The latest joint project announced by Israel and the United Arab Emirates is a space mission to the moon that will, among other things, include a satellite to help users of Hebrew and Muslim calendars determine the precise time of the new moon.
But behind the splashy new projects, larger, quieter explorations have been underway this year to reduce conflict in the Middle East and depressurize the region. Much of this “deconfliction” is fueled by nervousness over the U.S. drawdown in the region and its messy departure from Afghanistan.
The most surprising result of this deconfliction is the direct talks between archrivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. Their battle for hegemony has fed a bloody civil war in Yemen. And fear of Iran’s growing domination of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon was a factor in the Gulf states drawing closer to Israel, which was long treated as a pariah in most of the Arab and Muslim worlds.
What is driving the exploration of détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran? Analysts say that they are looking to downplay their differences in the hope of achieving a greater good. And while each side may come to the table for selfish reasons, the process of discussion leads to greater understanding and some degree of accommodation. Those steps allow each state to help secure itself and its citizenry.
From Iran’s perspective, détente with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states could open an important market for an economy that has been squeezed by U.S. sanctions and the international support it receives. And while Iran has been supported by Russia and China, even Iran recognizes that the support is opportunistic and could be lost at any time. It is therefore in Iran’s interest to cultivate additional friends – even in the previously vaunted Saudi Arabia.
According to columnist David Ignatius in The Washington Post, the Saudi-Iran discussion have progressed to the point where “the Iranians are said to be ready to reopen an embassy in Riyadh immediately.” That move would be significant.
We support expanded deconfliction. As we have seen from the Abraham Accords, the reduction in adversity can lead to very good things, and deconfliction is largely driven by peaceful objectives. But even the prospects of peaceful coexistence don’t remove the need for diligent monitoring of compliance and follow-through — a cautious “trust but verify” approach.
While deconfliction has benefited many nations of the Middle East, including Israel, it appears to have left Jordan and Egypt behind. These two countries, which took brave, historic steps to normalize relations with Israel when such moves were not popular, seem to be stuck in the rut of “cold peace” that has defined their relationship with Israel for decades.
It is time for Jordan and Egypt to get with the program and take advantage of the new spirit of opportunity brought about by the Abraham Accords and regional deconfliction. Given the many economic, social and political benefits that can flow from a warmer engagement, this is an opportunity that neither Jordan nor Egypt should miss.