Israel is being widely portrayed as the lone holdout against the global love affair with Iran’s new president. Certainly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been the most outspoken critic. But several other countries are arguably even more worried by the American-Iranian rapprochement than Israel is–namely, America’s Arab allies.
Last month, a senior United Arab Emirates official said in a media interview that “If Israel were to strike Iran to stop it from getting a nuclear bomb, we wouldn’t object at all.” For a senior Arab official to publicly invite the hated Zionist enemy to launch a military strike on fellow Muslims is unprecedented. While Arab states have been urging America to attack Iran for years, they have hitherto opposed an Israeli strike. Moreover, even their pleas to America were strictly behind the scenes; they became public knowledge only due to WikiLeaks. Thus for Arab officials to be willing to publicly support an Israeli strike attests to a desperate fear that the American defense umbrella they have relied on for decades may no longer exist.
Nor is this the only indication. At the UN General Assembly last week, a Saudi diplomat consulted with his counterpart from Israel–a country Riyadh doesn’t officially recognize–over the Iranian charm offensive. A few days earlier, at an International Peace Institute dinner whose guests included officials from both Israel and several Arab states that don’t recognize its existence, “No Arab minister attacked Israel, and not one stood up and left the room when he found out that a high-ranking representative of the Israeli government was sitting beside him,” Haaretz reported: They were too busy discussing their main mutual concern, Iran.
This isn’t the start of an Arab-Israeli romance; most of these countries still hate Israel, and many are deeply anti-Semitic. Rather, it reflects the fear engendered by America’s gradual withdrawal from the Middle East. Despite years of purchasing top-quality American arms, many Arab states have no real military capabilities, especially against a much larger, more technologically sophisticated country that happens to be located right next door, in easy invasion distance (in contrast, several Arab countries lie between Iran and Israel). Thus they have always counted on America being there to defend them–and now, suddenly, they’re no longer sure they can. In that situation, even Israel is better than nobody.
The problem, of course, is that Israel can’t and won’t supply the same defense umbrella America has. Arabs states can plausibly hope Israel will deal with Iran’s nuclear program, because it views Iranian nukes as a direct threat to itself. But Israel would never intervene to, for instance, rescue Kuwait from Iraqi invasion, as America did in 1991. Hence America is currently indispensable. As one UAE academic put it, “We don’t have any other insurance company, and we live in a dangerous area.”
But if America decides to close up shop, the Arabs will perforce find another insurance company, just like anyone else whose insurer goes out of business. Who it will be remains to be seen: Russia is one obvious possibility; they could even decide they have no choice but to join Iran’s orbit. But either way, the result be the same: For the first time in decades, America will be left with no allies whatsoever in a region that remains crucial to the global oil supply, and hence to America’s own economic well-being.