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AnalysisThe 3 nations most adversarial to Iran, standing together

On Lapid’s Bahrain visit, a photo op at a US Navy base meant for Iranian eyes

There were many encouraging signs from Yair Lapid’s trip to Manama Thursday, but the tripartite display of unity at the US Fifth Fleet base is what Tehran will notice

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

From left, US Fifth Fleet commander Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, US charge d'affaires in Bahrain Maggie Nardi, and Bahrain's FM Abdullatif al Zayani in front of the USS Pearl Harbor in Manama, September 20 2021 (Shlomi Amsalem GPO)
From left, US Fifth Fleet commander Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, US charge d'affaires in Bahrain Maggie Nardi, and Bahrain's FM Abdullatif al Zayani in front of the USS Pearl Harbor in Manama, September 20 2021 (Shlomi Amsalem GPO)

A picture is worth a thousand words, the adage goes. The saying exists in many languages, among them Farsi. And when the US, Israel and Bahrain arranged a visit by Israel’s top diplomat this week to an American base just across the Persian Gulf from Iran, the three countries were certainly hoping it conveyed more than a few choice words to the Islamic Republic.

There were already many encouraging signals during Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s historic visit to Manama this week, which seemed even warmer than the already genial trips he made to open Israel’s diplomatic offices in the United Arab Emirates and Morocco.

During those visits, Lapid was received at the airport by deputy foreign ministers. But it was his Bahraini counterpart, Abdullatif bin Rashid al Zayani, who awaited him as he arrived at Manama International Airport Thursday, cutting a resplendent figure in his tan bisht robe and white headdress.

Other details of the one-day visit indicated the Bahrainis’ desire to do everything in their power to demonstrate their hopes for the future of the bilateral relationship.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (left) is received by his Bahraini counterpart Abdullatif Al Zayani at the airport in Manama, Bahrain, September 30, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

Both Bahrain’s crown prince and king decided to host Lapid in their palaces and release photos to the public, a development that came together in the days leading up to the trip. Bahraini officials spent more than an hour presenting the Israeli journalists on the delegation with powerpoints on Bahrain’s economic potential, womens’ rights and tourist attractions.

But from a regional perspective, the centerpiece of the visit was yet to come: After signing a series of memorandum of understandings at the Four Seasons Hotel in front of Bahraini and Israeli press, Lapid and Zayani headed with their entourages to Naval Support Activity Bahrain, the home of the US Fifth Fleet.

The Fifth Fleet operates in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, where Iran has been stepping up operations and covert attacks.

“We’re very aware of Iran’s posture and we’ll be prepared to deal with that appropriately,” fleet commander Vice Admiral Brad Cooper said in September. “I’m going to leave it at that.”

Awaiting Lapid and Zayani were Cooper as well as Maggie Nardi, America’s envoy to the kingdom.

It was the visual that mattered: representatives of the three countries with the most adversarial relationship with Iran standing together beneath a clear symbol of US military might on the coast of the Persian Gulf

The four dignitaries gave fairly banal statements, without explicitly mentioning Iran, as they stood in front of the USS Pearl Harbor, a hulking 16,000-ton amphibious warship.

But the statements were clearly beside the point. It was the visual that mattered: representatives of the three countries with the most adversarial relationship with Iran standing together beneath a clear symbol of US military might on the coast of the Persian Gulf.

From left, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif al Zayani, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, and US Fifth Fleet commander Vice Admiral Brad Cooper aboard the USS Pearl Harbor, September 30, 2021 (Shlomi Amsalem, GPO)

The message was stark: The US backs Israel’s burgeoning ties with Gulf states; Washington is determined to protect civilian shipping against attacks by Iran and its proxies; any who believe the American withdrawal from Afghanistan means the US is washing its hands of the region are mistaken.

The images out of the Fifth Fleet base come, not coincidentally, as suspended negotiations between Iran and world powers over a return to the 2015 nuclear deal reach a critical phase. The sides have yet to set a date for the first round of talks in Vienna since hardline Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi came into office in August.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid meets with Bahraini King Hamid bin Issa al Khalifa at his palace in Manama on September 30, 2021. (Shlomi Amsallem/GPO)

But even when the parties to the accord do get together again, chances of saving the deal appear to be dwindling. Iran’s significant progress on enrichment and on uranium metal over the past two years renders the 2015 terms sorely outdated. A new deal would have to be negotiated at some fast-approaching point, which would take many long months, but Iran has rejected any new limitations and has only toughened its positions on a return to the previous deal under the new government.

And with Tehran moving forward on its nuclear program, the US, Israel and their Gulf allies must look to a Plan B.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s clear preference is to subject Iran to “death by a thousand cuts,” a strategy he re-asserted to The Times of Israel during this week’s visit to New York City. He wants to pressure Iran from multiple angles — economically, militarily, diplomatically, domestically — in the hopes of either finally hitting the regime’s Achilles’ heel or at least keeping Tehran on the defensive, and permanently a year away from the ability to build a bomb.

The US approach is less clear. Administration officials have been holding secret talks with Bennett advisers on alternatives to a return to the deal, which seem to center on sanctions. But it’s not clear that sanctions can influence Iran’s nuclear policy choices. Even Trump’s maximum pressure campaign, which caused runaway inflation and energy shortages in the Islamic Republic, didn’t succeed in altering Tehran’s behavior — and under the more moderate Hassan Rouhani regime, at that.

To force Raisi back to the table — clearly President Joe Biden’s preferred option — the US has to flex some muscles, especially after the embarrassing flight from Afghanistan.

The photo op in front of the USS Pearl Harbor isn’t enough on its own, of course, but if it signals a recognition by the Biden administration that close coordination with Israel alongside ramped-up pressure on Iran is the way forward, it might help spook Raisi back to Vienna, even if only to buy more time for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to decide whether he wants a deal or not.

In the meantime, the three nations whose representatives met on the pier in Manama, as well as their European and Gulf partners, would be well served to develop a detailed, forceful strategy for the day after talks fail, a real possibility at this stage.

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