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August 21, 2023

Is the U.S. taking off the glove in the Middle East Real or a PR?

Recent developments by the United States about the Iranian threat have perplexed regional observers. On the diplomatic front, the U.S. took a conciliatory turn, brokering a prisoner swap deal with Iran and releasing billions in frozen assets. A deal that does not help rehabilitate America’s weakening projection of power. Conversely, militarily, the U.S. has amplified its naval presence in the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea. An additional 3,000 troops now safeguard maritime traffic. Additionally, accumulative information suggests that a U.S.-controlled buffer zone along the Iraq-Syria border has become a real action plan. This dichotomy begs the question as to whether the Biden administration is genuinely flexing its muscles, or is this merely a public relations strategy to counteract the negative optics of the Iran swap deal.

One possible reason for the US’ increased engagement is China’s deepening involvement in the region. As the U.S. appeared to waver in its commitment to counter the Iranian threat, allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates grew increasingly disappointed with the American administration’s policy of containment. While regional powers became disheartened and increasingly skeptical about the reliability of their American ally, a power vacuum was created. China, with its expansive global ambitions, recognized this gap, swiftly stepping in to deepen its regional footprint.

If the U.S. is genuinely taking strong actions and not just posturing, the most notable move is its plan to set up a buffer zone between Iraq and Syria.

To achieve its hegemonic ambitions, Iran has strategically entrenched itself in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, striving to establish a continuous land corridor from its borders to the Mediterranean Sea.

In Iraq, Shi’ite militias loyal to Iran heavily influence Baghdad’s politics. These militias control the Abu Kamal / Al-Qa’im border crossing between Iraq and Syria. This dominance lets Iran move weapons and fighters from Iraq into Syria. On the Syrian side of this border, Iran set up the Imam Ali military logistical and weapons dept complex.

In war-torn Syria, Iranian-created and controlled Shi’ite militias from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, etc. have helped Iran gain control over east, west, and southwest Syria.

Moving to the western edge of the corridor, Iran via its most powerful proxy – Hezbollah completely controls the Syria-Lebanon “border,” – which in practice does not exist at all. Armed with Iranian weapons and funded by Tehran, Hezbollah has forcefully taken over Lebanon’s political and economic systems, turning the country into an extension of Iran.

The Iraq-Syria border crossing is a critical component of the Iranian-controlled corridor. A U.S.-controlled buffer zone at this crossing would compromise Iran’s objectives. The U.S. has assets and troops in three strategic areas all nearby. It has several military bases in Iraq, it has assets in the Kurdish-controlled area of northeast Syria, and its military base, Al-Tanf in Syria is in proximity to the triangle borders of Iraq, Jordan, and Syria. To Iran, this American presence is an affront. Over the past few years, Iranian proxies have repeatedly carried out attacks against these American bases in both Syria and Iraq. Recently, as part of its more assertive stance, the U.S. conveyed to the Iraqi government that it would respond to continued attacks on its bases by targeting the militias and their leaders.

How Does This Impact Israel?

Iran and its proxies present the most serious threat to the State of Israel. Iran’s battle plan for the elimination of Israel is based on the creation and entrenchment of a massive network of proxy armies with hundreds of thousands of missiles, rockets, and attack drones, which will create a ring of fire around Israel’s neck from three directions – Gaza, Lebanon and Syria.

The Iranian land corridor is a cornerstone of Iran’s plan.

Israel consistently acts to thwart the Iranian ring of fire plan by precise attacks on weapons depots, missile stockpiles, and an anti-aircraft system that Iran is trying to establish in Syria and near the Iraqi Syrian border.

The establishment of a buffer zone under U.S. control along the Syrian-Iraqi border is another important layer in the effort to thwart Iran’s plan to establish a ring of fire. Thwarting the Iranian plan is in the strategic interest of Israel and the U.S. because it will reduce the risk of a broad war between Israel and Iran and its proxies.

Possible Consequences of Removing the American Glove In The Middle East

In the intricate dance of Middle Eastern geopolitics, America’s next steps carry both promise and peril.

On the one side, by taking a firmer stance, the U.S. would reaffirm its commitment to regional allies, showcasing its undiminished influence in the Middle East and potentially deterring Iranian aggression. Yet, on the other, such assertiveness could fan the flames of conflict with Iranian-backed militias.

It begs the question of whether removing an American glove could lead to a direct military confrontation between the U.S. and Iran.

Historically, Iran has believed that the U.S. is hesitant about military action. A notable exception was in January 2020 when the U.S. targeted and killed Major-General Qassem Soleimani, a key figure in Iran’s military hierarchy. While Iran retaliated by attacking a U.S. base in Iraq, they were careful to avoid American casualties. This cautious approach suggests Iran wants to avoid an all-out war with the U.S.

As the sand continues to shift in the Middle East, sometimes, removing one glove can forestall the need to “remove two,” averting a more catastrophic outcome.

March 13, 2023

Immediate and Possible Ramifications of the Saudi – Iran Agreement

The Saudi-Iran agreement reflects, first and foremost, China’s growing presence and influence in the Middle East. Chinese policy is laser-focused, guided by two main interests – food and energy security. Hence, security and stability along the One Belt One Road maritime and land route are critical for the Chinese to meet their needs.

Throughout the Middle East, from the Persian/Arabian Gulf to the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, China is investing, increasing its foothold, grip—and influence in the region. The Chinese giant will not look favorably upon its investments and interests being harmed. Tensions and threats in the Persian / Arabian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the Eastern Mediterranean basin threaten China’s oil supplies, maritime trade routes, and increasing large-scale investments in the region. These are all critical components of China’s vision of domination. And no country will ignore China’s needs.

The Saudi – Iran agreement will likely have immediate impacts in different arenas. Iran is now formally committed to China’s interest in stability – at least in areas of utmost significance for China – the Persian/Arab Gulf, the Arab Sea, and the Red Sea.

The agreement has a couple of immediate ramifications in the foreseeable future.

One, Iran puts its nuclear program on hold.

Two, The Persian Gulf and the Red Sea will experience a period of calm in the near future after a long period of instability due to attacks by Iran and its proxies on naval vessels in the area and on oil infrastructures in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates

Three, in Yemen, the ceasefire between the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed Yemeni government will be extended and likely expanded, and Houthi attacks on Saudi soil will cease.  

Four, the agreement speeds up the process of the return of the Assad regime to the Arab world. In this context, it is possible we will see more gestures on the part of Saudi Arabia towards the Assad regime.

Another significant arena that needs to be closely watched following the agreement is Iraq. China is massively invested in Iraqi oil fields. And Iraq has become China’s third-largest source of imported oil. More than half of the oil Iraq produces is exported to China. As an oil supplier, Iraq is of utmost importance to China. Therefore, stability in Iraq is crucial for China. Iranian grip on Iraq creates turbulence in Iraq, fueling tensions in Iraq between Iraqi nationalists and pro-Iranian Iraqi interventionists, thus resulting in escalating political instability in Iraq. That trajectory could lead to tension between Iran and China.

The Israeli Angle

In the Arab world as well as in other circles, the assessment is heard that the agreement harms Israel. One of the reasons for this assessment is that the agreement inhibits the dynamics of the Abraham Accords and blocks the continuation of the Israeli-Saudi dialogue. But I have a different opinion. The Israeli-Saudi dialogue will continue as it has so far in a slow and low-profile process because Saudi Arabia, which is very threatened by Iran, will not drop the Israeli card.

In addition, in my opinion, the agreement serves Israel in three aspects in the visible future.

First, the agreement inhibits or at least greatly slows down Iran’s progress to nuclear weapons, at least in the foreseeable time frame.

Second, calm in the Persian / Arab Gulf arena to meet China’s need for stability serves Israel because so far, Iran has used the card of violence and attacks against vessels in the Gulf area (including Israeli-owned vessels) in part in an attempt to create a deterrent balance that will cause Israel to stop its attacks against Iranian targets in Syria. Following the agreement, this card fell out of Iran’s hands – at least for the foreseeable future.

Third, the agreement could also reduce in the visible future the potential for a wide military round between Israel and Gaza. The agreement surprised Hamas and the Islamic Jihad organization supported by Iran. It seems that in the near future, these organizations will try to understand the consequences of the agreement on their activities and their means. In light of this, and in light of the fact that the month of Ramadan begins in about a week, the potential for a wide-scale military flare-up between Israel and the Gaza Strip in the near term is significantly reduced, even if clashes between Israel and Palestinian militants in the West Bank continue.

 March 10, 2023

Today’s news about China bringing Saudi Arabia and Iran a bit closer and their commitments to restore their embassies not only makes headlines about those two nations but also will likely have reverberations throughout the region and global politics. At a first glance, it shows that its extremely likely that Iran is committing to cease its advancement towards nuclear armaments- a red line in the sand that both China and Saudi Arabia are strong opponents of. It also shows the growing Chinese influence in the Middle East.

There will be other ramifications I’m sure we will see over the days and weeks ahead, specifically likely in Syria and Yemen. While some may think that this might signal that this blocks any chance of a Saudi-Israel path to relations, it’s highly likely that given the Saudi’s experience and knowledge of how the Iranian regime operates, it’s highly likely they will continue to keep their options open vis-a-vis normalizing relations with Israel.

December 24, 2022

Iran’s vision of an Iranian fully-controlled Iranian Land Corridor stretching from Iran through Iraq and Syria and ending up in Lebanon is facing serious obstacles. To that, one should add the ongoing uprising inside Iran. In my evaluation, the mullah regime will refrain in the foreseeable future from any dramatic move that could accelerate a US decision to act militarily against its nuclear program. Thus, I evaluate that in the foreseeable future, Iran will continue its policy of walking on the edge with regard to its nuclear program, yet it will not cross specific red lines.

PREDICTION:        I evaluate that in the foreseeable future, Iran will continue its policy of walking on the edge with regard to its nuclear program, yet it will not cross specific red lines in an attempt to prevent a military strike on Iran.

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Avi Melamed
Avi Melamed
Avi Melamed is an expert on current affairs in the Arab & Muslim World and their impact on Israel & the Middle East. A former Israeli Intelligence Official & Senior Official on Arab Affairs, Fluent in Arabic, English, and Hebrew, he has held high-risk Government, Senior Advisory, Intelligence & Counter-Terrorist intelligence positions in Arab cities & communities - often in very sensitive times - on behalf of Israeli Government agencies. He is the Founder & CEO of Inside the Middle East | Intelligence Perspectives - an apolitical non-partisan curriculum using intelligence methodology to examine the Middle East. As an Author, Educator, Expert, and Strategic Intelligence Analyst, Avi provides Intelligence Analysis, Briefings, and Geopolitical Tours to diplomats, Israeli and foreign policymakers, global media outlets, and a wide variety of international businesses, organizations, and private clients on a range of Israel and Middle East Affairs.

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