By Marc Finaud, Tony Robinson, and Mona Saleh[i].
Recent developments in the Middle East and the arrival of the Biden administration offer unique opportunities to improve regional security. However, obstacles on the way to such progress have far from disappeared.
One set of developments are the so-called Abraham Accords of August 13, 2020 between Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the United States, followed by the normalization agreements extended to Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco with the door open for other Arab/Islamic states to join. Even if the main incentives for such agreements were the prospect of major U.S. arms sales and an emerging coalition against Iran, and despite their rejection by the Palestinians, rapprochement between Israelis and Arabs can help develop economic ties, create personal contacts, and increase mutual confidence. Such progress can only impact favorably the prospects for stability in the region and even for arms control negotiations.
The impact of the Abraham Accords on regional security and arms control negotiations, such as the decades-old effort to establish a Zone free of weapons of mass destruction (henceforth “the Zone”), remains to be seen. The Accords do question not only the traditional Arab consensus on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (that conditioned normalization to the establishment of a Palestinian State) but also the joint position on the Zone, which required Israel to get rid of its nuclear weapons at an early stage.
The Abraham Accords are not as detailed as the peace treaties with Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994), precisely because there is no history of direct armed conflict between the signatory states and Israel. But they are a signal that the region is apparently moving beyond the old Arab-Israeli and Palestine-Israel conflict and away from the refusal of most Arab states to recognize or engage in talks with Israel.
The Accords, particularly the agreement with the UAE, list “spheres of mutual interests” (from investment, trade, science and technology, civil aviation, to tourism, energy, etc.), but their security dimension is the dominant one. The signatory states are willing to enter a new coalition/alliance with the United States, of which Israel is a part, in order to counter “the Iranian threat”: a sort of security guarantee in terms of arms deals and military missions to support allies in case of need. This is also reinforced by Trump’s shift of Israel out of the US military’s European Command to the U.S. Central Command, which includes other Middle East countries.
These developments are even enhanced with the al-Ula Reconciliation Statement among all Gulf states to solve the dispute between the “Quartet” (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt) and Qatar and improve their resistance to Iran.
Reading these three latest regional developments together, there is a clear direction led by the Gulf States, under the auspices of the United States, to form an alliance in the region, including their new “friend”, Israel, against Iran. The question remains whether Biden’s administration will continue to push in the same direction, and how this could be done while addressing the faltering Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA) with its widespread security implications for the region.
Back to the Zone…
The Abraham Accords have not only divided Arab states due to the Palestinian issue, but they may also have a direct impact on the ongoing efforts at negotiating a WMD-free zone which took a new turn in 2019 at the UN General Assembly Conference despite a boycott by Israel and the United States. A rift may appear between states who have recently normalized relations with Israel—and hence implicitly accepted Israel as a nuclear-weapon state—and those who are still vocally against it.
It is clear that Israel’s nuclear weapons program and its long-held policy of opacity was not on the table while negotiating the Abraham Accords. However, it remains the elephant in the room. Indeed, the Accords open the door for a de-facto military alliance with the only nuclear-armed state in the region. Is this the beginning of proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region with other states joining the race? Will Israel enter into a military alliance in which it risks forsaking its military and technological advantage?
Since the Zone project has been on the table, as opposed to the Arabs’ call for “disarmament first”, Israel has consistently avoided any talk of nuclear disarmament, arguing that it needed states to travel down a “long corridor” and perceive the effects of mutual recognition, normalization and peace, and the establishment of a regional security architecture. Of course, Israel with its new allies can claim that Iran’s threats still justify maintaining nuclear deterrence. However, the prospects of normalization, a restored JCPOA, and the resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians may contribute to Israel feeling that, after all, there might be light at the end of the “long corridor”. This may even be encouraged by international support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) that delegitimizes and stigmatizes nuclear weapons. But of course, all these potential improvements to the way Israel views its potential threats are hypothetical.
The Way Forward
Despite the challenges that the Abraham Accords pose to the ongoing efforts to revive serious arms control negotiations, this new Arab-Israeli rapprochement is an opportunity for a fresh attempt to engage different parties and move forward. The moment has come to call out the Abraham Accords for what they don’t say and call upon their signatories to make the link between peace, recognition and normalization with Israel more explicit, and for Israel to make a serious commitment towards the Zone negotiations.
Although the arms deals that come with the Abraham Accords seriously undermine the prospects for security in the region, they do have one silver lining: they test the validity and credibility of Israel’s “long-corridor” approach. Israel for a long time has insisted that it cannot engage with disarmament until others move down the corridor. The international community and civil society, however, can now challenge Israel, as the Abraham Accords show that several strides have been taken down the long corridor and it is Israel’s turn to take serious steps towards the Zone process.
The Accords should also be seen as an opportunity to discuss wider regional security concerns within the framework of the Zone negotiations given that both Israel and its new Arab allies share the need to enhance their own security or address their own security concerns. Israel, with its technological advantage and nuclear deterrence, still feels threatened and needs peace and recognition by other regional states in order to enhance its own security. Some Arab states feel threatened by Iran and its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and need the U.S. as a security guarantor.
This rapprochement (and the expected long-term normalization which should serve as a confidence-building measure) should be used as an opportunity to start serious negotiations on wider regional security issues that do not exclude Iran. The JCPOA is the best guarantee to stop any Iranian nuclear ambition in the region. If Israel and other Arab states object that it does not address wider regional security issues, such as ballistic missiles or regional conflicts, now is an opportunity to start multilateral negotiations on contentious regional security issues within the UN General Assembly mandated process.
All stakeholders have decisive roles to play: the United States, the P5 and the European Union in securing return to full compliance with the JCPOA by all parties; Israel in taking this historic opportunity to promote the regional security architecture it says it wants; the Arab states in seeking security assurances from both the United States and Israel that would avoid a nuclear arms race in the region; and finally, civil society in taking advantage of regional rapprochement to convince their governments that the region needs less armaments and more human security.
Tony Robinson (UK) is Director of the Middle East Treaty Organization (METO)
Mona Saleh (Egypt) is Doctoral Research Fellow at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA)