Even the tough-talking U.S. president, ever fond of trashing Tehran, is reported to have pushed back on White House national security adviser John Bolton’s calls for a more hawkish Iran policy. President Trump “wants to talk to the Iranians; he wants a deal," a U.S. official told The Washington Post this week.
But there are an alliance of countries who may be more sympathetic to the idea. Among them, the trio of Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates. It’s no coincidence that these countries have courted the White House since Trump entered office in January 2017 — they saw the incoming administration as an ally against Iran.
Riyadh in particular has begun to take a more provocative tone on the tensions with Iran. On Thursday, Prince Khalid Bin Salman, the vice minister for defense and brother of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, said a drone attack on Saudi oil facilities claimed by the Houthi rebels in Yemen was “ordered” by Iran.
“The terrorist acts, ordered by the regime in Tehran, and carried out by the Houthis, are tightening the noose around the ongoing political efforts,” Prince Khalid wrote on Twitter. “These militias are merely a tool that Iran’s regime uses to implement its expansionist agenda in the region.”
The government-aligned Saudi newspaper Arab News went further, suggesting that the United States should pursue a “surgical strike” attack against Iran in retaliation for recent moves attributed to Tehran. In an editorial published on Thursday, it suggested U.S. airstrikes on Syria could be a model: “The US has set a precedent, and it had a telling effect.”
Ali Shihabi, the well-connected founder of the pro-Riyadh Arabia Foundation in Washington, echoed this idea on Twitter, writing that going to war with Iran would be “dangerous and unnecessary,” but adding that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps needed to be given a “painful costly message.” Shihabi also admitted there was a risk this could spark a broader conflict but said it was unlikely.
While nations like Saudi Arabia may support action on Iran, they have reason to worry about a conflict, too. In fact, given their relative proximity to Iran, these countries have more to worry about than most. The complicated reactions of Israel and the UAE to the flare-up of tensions with Iran illustrate this well.
On the surface, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed support for a more hawkish response to Iran. “Israel and all the countries of the region and all the countries who seek peace in the world should stand together with the United States against Iranian aggression,” Netanyahu said Tuesday at a ceremony to mark the first anniversary of the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.
But behind the scenes, he may be more hesitant. Barak Ravid of Israel’s Channel 13 news reported Wednesday in Axios that Netanyahu had told Israeli intelligence and military officers that Israel would “make every effort not to get dragged into the escalation in the Gulf and would not interfere directly in the situation.”
The Israeli prime minister has long advocated a harder line on Iran. He even was reported to have mulled unilateral Israeli military engagement in 2011 against the wishes of then-President Barack Obama. But the possibility that such strikes could fail, or that they would spark fresh conflict with Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah, seem to have always persuaded Netanyahu to back down — if he wasn’t bluffing as many suspected.
The UAE has taken a more cautious public line on the threat of conflict with Iran. Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said Wednesday that he didn’t want to speculate as to who was behind sabotage acts over the weekend that saw four vessels, including two Saudi tankers, damaged near its coast.
“We need to address Iran’s behavior clearly, but at the same time not to be baited into crisis,” Gargash said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. “This is the region we live in and it’s important for us that we manage this crisis.”
Gargash’s comments belie the fact that the UAE has privately been a fierce critic of Iranian influence and pushed the United States to take harsher action. But the proximity of the Emirates to Iran, as well as the still-considerable economic ties between the two nations, make the threat of all-out war uncomfortable to contemplate.
This small but powerful alliance of Saudi Arabia, Israel and the UAE was built around a shared antipathy toward Iran and an embrace of the Trump administration. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have overturned the historical opposition to Israel that once united Arab states. Instead, they focused on finding a powerful ally against Iran and the broader threat they perceive from other Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
The alliance quietly grew during the Obama administration, when U.S. approval of the Arab Spring and a nuclear agreement with Iran were seen as shifting the balance of the Middle East. As Trump took office, they courted him. In many ways, their efforts were a success: Trump pulled the United States out of the nuclear deal a year ago and began reimposing sanctions on Iran.
But these acts haven’t yet brought Iran to its knees. And despite Trump’s criticism of Obama’s outreach to Iran ahead of the 2015 nuclear deal, he now appears keen to push for negotiations himself.
On Thursday, the Swiss president, Ueli Maurer, arrived at the White House for an unexpected meeting with the U.S. president — notable, as the Swiss Embassy in Tehran also represents U.S. interests in Iran. The White House has gone so far as to pass a phone number to Iran through the Swiss, though Iran has said it will not be using it.
The prospect of a deal between Washington and Tehran is frightening for Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates. But they also have real reasons to worry about the possibility for war right now, too. If it happens, they know they will find themselves shouldering much of the consequences — and perhaps the blame as well.