Jordan’s help against Iran shows relationship with Israel still strong, despite Gaza

Caught between popular support for Palestinians and the threat of Iranian influence, Amman downplays its role in downing dozens of Israel-bound drones

Gianluca Pacchiani

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

A handout picture released by the Jordanian Royal Palace shows King Abdullah II (R) and his son Crown Prince Hussein meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (not seen here) in Amman, March 17, 2024. (Jordanian Royal Palace/AFP)
A handout picture released by the Jordanian Royal Palace shows King Abdullah II (R) and his son Crown Prince Hussein meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (not seen here) in Amman, March 17, 2024. (Jordanian Royal Palace/AFP)

On Saturday night, dozens of drones launched by Iran toward Israel were intercepted by Jordanian air force jets as they crossed the kingdom’s airspace.

The military assistance provided by Amman to Israel was welcomed enthusiastically in the Jewish state, but also came as a surprise to many Israelis, since the Hashemite Kingdom has been a source of relentless criticism of Israel’s war against Hamas, and has been under intense domestic pressure to break off diplomatic relations with Jerusalem.

To some commentators, however, Amman’s intervention on Saturday night did not come as a surprise. Ghaith al-Omari, a native Jordanian and a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the kingdom’s dramatic show of support proved the strength of the security alliance between Amman and Jerusalem.

“Despite all of the political tensions between Jordan and Israel, the military and intelligence relationship never stopped,” he said. “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.”

In 1994, Jordan became the second Arab country to establish diplomatic ties with Israel (after Egypt in 1979). Jordan sees itself as the custodian of the Muslim holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem, including the Al-Aqsa compound, and the two countries have strong security and intelligence cooperation. But relations between Amman and Jerusalem, frequently under strained in recent years, have become markedly more tense since the start of Israel’s war with Hamas.

Israel provides Jordan with gas through a multi-billion-dollar deal, and with water as part of the 1994 treaty. In November, Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi announced that his country would back out of a United Arab Emirates-brokered deal intended to have Jordan supply solar energy to Israel in return for Israel giving it desalinated water. But in March, Amman reportedly asked to extend it by an additional year. Israel has replied to Jordan with a request that Jordanian officials moderate their vocal criticism of Israel.

People wave Palestinian and Jordanian flags as they march during a demonstration near the US embassy in the capital Amman in solidarity with the people of Gaza on December 15, 2023, during the war between Israel and the terror group Hamas. (Photo by Khalil MAZRAAWI / AFP)

“What happened on Saturday night should be a reminder not only to the Jordanians but also to the Israelis of the importance of their relationship,” al-Omari said.

Amman is aware that it is walking a thin line between its strategic alliance with the US and Israel — a source of substantial financial aid and stability in a tumultuous region — and its commitment to the Palestinian cause. About half of Jordan’s population is Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

Jordan has gone above and beyond to signal its support for Palestinians in Gaza during the ongoing conflict. It was the first country to recall its ambassador from Tel Aviv when Israel fought back in the wake of Hamas’s October 7 massacre, it has called incessantly for a ceasefire, and has delivered substantial amounts of aid to Gaza by air and land.

After news came out that the kingdom’s air force had intervened in support of Israel against Iran, official media channels on Sunday morning downplayed its role in the event.

The official news agency Petra, as has been its custom in recent months, opened its front page with the latest updates from Gaza. It also relayed a vague government statement calling “on all parties” to show “restraint amid regional tensions” in order to prevent a “dangerous escalation.” It did not specify who those parties were.

The same communique fleetingly mentioned toward the end “recent incidents” involving the interception of unspecified “foreign objects in Jordanian airspace to protect citizens and residential areas,” adding that while “some fragments fell in various locations, no significant damage or injuries were reported.”

An image grab from AFPTV footage shows Jordanian onlookers and security agents standing around the debris of a missile that the Jordanian forces intercepted over Amman amid an unprecedented Iranian drone and missile attack on Israel in the early hours of April 14, 2024.. (Ahmad SHOURA / AFP)

Reading other Jordanian news websites on Sunday, one would be hard-pressed to believe that in an act of war the night before, hundreds of projectiles carrying tons of explosives traversed the country’s skies.

National newspapers limited themselves to relaying official statements formulated in vague language. In one such statement, Prime Minister Bisher Al-Khasawneh pledged to take legal action against media outlets that “do not source their information from official and credible channels,” after false rumors spread that a state of emergency had been declared in the country.

Staying clear of Iran’s tentacles

The government’s caution in publicizing the events of Saturday night may be due to Iranian threats that Jordan will be the Islamic Republic’s “next target” if it cooperates with Israel.

Jordanian Prime Minister Bishr Khasawneh speaks during a press conference with Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Dec. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed, File)

Later on Sunday, Safadi, the Jordanian foreign minister, reportedly summoned Iran’s ambassador to warn Tehran that it must stop questioning Jordan’s position, after it assisted Israel.

In fact, Jordan has fretted over Iranian interference in its domestic affairs for years, loath to become another pawn in Tehran’s regional power moves, which have already impacted the internal political landscapes of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

After Saturday night’s events, Amman is concerned that a possible Israeli retaliatory attack using its airspace would give Iran a pretext to target Jordan directly, or attempt to destabilize it, al-Omari said.

File: Suspects are seen along the Israeli-Jordanian border during a weapons-smuggling attempt, in the summer of 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

“The Iranians have their eyes on Jordan, they look at it as the weakest link in the region,” he added. “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.”

In an effort to prevent Iran-backed terrorist groups, be they Hamas or Shiite militias, from becoming entrenched in its territory, Jordan has conducted a series of airstrikes inside Syria in recent months, targeting drugs and weapons smugglers reportedly linked to Tehran.

Multiple factors indicate the recent wave of protests that has engulfed the country is likely being steered by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that spawned Hamas — which also receives strong backing from Iran.

Demonstrators chant slogans near the Israeli Embassy in Amman on October 20, 2023. (Khalil Mazraawi/AFP)

As for Iran-backed Shiite militias on Jordan’s borders, an official of one of those groups in Iraq revealed operative plans to establish a Jordanian militia with 12,000 armed members that would be subordinate to the Iran-led resistance axis.

All of this is not a “cause for alarm, but definitely a concern for Jordan,” said al-Omari.

Preventive efforts by Jordanian security forces against an Iranian encroachment are facilitated by the fact that the Jordanian public is strongly opposed to Iran, he noted. The reason is twofold.

“Firstly, Jordanians see what the Iranians and their allies did in Syria – it’s hard to like Iran after that,” he said, referencing the military support given by the Islamic Republic to the Assad regime in crushing rebels in the Syrian civil war.

Ghaith al-Omari (photo credit: Washington Institute, courtesy)

“Secondly, Jordan is a very conservative Sunni country, with no Shiite minority. There is a strong anti-Shiite sentiment. There was a time a few years ago when Iran actually tried to apply some of its religious soft power in Jordan. It raised concerns in Jordanian society,” al-Omari said.

He predicted that the more conservative camp in the Jordanian government will use the ostensible link between the demonstrators, the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran as a way to delegitimize the pro-Hamas protests.

“If you look at the op-eds in the three main Jordanian daily papers in the last couple of weeks, which are not fully independent [i.e., they follow the government line], you will find a series of articles criticizing the demonstrations and drawing a link with the Iranians,” he said.

Jordanian security forces deploy during a demonstration near the US embassy in the capital Amman in solidarity with the people of Gaza on December 15, 2023, amid the continuing battles between Israel and the terror group Hamas. (Khalil MAZRAAWI / AFP)

“After October 7, there has been a hawkish camp in the Jordanian government saying that [pro-Hamas] protests were overstepping the line. My sense is that the more conservative side will use [Saturday’s attack from Iran] as a way of saying that things are too unstable right now to allow this space for demonstration or for disruption,” al-Omari added.

Jordan’s interceptions

While Amman may be attempting publicly to downplay Iran’s act of war across its territory, the Jordanian population appears to be fully aware of what happened, like the many anti-Israel netizens from around the world, who took to social media to make vitriolic comments against King Abdullah II.

One X user wrote “Congratulations to King of Jordan, who not only failed to support the fellow Arab Palestinians but also took the extra mile to support their genocidal murderer.”

A satirical image circulating online even depicted the monarch wearing an Israeli army uniform.

Regional security sources said drones were brought down in the air on the Jordanian side of the Jordan Valley that were heading in the direction of Jerusalem, while others were intercepted close to the Iraqi-Syrian border.

In the aftermath of the attack, in neighborhoods south of the capital, several downed drones were seen. Residents gathered around the remnants of one suspected large drone that fell in a commercial area of the city’s Marj al-Hamam suburb.

Serena Bilanceri, a freelance journalist residing in Amman, told The Times of Israel that when the Iranian drones and missiles flew over Amman on Saturday night, she heard “people screaming from the houses nearby” in fear. “But you could also hear some shouting ‘Allahu Akbar,’” a chant of joy.

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