Middle East

Caught between Israel and Iran, Jordan clings desperately to stability

Author: Editors Desk, Assiya HAMZA Source: France 24
April 20, 2024 at 02:51
Jordan's King Abdullah II speaks during a joint statement with French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday, February 16, 2024 at the Élysée Palace in Paris. © Yoan Valat, AP
Jordan's King Abdullah II speaks during a joint statement with French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday, February 16, 2024 at the Élysée Palace in Paris. © Yoan Valat, AP

After Iran’s unprecedented missile and drone attack on Israel on April 13, Jordan finds itself caught between the two enemies. Friday morning's suspected Israeli strikes in central Iran have intensified fear that the country could be dragged into an escalation against its will. Having been historically neutral in the two countries’ decades-old struggle, the Hashemite kingdom is now seeing its delicate balancing act threatened. 


It’s a balancing act years in the making. Jordan, long obsessed with maintaining stability with Israel and Iran, has now been caught up in the war that could be unfolding on its doorstep. On the night of April 13, the Hashemite kingdom took part in the interception of “flying objects” that had entered its airspace in a historic drone and missile attack launched by Iran against the Jewish state. It was enough to leave the small country shaken.

Since the morning after the attack, the Jordanian government has insisted time and again that its actions had been a simple matter of self-defence, saying that the drones and missiles “that entered our airspace last night were dealt with and confronted preventively without endangering the safety of our citizens and residential and populated areas”.

Any threat, including those coming from Israel, would have been and will be treated the same, Jordanian Foreign Affairs Minister Ayman Safadi said on state TV. In addition, the Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF) wasted no time in intensifying its airborne operations to stop any further unauthorised intrusions into the kingdom’s airspace.

“Jordan is the main corridor to attack Israel from Iran, which has violated Jordan’s sovereignty and airspace,” said Jalal al Husseini, a researcher associated with the French Institute of the Near East (IFPO) in Jordan’s capital Amman. “Without even thinking of Israel, Jordan was keen to ensure that its airspace and sovereignty were respected.”



Applauded by Israel and the US, this unprecedented involvement by Jordan has unsurprisingly provoked fierce anger from Iran. According to a military source cited by the Iranian press agency Fars, Jordan could be the “next target” if Amman took part in any further actions to help Israel.


A frosty relationship

“Iran is considered a threat to the region’s balance and stability,” al Husseini explained, pointing to King Abdullah II of Jordan’s highlighting in 2004 of what he called a “Shiite Crescent”.

“At the time, that meant Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, and we’ll now be adding Yemen as well,” al Husseini said. “He was denouncing a threat that would have to be contained and minimised as much as possible. So relations with these countries have therefore always been very cold.”Despite Amman maintaining a diplomatic presence in Tehran and vice versa, Jordan has always been worried by Iran’s influence in its affairs. Speaking on April 16, Foreign Affairs Minister Safadi proclaimed that Jordan refused to become “a theatre of war” for the Islamic republic, whose influence in neighbouring Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen is hard to deny.

“The Iranians have their eyes on Jordan, they look at it as the weakest link in the region,” Ghaith al-Omari, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Times of Israel. “And the Jordanian military considers Iran to be the most prominent threat in the area, due to the presence of Iran-sponsored militias on the Syrian border and the eastern border [with Iraq]. They are very concerned about the Iranian influence extending into the West Bank [which shares a long border with Jordan] through Hamas.”


Proxy war

For 40 years, the Shiite groups that make up the so-called “axis of resistance” have dedicated themselves to opposing Israel and its patron the US, respectively dubbed the “small” and “great Satan”. Over the years, these groups have increasingly been seen as Iran’s “proxies” in the Middle East.

These partners, like Hezbollah’s militias in Lebanon, are capable of providing operational and military assistance to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards by launching attacks in their stead. And as shown by the Yemen-based Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea since the beginning of the Gaza war, these groups’ ability to cause major problems can be difficult to control.



For Nimrod Goren, a specialist in Israeli affairs at the Middle East Institute interviewed by AFP, Iran could be seeking "to meddle in Jordan and change the dynamics there in its favour, like it did in other countries".

"That's a major concern for Jordan," he said.

Al Husseini agreed, saying that despite its generally “prudent” foreign policy, Iran could increasingly be looking to intervene abroad by means of terrorist threats launched by its “proxies”.


Not getting involved

The kingdom finds itself more than ever caught between the two belligerents – and washing its hands of both.

"Jordan has nothing to do with the struggle for influence between the Persian project and the Zionist project," Jordan’s former information minister Samih Al-Maaytah told AFP.

"It does not want to get involved in a regional conflict," he said.

Jordan is not the only Arab state to have played a role in Israel’s defence over the weekend. Although they have denied it, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates appear to have passed intelligence on Iran’s plans to the US as well as opening their airspace for the operation, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Despite this, the Hashemite kingdom is the only one among them to have actively taken part in the aerial operation to shoot down the drones. 

Jordan was the second Arab country – after Egypt in 1978 – to recognise Israel, signing the Wadi Araba Treaty on October 26, 1994. The decision served as a means to secure its borders, with the kingdom having lost half of its territory – the West Bank – in the Six-Day War won by Israel in 1967.

“It’s a treaty that Jordan continues to benefit from in terms of its economy and security,” al Husseini said.


Depending on Israel…

Since then, Jordan has remained economically dependent on Israel.

“Since at least the end of the 2000s, the country has been suffering an economic crisis. The poverty rate is pretty high,” al Husseini said. Jordan lacks natural resources – especially, and crucially, water. Each year, Israel provides the kingdom with 50 million cubic meters of water. In 2014, Jordan also signed an agreement covering the importation of 2 billion cubic meters of gas from Israel’s Tamar gas field over 15 years.

“There’s a great deal of tourism between the two countries, many economic and security agreements, but the negative developments in the Israel-Palestine situation keeps them in a cold peace,” al Husseini said.


…but supporting the Palestinians

But Jordan has also become inseparable from the Palestinian cause. During the Nakba – or “catastrophe” – of 1948, thousands of Palestinians driven from their homes by Israeli troops found refuge in the Hashemite kingdom. In 1967, 200,000 Palestinian refugees joined them as a result of what was dubbed the Naksa – “setback”. Today, more than half of Jordan’s population has Palestinian origins – including Queen Rania.

“Unlike other Arab countries and against the recommendations of the Arab League in 1959, Jordan is the only country to have granted citizenship to Palestinian refugees,” al Husseini explained. “The country respects their right to return to their country in principle, but their citizenship in Jordan allows for the country’s modernisation and growth. If we add the Palestinians who fled the Second Intifada but who don’t have citizenship, we reach about half of the population, even if saying that is still a bit taboo.”

Jordan is also considered to be the guardian of East Jerusalem’s holy sites, including the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The mosque, the third-most sacred site in Islam, is built on the summit of what Jews call the Temple Mount, the holiest place in their religion. Jordan therefore works closely with Israel’s security and intelligence services, even if Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s far-right government has strained an already delicate relationship.

“Each time that there have been abuses from the Israeli side, such as banning visits or settler intrusions into the holy sites, Jordan has always denounced them vehemently, but without ever affecting Israeli interests,” al Husseini said. “Popular demonstrations are allowed, but there are two red lines: the borders and the Israeli embassy. People can make their voices heard, but that’s as far as it goes. It’s a balancing act.”


Taking a stand

From a purely strategic point of view, Jordan has therefore chosen to be “close to Israel, and to attempt to influence it rather than enter into a confrontation that would in any case work to Israel’s advantage,” al Husseini said. Since the October 7 attacks, Jordan has repeatedly called for a ceasefire and respect for humanitarian law. The Hashemite kingdom was also the first country to recall its ambassador to Israel after the war broke out in Gaza.

In a rare interview granted to CNN at the end of October, Queen Rania condemned the Western world’s reaction – or lack thereof – to the Israeli campaign in the besieged enclave.

“This is the first time in modern history that there is such human suffering and the world is not even calling for a ceasefire,” Queen Rania added. “So the silence is deafening – and to many in our region, it makes the Western world complicit.”

King Abdullah II, for his part, has been doing his best for more than six months to limit the risks of the conflict spreading across the region. The king has rejected all forced displacement of Palestinians in Gaza and maintains that the total siege of the enclave and Israel’s bloody bombing constitute a “war crime”. The monarch has also told US President Joe Biden that his country will not become "the theatre of a regional war".

But today, while Qatar and Egypt are actively participating in the negotiations between Hamas and Israel, Jordan finds itself with no leverage of its own. Hamas has always been viewed as “a factor of instability”, al Husseini said. “That’s why King Hussein closed Hamas’s offices in Jordan in 1999,” he said.

Since October 7, though, Jordan’s population has somewhat changed its view of the Palestinian Islamist movement.

“It’s the only Palestinian movement, by default, that can hold its own against Israel. The fact that Hamas succeeded in breaking through into Israeli territory, which seemed impossible before October 7, is seen as a military achievement,” al Husseini said. “What’s more, these attacks have put the Palestinian question back on the regional and world stage, where it had been flagging since the failure of the Oslo accords. Hamas has also succeeded in making the far-right government back down by obtaining the freedom of prisoners and, even more importantly, stopping the agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia.”

Since Iran’s attacks on Israel, the eyes of the world are once again turned away from Gaza. Speaking alongside his German counterpart at a press conference in Berlin on April 16, Jordan’s Foreign Affairs Minister Safadi called on the international community not to fall into the trap.

“We’re against escalation,” he said, warning that Netanyahu was trying to divert the world’s attention from Gaza and fix it on the confrontation with Iran. 


The American question

Complicating Jordan’s position even further is its close ties with the US. Faced with the risk of escalation, Jordan can’t go against its American ally.

“American budgetary support (excluding military aid) to Jordan represents six percent of the kingdom’s annual budget,” Marion Sorant, FMES associate member of the Strategic Observatory of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, wrote in an article published in 2022. 

In 2021, Jordan and the US signed a military defence cooperation agreement. Most controversially, the agreement allows the US army to move freely in Jordan, which also serves as the rear base of the Global Coalition against Daesh – a number of French and British military bases are present in the country’s north, fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. Since the start of the war in Gaza, hostile demonstrations have taken place not far from the US and Israeli embassies in Amman.

“The population is very aware that without the financial, economic and technological support of the US and the European Union, Jordan would seriously struggle to stand up to its neighbours,” al Husseini said.

Amman is now relying more than ever on Washington to put pressure on its strongest regional ally.

“The US is the only one who can really influence Israel. But we can’t forget that Netanyahu’s fate is linked to Gaza and now to Iran,” al Husseini said. “He needs a total victory in Gaza to make people forget the shame of October 7. He has no choice. Or else it will be Iran. But that would surprise me, because absolutely no one wants that. Including Iran.”

With the world still waiting to see the extent of Israel’s response to Iran’s strikes, Jordan remains on a razor’s edge.

“Like all the major powers such as the US and the other Arab states, Jordan is hoping that Israel will not launch a direct counter-attack,” al Husseini said. “The country has no wish to be a part of this conflict. Once again, the Jordanian regime’s obsession is stability. But Jordan isn’t holding the knife by the handle, it can’t put pressure on Israel, let alone Iran. It can’t do much, so it’s waiting like everyone else – even though it’s more exposed than the other Arab countries.”

This article has been adapted from the original in French, which was published on April 18 before the suspected Israeli strikes on Iran.

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