Given the continued conflict between Israel and Iran in the absence of a direct physical link, the struggle for influence in border territories has captured the interest and attention of both Tel Aviv and Tehran.
In fact, the Israeli policy of occupying the Golan Heights in western Syria (Quneitra Governorate) in 1967 had the objective of strengthening Israel’s security zone. In turn, security concerns and Israel’s need for fresh water were factors in the 1967 Six-Day War’s decision to take control of the West Bank of the Jordan. Since then, 90% of Jordan’s water has been used by Israel to provide the population with drinking water and support the development of the agricultural industry.
Simultaneously with its military occupation program, Israel pursues an aggressive influence policy in states neighboring Iran, such as Iraq and Azerbaijan, in order to strengthen its own state in the Middle East and establish military bases near Iran.
Particularly, Israel has long-standing, constructive relationships with President Masoud Barzani’s government and the Kurdistan region of Iraq. There is plenty of evidence of governmental, commercial, and military links between Tel Aviv and Erbil even though there are no formal relations between the two cities. Iran and Syria have often claimed that Iraqi Kurdistan’s links to Israel have a detrimental effect on the situation in the area.
General Eliezer Tzafrir, a former senior Mossad official, claims that Israel sponsored the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq during the 1960s and 1970s and dispatched military advisors to Mullah Mustafa Barzani’s headquarters to equip and train Kurdish paramilitary groups. The talks between Mustafa Barazani and Moshe Dayan, the former Israeli defense minister, are documented in facts. Following the launch of US Operation Desert Storm in Iraq, Jewish organizations in the United States have been engaged in providing humanitarian aid to Iraqi Kurds, including through neighboring Turkey’s territory, and preventing persecution of the local Kurdish community. In turn, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, during a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, called on the American authorities to protect the Iraqi Kurds. During his visit to Kuwait in May 2006, Masoud Barzani, head of the KDP and President of Iraqi Kurdistan, said the following about Kurdish-Israeli relations: ““It is not a crime to establish relations with Israel. And if Baghdad establishes diplomatic relations with Israel, we would open a consulate in Erbil.” In 2014, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu supported the idea of forming an independent Kurdish state.
Naturally, Israel’s selective attitude to the Kurdish issue in respect to Middle Eastern nations where the Kurds live compactly (i.e., Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey) is motivated by security and economic concerns. In the case of Iraq, Tel Aviv is interested in cooperating with Erbil because of the Mosul oil field, but it also intends to use the Kurdish factor to base its military assets against geographically close Iran, as well as to export ideas of Kurdish independence in order to undermine the territorial integrity of the Iranian state.
The next area of active regional politics for Israel is Azerbaijan, which shares a 765-kilometer border with Iran along the Aras River and the Caspian Sea. Given the oil and gas resources of this Transcaucasian republic, Baku’s allied relations with NATO member Turkey, Azerbaijan’s geographically connecting role on Turkey’s route to the Caspian basin and Turkic countries of Central Asia, as well as the ongoing Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, Israel over the past quarter century has pursued a deliberate policy to establish partnership relations with Azerbaijan, provided important military and military-technical assistance to Azerbaijan, and gained the necessary access to both the border with Iran and to the region.
In the case of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iraqi Kurdistan, Egypt, and the rest of the Islamic world, Israel has traditionally pursued a policy of preventing world Islamic integration on the basis of anti-Semitism and consolidating support for Palestine, with the support of the United States and the UK.
However, the Middle Eastern power balance is shifting as times change. The continued Anglo-Saxon and Zionist policy of isolating Iran, which has lasted more than 40 years, is coming to an end in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. Tehran was able to overcome the costs of anti-Iran sanctions thanks to its domestic policy of consolidating Iranian society on the basis of Jaʽfari jurisprudence, the development of technological production, particularly in the military-industrial complex, and competent diplomacy, including military diplomacy.
The United States’ Middle East policy of so-called controlled chaos, commonly referred to as the Arab Spring, has primarily aimed at reformatting the region, bringing pro-American forces to power, creating favorable conditions for strengthening Israel’s strategic ally, and strengthening Washington’s monopoly in the Levant. However, the U.S. administration’s ambitions have been thwarted for objective reasons as the globe has evolved and attitudes toward Washington among key and minor countries in the Middle East have changed.
Iran has not only not diminished its influence in the area, but has been able to maintain, strengthen, and win new positions in countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen as a result of the disarray. While the US has spent billions of dollars to destabilize governments in West Asia and replace them with pro-American proxies known as “democratic regimes,” Iran continues to expand its influence in the region by preaching anti-imperialist and Shiite ideologies.
Of course, pro-Iranian paramilitary groups supported by the IRGC and its Quds Force militant structure played a significant role in this process, dealing irreparable blows on the ground to the same ISIS (an international terrorist organization banned in Russia) terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria, preventing the fall of Baghdad and Damascus.
After the development of Iran’s nuclear program and the formation of a stable platform of Iran-China and Iran-India relations, the U.S. and Israel worried about the disruption of their plans to strike an irreparable blow to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In this regard, a number of major Iran-China economic projects related to the signing of the comprehensive cooperation treaty between China and Iran on March 27, 2021, are particularly notable. Through this arrangement, China will spend more than $400 billion in the Iranian economy over a 25-year period. Cooperation between the countries includes 20 different areas of economic, cultural, political, and defense cooperation.
Iran has achieved similar prospects for broad cooperation in its relations with India. Iran’s southern ports in the Persian Gulf basin, especially Chabahar Port, could become a crucial link for the transit of goods from India to the outside world. Tehran has also lately suggested the establishment of a gas hub in the southern region of its territory near the Persian Gulf to the nations with the highest gas reserves, namely Russia, Turkmenistan, and Qatar, which combined with Iran own more than 60% of the world’s gas reserves. Since this project is aimed at the multi-billion dollar Asian market, in particular such huge customers as India, China, and Pakistan, its completion will have serious repercussions for the worldwide gas market.
The modernization of Iran-Russia relations of strategic partnership in the fields of economy, politics, culture and defense also creates new prerequisites for the peaceful development of the Middle East with Iran’s key participation. Through the Islamic Republic of Iran, Russia is able to access the Persian Gulf region permanently and acquire experience working under the strict sanctions of the West.
Last but not least, China’s biggest diplomatic achievement in the Middle East, the restoration of the Iran-Saudi relations that had been severed in 2016, which was accomplished in March 2023, may have far-reaching effects on the entire region. The primary key players in the region continue to be Iran and Saudi Arabia, along with Turkey. The resurgence of cordial connections between Tehran and Riyadh in terms of trade and regional security as a result gives rise to fundamental new realities. Iran’s involvement in Middle Eastern peace processes and the restoration of goodwill between Iran and Saudi Arabia serve as catalysts for these processes. The development of connections between the Gulf nations under the sway of China, which is keen to advance its massive political and economic One Belt, One Road Initiative is of particular significance in this context.
In this regard, Iran has become active in diplomacy in the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf. Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran Hossein Amir-Abdollahian visited Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in June of this year in an effort to improve relations with those nations. In this way, Tehran began to demonstrate to Tel Aviv and Washington, which was preoccupied with the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, its effective diplomacy aimed at strengthening multi-vector ties with the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf and transferring its confrontational policy into peaceful diplomacy.
However, such Iranian activity in West Asia is not limited to the aforementioned list of Arab states. Recently, Israel and the U.S. have become concerned about the shifting situation between Iran and Jordan as well, which is quite worrisome for Tel Aviv given its geographical proximity to Amman.
In this regard, Eric Mandel, Director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network, published an article in The Hill in which he warned that Iran’s next target in West Asia could be to re-establish relations with Jordan. At the same time, the American expert believes that Tehran’s position has strengthened sufficiently in Jordan due to the growth of anti-Semitism there and because of serious economic problems. If Tehran restores constructive cooperation with Amman, however, Tel Aviv will face another challenge.
The U.S. does not rule out that pro-Iranian forces may soon come to power in Jordan, where tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees live. The latter naturally hold anti-Israel and anti-American positions. Moreover, Iran is personified by the local population as a consistent opponent of the policies of Zionism and imperialism pursued by Israel and the US, respectively.
Jordan is an important security interest for Israel, as it borders both Iran and Syria, as well as the 1967 Israeli-occupied West Bank. As already mentioned, 90% of the fresh water of the Jordan River is exploited by Israel and only the remaining 10% by Jordan, which does not change the Arabs’ attitude towards the Jewish state for the better. The normalization of relations between Tehran and Amman means disaster for the aggressive plans of Tel Aviv and Washington in the West Asia region.
Thus, Iran, while maintaining constructive partnership with key global players (China, India and Russia), is conducting active diplomacy to normalize multifaceted relations with the countries of the Arab East in the strategically important Persian Gulf zone. Accordingly, the positive dynamic between Tehran and Riyadh has a positive impact on the Arab monarchies’ choice to cooperate with Iran.
The latter does not mean that Tehran is aiming at an aggressive policy against Israel, while the latter’s policy is changing from Zionist radicalism and the conductor of U.S. imperialism in West Asia to a course of mutually beneficial partnership, regional security, and peace.
Aleksandr SVARANTS, PhD in political science, professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”