The Region July 22-24, 2023

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1- Iran’s Latest Escalation: Piracy & Kidnapping
In its continuing campaign to gain leverage by provoking confrontations in the region, the Iranian regime has returned to its longstanding tools of piracy, kidnappings, and potentially deceptive military drills. In response, the United States this month has opted for a show of military force. In recent days, Washington doubled down on its traditional commitment to regional security and the safeguarding of critical energy-trade maritime routes.  

The latest confrontation was sparked by Tehran’s attempted seizure of two commercial ships near the Strait of Hormuz on July 6th; a move analysts believe was Tehran’s response to the US Treasury-authorized seizure of Iranian crude from the impounded vessel Suez Rajan in April.

After the July 6th event, CENTCOM on July 17th announced the deployment of F-35s, F-16s, guided missile destroyers, and the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit to patrol the skies and waters of the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, critical waterways responsible for nearly 20 percent of the world’s oil supply.

Iran’s IRGC navy commander responded to the CENTCOM announcement by threatening that Iran would retaliate against any company involved in unloading the oil from the impounded Suez Rajan tanker.

Meanwhile, Iran’s foreign minister, Abdollahian, contacted his Emirati counterpart Abdullah bin Zayed to signal that decisions about Gulf security should rest solely with regional nations–in other words, to warn the Gulf states not to join in Washington’s new military deployments.

Tehran also escalated its war of hostage-taking against Washington. The day after the IRGC navy commander’s threat, the news broke that the Iranian regime had kidnapped a fourth American amidst a negotiation with the Biden administration about the previous three hostages. On the same day, the British government condemned Tehran following fifteen unsuccessful attempts by Iranian regime operatives to assassinate or abduct individuals in the UK.

Bizarrely, as the US and its allies were stepping up their efforts against Iranian regime threats to international shipping, Tehran was actually, and perversely, scheduled to host an annual meeting of the International Maritime Organization. Given that the regime had committed piracy against international shipping just days before, forty countries announced their rejection of Iran’s invitation to host the summit. In an Orwellian response, Iran accused the United States of intending to disrupt international security.

Adding to the complexity of the situation, on July 22, the Iranian regime-controlled Tehran Times referenced The Jerusalem Post’s op-ed to highlight the concerns surrounding Iran’s entry into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The regime-controlled platform echoed the notion that Iran now seeks to elevate its position internationally and be more influential in shaping a new world order, with essential actors such as China and Russia backing its ambitions.

The following day, July 23, Iran initiated an annual air force drill involving eleven Iranian air force bases and over 90 fighter planes, bombers, and drones, no doubt seeking to match CENTCOM’s deployments with its own show of force.

Tehran will now have to calculate how to respond to the US administration’s deterrent steps, either by backing off and de-escalating the situation or finding another area in which to push provocatively against American and allied interests. Either way, Khamenei and his regime are convinced by recent history that their approach of the ‘boiling the frog’–employing subtle, incremental aggression to potentially erode America’s resolve–is working, and they are unlikely to abandon it regardless of Washington’s new deterrence measures.


2- Turkiye and the Gulf Continue Transition From Antagonists to Allies

We continued to see a stunning turnaround in relations among Turkiye, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. Just two years ago, Turkiye and the UAE were locked in proxy conflicts on multiple fronts, while Saudi Arabia considered Turkiye a significant opponent in the region. Now, the three countries are moving at full speed in the opposite direction.

First, Turkish-Saudi relations. During Erdogan’s second visit to Saudi Arabia on July 17, 2023, the two nations signed three significant memorandums of cooperation covering energy, direct investment, and media collaboration. An executive plan for cooperation was also established, encompassing capabilities, defense industries, research, development, and two contracts with Baykar Technology, particularly in the defense and aerospace industries, focusing on drones. At the end of the visit to Saudi, Officials from the Turkish Trade Ministry stated that exports to the Gulf reached $21 billion and noted that Saudi Arabia is one of the largest markets for Turkish contractors. In comparison, bilateral trade climbed to $6.5 billion.

Matters had already improved even before Erdogan visited Saudi Arabia, as sixteen Turkish and Saudi companies signed cooperation agreements amounting to $10 billion in direct investment, with a further $30 billion envisioned over an extended period. Senior Turkish officials had initially expected a total figure of at most $10 billion in direct investment, eventually reaching $25 billion to $30 billion from the Gulf countries in the long term.

Next, Turkish-Emirati relations. Erdogan followed his Riyadh trip by visiting the UAE, where he and Emirati leaders agreed to establish a high-level strategic council and sealed business agreements totaling $50 billion

In sum, Erdogan returned to Ankara having reached partnership agreements worth a remarkable $60 billion with his former adversaries. More importantly, the three countries accomplished a regional realignment that will give both Turkiye and the Gulf states strategic depth, allowing them to focus on national security interests and threats that they’ve decided are more important. For Turkiye, that could mean more bandwidth to deal with the crisis in the Black Sea region and probably Syria. For the Saudis and Emiratis, that means more bandwidth to address their growing Iran problem–or perhaps their growing rivalry between themselves.


3- Netanyahu Moves Ahead with Judicial Reform. What Will Be the Consequences?

On Monday, the Israeli Knesset granted its final approval to the judicial reform law that has touched off unprecedented political discord in the country. PM Netanyahu’s governing coalition was present in the Knesset to vote 64-0 to pass the law, with all 56 opposition members boycotting the vote. The law will limit the Israeli supreme court’s ability to overturn government decisions and policies based on the traditional “reasonableness” doctrine. 

Netanyahu and his allies say the supreme court’s judicial review has become too subjective. Opponents of the reform law say judicial review is an essential check on government power. Israel has no written constitution so the law will change the constitutional balance of power between the government and judiciary. However, proponents of the reform law say the supreme court had already been overstepping its bounds by using judicial review to effectively veto government policies that the Israeli left opposed. 

Three Significant Risks: 

  • First, many Israelis worry that the internal strife of the judicial reform law could spill over into violence between loyalists of the right and left.
  • Second, Israelis and their foreign allies fear that the internal strife could make Israel more vulnerable to external attack from the Iranian regime and its proxies. They worry that if Israel is distracted and paralyzed by internal conflict, it may not be unified enough to face a mounting Iranian threat.
  • Third, the political fracture over the reform law has spilled over into the Israeli military in an unprecedented way. Thousands of IDF members oppose the reform law and have joined in the massive protests against it.  But it goes further: thousands of IDF members, including some air force pilots, have threatened that they will not continue their military reserve duties if the law is implemented. Current and former IDF leaders warn that the situation could result in a disastrous loss of military readiness for the IDF, precisely when the Iranian regime has attempted to create a proxy threat in the West Bank.

It’s too soon to know whether these three risks are warranted. Netanyahu and his coalition wanted the judicial reform not just to “correct” what they see as an imbalance of power between the government and the judiciary but because they came to power wanting to implement specific policies that they expected the supreme court to block, especially some pro-settler policies that the Israeli opposition abhors. The real confrontation over judicial reform could come when Netanyahu and his government implement their controversial policies. 

The Iranian threat, however, is accurate and rising. The large-scale clashes between the IDF and Iran-backed militants in Jenin in recent weeks showed that Tehran is capable of creating new militant threats in the West Bank that the Palestinian Authority cannot suppress. It’s highly likely the Iranians will look to take advantage of Israel’s political crisis to push ahead with trying to turn the West Bank into a proxy battlefield.

It’s not yet clear how accurate the fissures in the Israeli military are. Netanyahu and his allies seem to be betting they can call the reservist protestors’ bluff, as Reagan did with the air traffic controllers in 1981. It’s hard to imagine IDF members walking away from their military roles if the country continues under Iranian proxy attack, however.

If Israel is in internal turmoil, and the Gulf countries continue with their effort to seek detente with the Iranian regime, the US administration may find itself having to do the heavy lifting of deterring Iran by itself.

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