Given the region’s changing power dynamics, it is unwise for Jordan to try to woo the Saudis by striking an anti-Iran posture
By Abdel Bari Atwan
Some years ago, Jordan’s King Abdallah coined the regrettable term ‘Shia Crescent’ to warn against the expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East and the threat this supposedly posed to the region following the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Now the same alarm is being sounded again, employing a different catch-phrase. The newly appointed chief of staff of the Jordanian army, Gen. Mamoud Freihat, used a BBC television interview to highlight the dangers of an ‘Iranian Belt’ which he warned could create a territorial link between Iran and Lebanon via Iraq and Syria.
This warning was issued shortly after Jordan was shaken by events in the southern town of Karak, where an Islamic State (IS) cell stormed the famous citadel and killed seven members of the security forces and a foreign tourist in a bloody gun-battle and subsequent clashes over the course of three days. IS claimed responsibility, as it did for four other attacks that took place in Jordan last year.
Many found it surprising, therefore, that the authorities should chose to talk up the threat represented by IS’ arch-foe Iran.
It is not usual for Jordanian generals to make high-profile television appearances and publicly discuss matters of regional politics, and the chief of staff would not have done so on his own initiative. He was clearly acting on orders from the ruling establishment, with the aim of delivering two messages.
The first was directed at a domestic audience, aimed at reassuring Jordanians that their army and security forces are capable of preserving the stability in a country surrounded by raging wars.
The second message addressed the outside world, and was designed to spell out that Jordan remains resolutely a member of the ‘Sunni’ Arab – and specifically Gulf-led – camp, and shares its view that Iran constitutes the greatest threat facing the region. Hence the general’s professed alarm at the prospect of Iraqi Shia Poplar Mobilization forces taking over the Sunni Turcoman town of Talaafar, or proceeding to do battle with IS in Syria after the battle for Mosul is over.
It is hard to judge on the validity of these warnings without being privy to the information at the general’s disposal that prompted him to make them.
Nevertheless, it would be wise for Jordan to avoid adopting stances that may prove to have an adverse impact on its security and stability, especially in light of the fundamental change that is underway in the region’s balance of power — which have prompted a much more powerful country, Turkey, to reposition itself and radically review its policies, especially with regard to the Syrian crisis.
Jordan has always prided itself on being a haven of stability and paragon of communal and sectarian coexistence in a turbulent region. It has so far succeed in weathering a succession of fierce storms that have ravaged it.
This has not been easy. Jordan had to pay dearly – in the form of the cutting-off of promised Gulf aid — for its refusal to go all-out against the regime in Syria, resisting pressure from the US and Arab states who sought to exploit its economic difficulties and $36 billion debt to blackmail it. Similarly, it declined to deploy its Special Forces in Yemen, knowing that the war there would be unwinnable, a view that has since been vindicated.
This is why many Jordanians and outsiders found the latest statements about the ‘Iranian Belt’ to be not only puzzling but also troubling and badly timed.
The aim may have been to curry favour with Saudi Arabia — which these days defines its friends and enemies, especially among its neighbours, in terms of the nature of their relations with Iran — in the hope of regaining financial and economic support. If so, this approach is unlikely to bear fruit. Saudi Arabia is facing its own economic crisis as well as a hugely costly war in Yemen that shows no sign of ending. It has imposed austerity measures on its own citizens, and can no longer be expected to behave as it did in the past on the regional front.
If proof of that were needed, it lies in the fact 2016 drew to a close with no further mention made of the one-billion dollar annual aid pledge to Jordan that the Gulf states were supposedly set to renew.
As the Jordanian popular saying goes: ‘If it was going to rain, there would be clouds.’