Why Jordan, and maybe even Saudi Arabia, helped defend Israel

The reasons why Jordan and, reportedly, Saudi Arabia helped thwart Iran's attack on Israel are varied, complex and perhaps self-serving, observers say. But they may also reveal their greater concern about the threat posed by Iran and in preventing a wider conflict.

The threat posed by Iran, and of a wider conflict, looms over the region

Streaks of light are seen in the sky, over a city, at sunset.
Israeli defences shoot down Iranian missiles over central Israel on Saturday. Jordan was among the countries that helped defend Israel during the attack — shooting down Iranian drones as they flew overhead. Jordan also reportedly allowed Israeli jets into its airspace. (Tomer Neuberg/The Associated Press)

When Iran launched its barrage of drones and missiles against Israel over the weekend, they ran into interference from one or two unlikely sources. 

The reasons why Jordan and, reportedly, Saudi Arabia helped thwart the attack are varied, complex and perhaps self-serving, observers say.

But they may also reveal the Arab nations' greater concern about the threat posed by Iran and in preventing a widespread regional conflict.

Iran launched its missiles and drones at Israel in response to an apparent Israeli strike on an Iranian consulate in Syria on April 1 that killed 12 people, including two Iranian generals. Almost all of them were intercepted by Israeli defence forces, along with the U.S., Britain, France and Jordan.

According to reports Saudi Arabia provided intelligence reports about Iran's plans to the U.S.

But Jordan played a more active role, helping to shoot down drones as they flew over its airspace. Meanwhile, NBC News reports that Jordan also allowed Israeli jets into its airspace, and may have, in what some believe is a first, fought side by side.

'Especially remarkable'

Jordan's participation was "especially remarkable," according to Mairav Zonszein, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, for those Israelis who remember sheltering from their eastern neighbour's attacks. Israel and Jordan ended decades of hostilities and established diplomatic relations with a peace treaty in 1994. 

"The takeaway: diplomatic deals are vital for stability," Zonszein wrote on X. 

Jordan has been very critical of Israel's actions in Gaza. Still, Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says its help against the Iranian attack proved the strength of Jordan's shared security interest with Israel. 

Despite their political tensions, "the military and intelligence relationship never stopped," he told The Times of Israel.

"As a matter of fact, the worse the politics gets, the closer the militaries get, because they both understand the need to maintain this relationship. This is part of both Jordan's military doctrine and Israeli military doctrine."

Jordanian officials have said very little, seeming to downplay their involvement in last weekend's attack, instead insisting they were protecting their own security as Iranian projectiles passed through their airspace.

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Brian Katulis, a senior fellow of U.S. foreign policy at the Middle East Institute, agrees that, first and foremost, Jordan's response was self-defence.

But, he said, it also sent the message: "Even though we have differences and strong differences with Israel ... on the Gaza war and other things, we do have this shared interest in making sure that the airspace in our territory is defended."

Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, says he wasn't surprised that, publicly, Jordan was trying to downplay its role. The country is in a precarious position — that peace treaty with Israel is very unpopular with its population, which includes a great many Palestinians. 

Protests against the war in Gaza have recently been intensifying in Jordan. However, the Jordanian monarchy is very close to both Israel and the U.S. and is very reliant on the latter for security, political, diplomatic and developmental support, Juneau said.

It's also in the Jordanian government's interest to avoid a blowup between Israel and Iran, because Jordan, which shares a border with Israel, would be on the top of the list of those other countries that suffer the most, Juneau said.

Helping defend Israel is "one way to try to do its part to prevent this from escalating." Juneau said.

Overriding concern about Iran 

Meanwhile, any role Saudi Arabia may have played could just be another sign of its overriding concern of Iranian aggression, Juneau said.

Last year, Saudi Arabia its longtime regional rival, with the help of China, restored diplomatic relations. Yet Iran remains a perceived threat for the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to fight a proxy war in Yemen, and the latter's support of militant groups including Hamas and Hezbollah vexes countries throughout the region, Israel among them. 

"Saudi/Israeli co-operation has really been deepening," Juneau said. "Saudi Arabia and Israel share a common enemy in Iran that's been the main driver of all of that co-operation."

Before the war in Gaza, there had been ongoing negotiations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to have Saudi Arabia normalize relations with Israel in exchange for a U.S. defence pact. Those have since stalled, but Saudi Arabia is keen to get the negotiations back on track, Juneau said.

Israel's war with Hamas has made a Saudi defence pact with the U.S. more likely "because it further clarifies the strength of the threat that Iran poses to regional security," he said.

Large yellow and green flags wave from a line of cars, driving through an arid landscape.
A supporter waves a Hezbollah flag in Marjayoun, Lebanon, in May 2018. Iran's support of militant group's including Hamas and Hezbollah vexes countries throughout the region, Israel among them. (Aziz Taher/Reuters)

Last weekend's attack by Iran "will even further incentivize Saudi Arabia"

Some observers also suggest any co-operation against the Iranian attack underscores recent efforts toward a American-Arab-Israeli regional security architecture.

It's an idea that was quietly pushed by the Trump administration — a so-called Arab NATO — a new security alliance that would see Israel link with some Arab states to counter Iran's expansion in the region.

"Such co-operation offers a preview of what an increasingly capable combined regional security architecture could accomplish when it comes to deterring, detecting, and defeating Iranian aggression," wrote the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in its analysis of the Israel-Iran conflict.

But Katulis is skeptical of such a pact forming. 

"I'd be surprised if there ever would be like a formal alliance against Iran formed," he said. 

Because of the region's complex politics, countries there, especially these days, tend to hedge their bets, he says. 

It's "sort of the rule of the day these days. A number of these countries hedge on different issues in their relations with others," he said. But that's the same reason they're often reluctant to put pen on paper, and commit to a permanent alliance. 

That's "just not how things operate these days." 

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Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Associated Press