Nations do not have permanent friends

The new alliances in the Middle East may have a lesson for countries like Pakistan where foreign policy seems to be static, mired in the political landscape of the 50s

The quote ‘In international relations, there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests’ is attributed to Lord Palmerston, the nineteenth-century British prime minister (1855-1865). The axiom, however, is as true today as it was in his days, one-and-half century ago.

The latest affirmation of this universal principle was on display at the Security Conference in Germany in the form of an unlikely alignment of countries in the Middle East, unthinkable only a decade ago. Since its inception in 1963, the Munich Conference has become the premier annual gathering place for world leaders to discuss issues of mutual security and international peace. This year’s meeting, held on 16-18 February 2018, attracted attention, primarily because of the radical reorientation of the US foreign policy prompted by the advent of the Trump administration.

Especially noted was the speech of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, underscoring watershed developments in Middle Eastern diplomacy. The ire of the prime minister is usually directed at Palestinians, but he had a different target this time. Brandishing a metal fragment of an Iranian drone shot down by Israel, Netanyahu addressed the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, by name, taunting him and asking him if he recognised it.“You can take back a message to the tyrants of Tehran: do not test Israel’s resolve. And, we will act, if necessary, not only against Iranian proxies that are attacking us but against Iran itself.” The message was not lost on Zarif, who responded in kind, characterising Israel’s threats as a ‘cartoonish circus.’

Less expected, however, were the scathing comments that came from an unlikely source, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, Abdel al-Jubair, who proposed that the nuclear deal that Iran had signed in 2015 to limit its nuclear programme that led to lifting of punitive sanctions should be renegotiated with harsher terms imposed on the country. The Saudi foreign minister in effect endorsed the position advanced by the US President Trump and the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. The Palestinian issue, which in the past had captured much attention at such forums, was relegated to the back burner. Ultimately, the perceived national interests had overridden the notion of Arab solidarity.

Due to Israel and the Arab world’s bitterness towards Iran, Israel sees the Arab countries as its natural allies

Saudi Arabia and Iran have been feuding for a long time, vying for influence and leadership in the Middle East and across the Muslim world. In the days of the Shah, they coexisted wearily, but the situation changed for the worse after the overthrow of the monarchy and establishment of the Islamic Republic. Iran is viewed with great trepidation by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, as they fear that it is dedicated to promoting unrest among the Shia population in the Saudi oil-rich eastern region. There is a bloody proxy war going on between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Yemen in which thousands have been killed or wounded.

Israel and Iran have had a checkered relationship in the past four decades. In the days of the Shah, the two countries had full diplomatic relations and close collaboration in areas of security, defence and commerce. Many Israeli experts trained Iranians in the field of defence, medicine and agriculture. It all changed following the advent of the Iranian revolution in 1979 and relations between the two countries have been deteriorating ever since. They are at an all-time low now.

The tensions in the Middle East have spawned a curious alliance. Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries, except for Qatar, are on one side of the divide, while Iran, Iraq, Syria, with Hezbollah in Lebanon, represent the opposing group. Qatar, shunned by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, has forged strong commercial and trading relationship with Iran and Turkey. On the face of it, the current division in the Middle East seems to be rooted in religious differences, Sunni versus Shia; however, political and economic interests have played a major role.

Due to Israel and the Arab world’s bitterness towards Iran, Israel sees the Arab countries as its natural allies. Thus far, the cooperation between Israel and the Arab world has been pursued only discreetly. The Washington Post, in a recent article, cited Israeli security officials acknowledging that their regional security concerns align with those of Persian Gulf States and that the Israeli security officials were consulting with their counterparts from the Gulf States behind closed doors, united against their common adversary, Iran.

The warming relations and covert cooperation between Egypt and Israel, which for the longest time maintained a ‘cold peace,’ are no longer a secret. Several terrorist organisations, offshoots of so-called Islamic State (ISIS), have been operating in Egypt’s barren Sinai desert with impunity. They have been blamed for downing the Russian civilian airliner in 2015, in which 225 people lost their lives and attack on al-Rawdah mosque, slaughtering more than 300 worshipers. Egyptian forces have proven incapable of controlling these murderous groups or curbing their evil acts.

Israel views lawlessness in the neighbouring Sinai as a threat to itself. With the approval or at least the acquiescence, of the Egyptian government, it has unleashed an air campaign against the ISIS terrorists, which has been far more effective than Egyptian efforts. The Washington Post, in a recent story, highlighted the close security cooperation between Israel and Egypt, stating that the “unmarked Israeli warplanes and helicopters have carried out dozens of covert attacks against ISIS and other terrorist groups inside the Sinai.” The Israeli fighter planes bear no Israeli identifiers, carefully taking a circuitous route from Israel to fly over Sinai. Like the Israelis, the Egyptian public is kept largely in the dark about the extent of the ongoing cooperation between the two countries. However, the Egyptian government is confident that the people are so outraged by the bloodshed perpetrated by ISIS that they are unlikely to be upset by any disclosures.

New alignments across the Arab/Muslim world have led to some unanticipated results. Last January, President Trump announced the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and instructed the State Department to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv, reversing decades-old US policy. Many had feared a severe backlash and violent reaction against the decision across the Arab/Muslim world. Instead, the announcement evoked only a tepid reaction that soon died down. In the United Nations, the reaction was more forceful. However, a unanimous vote at the Security Council against US recognition was vetoed by the US. How far the discreet warming of relations between Arab countries and Israel moderated, the reaction to the US recognition is difficult to judge.

The writer is a former Health Scientist Administrator, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland and an Assistant Professor at the Harvard Medical School, with a PhD from the University Of Birmingham, England

Published in Daily Times, March 6th 2018.