden not only ignored the possibility of brokering a normalization agreement—he openly vowed to blackball the Saudis in Washington. Once sworn in, Biden followed up to the delight of a handful of anti-Saudi lawmakers, releasing known information about the Saudi killing of journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi. After that, the White House pulled support for the Saudi war in Yemen, and it removed the Houthi terrorist group from the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization list, even as the Houthis were firing rockets at Saudi civilian and oil infrastructure.
Things appeared to hit rock bottom before the war in Ukraine. The resulting energy crisis, however, prompted the Biden administration to rekindle ties with the government sitting atop the world’s largest proven oil reserves. According to Saudi officials, the relationship is getting back on track.
Meanwhile, Israel continues to demonstrate its value to Saudi Arabia as an ally. In recent years, the Israelis have been slugging it out with the Iranians in Syria, in cyberspace, on the high seas, and beyond. It’s an asymmetric campaign that the Israelis call “the war between wars.” It has proved two things to the Arab states. First, Israel is not afraid to battle Riyadh’s mortal enemy. Second, the Islamic Republic is not as strong as many believed.
All eyes are now on Syria, where Israel has been stepping up strikes on Iranian assets. The tempo is expected to increase if and when Russian redeploys forces and assets to Ukraine. Freedom of operation could yield new opportunities, even as Iran seeks to expand operations in the war-torn territory.
Part of Iran’s expansion effort, as the Jordanian monarch noted, includes the destabilization of Jordan from the north, where drug smugglers are already wreaking havoc. Jordan also faces a threat from the south, with Iranian assets reportedly operating in the Red Sea. This all amounts to a direct threat to both Saudi Arabia and Israel. Both view the Hashemite Kingdom as a valuable asset. Stability on their respective borders is something both countries will protect at great cost.
Building on the momentum of the Red Sea islands negotiations, the White House has an opportunity to push the two sides in the right direction. After Abdullah’s recent visit to Washington, the Biden administration has renewed its commitment to Jordanian security. Enlisting the help of Riyadh and Jerusalem, separately and together, is the next logical step.
Admittedly, both Saudi Arabia and Israel remain wary of Biden’s declared intent to re-enter the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran. Talks have stalled in Vienna over the regime’s demands to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the U.S. terrorism list. Biden has refused, which comes as a relief to the Israelis and Saudis. But the White House has not given up yet on a deal. Should an accord be reached, the Israelis and Saudis both worry that the accompanying sanctions relief would yield hundreds of billions of dollars to the regime in Tehran. That windfall would only help Iran destabilize Jordan, not to mention other countries around the region.
This is a message that Riyadh and Jerusalem can now convey to Washington. They can also offer the Biden administration an alternative. They can offer the White House an opportunity to broker a new defense pact, leveraging their participation in CENTCOM. Israel was recently added to this strategic region, and this has already afforded the Saudis and Israelis opportunities to work together.
Saudi Arabia and Israel can take things a step further, too. Building upon the Red Sea talks, they can now enter into the most important normalization agreement yet. Such an agreement would be viewed as an unparalleled diplomatic achievement in the region, given Saudi Arabia’s prominent role in the Arab world.
For a White House that still seeks to differentiate itself from the previous administration, this is the moment they have been waiting for. And given Saudi Arabia’s leadership role in the Arab and Muslim worlds, it’s not difficult to imagine a domino effect, with other countries looking to follow suit.
Does the road to regional peace run through Jordan? It’s time for President Biden to find out.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the United States Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president for the nonpartisan Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.