Between Warsaw and Amman: The Paradox of Self-distancing in a Conflict Environment

The evolving trajectory of the Iranian-Israeli conflict has various implications for the Middle East. In the past, Iran engaged in proxy confrontations, but the Israeli strike on the Iranian consulate building marked a potential turning point that could signal unprecedented changes. For the first time, Iran responded directly to the targeting of its consulate in Damascus by launching attacks from Iranian territory directly towards Israel. This response, also for the first time, posed a direct threat to Jordan’s airspace. Amman responded by reaffirming its sovereignty over its airspace and intercepting any objects entering Jordanian skies.

This scenario resurrects questions previously explored in strategic analysis studies, which may have been absent from public discourse for some time. These questions centre on Jordan’s position if a direct Iranian-Israeli conflict were to break out, especially given Jordan’s geographical location, which places it in the middle of the two parties due to its geopolitical inevitability.

History points to the Polish experience during World War II as a paradox. Before September 1939, a great deal of uncertainty and conflicting regional interests marked the situation surrounding Poland. This led to the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany, followed by the Soviet Union. Prior to the invasion, there was a secret agreement between the foreign ministers of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, later revealed and known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The pact stipulated that the two sides would not attack each other and outlined the division of Polish territories between them. This indeed happened, with German and Soviet forces closing in on Poland and the two armies meeting in central Poland, a move that was considered a conspiracy against the nation, which had tried to avoid being drawn into the conflict. A series of British warnings to Hitler not to harm Poland preceded this invasion. The Allies’ response was the declaration of war on Nazi Germany by Britain and France. This event is recognised as the direct spark that ignited World War II, and Poland’s suffering continued throughout the war (1939–1945).

The lesson from this event is that maintaining neutrality in a regional conflict is difficult, and Poland’s geographical location between the two powers may have contributed to the politicians’ inability to navigate the conflict and avoid becoming entangled in the Soviet and Nazi projects.

In the contemporary Middle East, where a long series of violent conflicts have plagued the region over the past century, most recently during the period following the “Arab Spring,” which reshaped the region and whose effects are still felt today, along with the cycles of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that oscillate in a seemingly endless loop with no prospects for a serious settlement on the horizon, there is Jordan, caught in the midst of the region’s ambiguity and the conflicting geopolitical projects of Iran and Israel.

Jordan has previously avoided involvement in many regional conflicts, which has contributed to its stability for decades. However, the risks of the region slipping into an open Iranian-Israeli confrontation call for heightened caution this time. Jordan’s strategy for navigating the crisis and distancing its geography from any Iranian-Israeli conflict demonstrates a high level of rationality in Jordanian decision-making. But the crucial question remains: how rational will Iran and Israel be in controlling the tempo of their confrontation?

The closure of Jordan’s airspace to Iranian missiles and drones, along with the warning to Israel not to use Jordanian airspace for retaliatory attacks against Iran, is interpreted as a serious message for the future directed at both parties. The message is that Jordan is not a place to settle regional scores. Jordan’s geographical inevitability places it at the center of the Middle East region, yet its management of this geographical position reflects the political decision-maker’s ability to avoid drawing into any regional confrontation. This raises questions about Jordan’s ability to adhere to the principle of non-alignment in the current conflict environment, given that it is the most effective approach for the current landscape. Jordan’s experience in regional conflicts strengthens this principle, emphasising the benefits of not getting involved in these conflicts due to several factors. The first is the frequent shifting of regional alliances. Jordan’s strategic location is where both Iranian and Israeli influences are at play. Non-alignment also aligns with Jordan’s constraints if the regional alignment shifts.

Referring to another historical event might shed light on how Jordan navigated a similar crisis when Iraq targeted Israel with Scud missiles (surface-to-surface) in January 1991. The Israeli response was on high alert, preparing to retaliate against Iraq, putting Jordanian geography at the centre of the conflict once again. At that time, Jordan sent strong messages to the United States, refusing to allow Israel to use Jordanian airspace to retaliate against Iraq and emphasising that Jordan would take the necessary military measures if its airspace were violated. This was to maintain Jordanian sovereignty and airspace integrity. This stance indeed occurred as the administration of President George H. W. Bush pressured the Israeli government under Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to refrain from responding to the Iraqi missiles. The Israeli government complied with the American pressure, despite the absence of a peace treaty between Jordan and Israel at the time.

This event supports the notion that history repeats itself, meaning the same event recurs but with different players. This time, the eastern party is Iran with its ideologically-driven regional project, not Arab Iraq, and the western party is Israel, which is more extreme than it was in the 1990s. The experiment has shown that achieving genuine peace with Israel is challenging, given the rise of the far-right. Between the east and the west, Jordan seeks to avoid regional polarisation, as both parties have regional projects that undoubtedly surpass Jordanian interests.

The political propaganda from both sides uses psychological tactics to inflame the region’s populations. Iran openly declares its hostility towards Israel, while Israel amplifies the Iranian threat to the region’s countries, calling for alliances to counter it. The reality is that neither project considers Arab interests; instead, they seek to attract Arab countries to achieve their self-serving goals.

Jordan’s success in maintaining a policy of non-involvement in regional conflicts is considered the ultimate goal in the rough environment of the Middle East, especially with the absence of Arab collective action, which leads to a lack of strategic depth for Jordan amid conflicting regional geopolitical projects. This context prompts questions about Jordan’s future ability to continue adopting a non-alignment strategy, as well as the limits of the sustainable political maneuvering margin within which Jordan can operate to ensure its national security while continuing to manage its geographical position, distancing itself from regional confrontations that could have long-term consequences.

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