People protest against Gulf states' agreement to normalize ties with Israel, at Manarah Square in Ramallah, West Bank, on September 15, 2020. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency / Issam Rimawi

The leak of a purported Iranian plot to assassinate a US envoy, timed to coincide with the normalization of relations between Israel and Iran’s Arab rivals, has the odor of a planted story.

A Politico report citing an anonymous US official claiming that Iran was weighing an assassination attempt against the US ambassador to South Africa in retaliation for the January killing of Iran’s top general Qasem Soleimani was met with surprise in South Africa.

“We only became aware of this report this morning,” a spokesman for South Africa’s Foreign Ministry told Bloomberg on September 14.

Irrespective, US President Donald Trump has used the unconfirmed report as a campaign trail talking point to whip up Iranophobia and saber rattle, promising to respond to any “Iranian violence” with “1,000 times” greater magnitude. 

Similarly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reacted as if he also first read about the supposed plot in the media. As expected, Pompeo has leveraged the report to intensify his hitherto lackluster effort to re-impose United Nations sanctions on Iran.   

Iranians pose with a US President Donald Trump mask as they take part in a protest against the Trump administration’s designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a ‘terrorist organization’ in Tehran on April 12, 2019. Photo: AFP/Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu

The question now is if Trump, who is currently trailing Democratic rival Joe Biden in most opinion polls, is gearing up for an “October surprise” in the form of a military showdown with Iran in a bid to secure a second term in office.   

On a parallel track, both the US and Israel are lobbying European governments to designate the Iran-backed Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, in part by accusing the group of masterminding terror plots by secretly stockpiling large amounts of ammonium nitrate in Germany and several other countries. 

These accusations, though still unsubstantiated, are reportedly gaining traction with the German and other European governments. 

A new agenda

This would not be the first time Israel has resorted to so-called “false flag” operations to smear its enemies. Certainly, there is no sign of any let-up in the systematic US-Israeli campaign to orchestrate a new level of Iranophobia, now energized in light of the US’s failure to bring Iran to its knees through its self-declared “maximum pressure strategy.”     

By all indications, this strategy has now been finetuned by integrating Iran’s Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf in light of the undeniable Iran focus of the so-called “peace agreement” between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Indeed, the agreement is a misnomer since the two countries were not at war and have had cordial relations for several years. 

The “Abraham Accords” touted by the Trump administration brings the UAE into the frame of a new Cold War with Iran and its allies in the region, notwithstanding the tripartite Israel-US-UAE statement that refers to “strategic cooperation” for a new “agenda” for the Middle East. 

(L-R) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan wave from the Truman Balcony at the White House in Washington, DC, after they participated in the signing of the Abraham Accords on September 15, 2020. Photo: AFP

But given Saudi Arabia’s unwillingness to join, so far at least, this may backfire on the UAE and Bahraini rulers. There remains huge pro-Palestinian sentiment on the Arab street, which prompted those rulers to skip the White House ceremony by dispatching their foreign ministers instead. 

Indeed, it was a diplomatic oddity that a US president and Israeli prime minister would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with lower-ranking Arab officials, a far cry from the historic Camp David Accords signed personally by the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. 

Decried by Palestinian groups as a betrayal of their cause, the UAE and Bahraini decision to normalize ties with Israel – which has merely agreed to “suspend” temporarily its land grab under the garb of the “deal of the century” brokered by Trump’s ardently pro-Israel son-in-law Jared Kushner – is bound to bring more instability to the region. 

Erasing trust

The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which sought to withhold normalization as a bargaining chip with Israel following a “land for peace” formula and with it any claim of relevance by the toothless Arab League, is for the most part defunct.

The Arab League failed to condemn the deviation from the 2002 initiative by the UAE and Bahraini rulers, even as the latter faced a potential backlash at home in light of the strong opposition by Bahraini political groups to the normalization agreement with Israel. 

Bahrain, with much direct assistance from Saudi Arabia, has since 2011 cracked down hard on powerful dissent at home. In all likelihood, the unpopular decision to turn its back on oppressed Palestinians will prove to be a costly mistake for Bahrain’s ruling dynasty.    

What is certain, however, is that Israel has now managed to insert itself in the security calculus of the Persian Gulf. The Isreal-UAE normalization agreement was notably followed by a visit of the head of Israel’s secret service to the emirate.

That may be a harbinger of bilateral cooperation on Yemen, where the UAE has split from Saudi Arabia by backing a splinter group.  As such, it is unclear at this point if the UAE and Saudi Arabia are on the same page with respect to Israel’s intentions to expand its influence on Iran’s doorstep.

Turkey, on the other hand, has moved closer to Iran, echoing Iran’s criticisms of the “peace agreement” just as Qatar, another Gulf Cooperation Council member, has refused to back the UAE’s decision. 

Palestinians gather to protest a deal between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel to normalize ties in Gaza City, Gaza on August 19, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via Anadolu Agency/ Mustafa Hassona

The UAE-Israel agreement, widely interpreted in Tehran as a definitive sign of Abu Dhabi’s realignment with Iran’s rivals, potentially puts the two countries on a collision course.

This may result in Iran’s use of its Houthi allies in Yemen to direct attacks on UAE targets, particularly if Tehran is convinced that the UAE is allowing itself to be a conduit for US-Israeli clandestine operations against it.

Looking through the glass darkly, the UAE and Iran, which still enjoy substantial trade relations, could yet use their ties of economic interdependence to repair now damaged relations. But an important prerequisite for any such a rapprochement, namely mutual trust, is now seriously lacking.