Amid shifting regional alliances, will Jordan open up to Iran?

By Osama Al Sharif, AL MONITOR

As Jordanians bade farewell to an exceptionally bad year for the kingdom in terms of worsening economic and social conditions, forecasts for 2018 were noticeably not optimistic. Parliament is expected to pass a controversial state budget that will approve an International Monetary Fund (IMF) mandated suspension of subsidies that will include bread — an essential daily staple for millions of Jordanians. In addition, a draft income tax law will limit exemptions for paying income tax and lower the threshold for those who will have to pay the tax. Economic growth remains sluggish and the state budget continues to suffer from deficits, while foreign and local debt has passed the $36 billion mark. Economists have warned that foreign aid to the kingdom might also decrease in 2018.

But the gloomy economic picture is only part of the current state of pessimism. Pundits have pointed to major geopolitical shifts in the region during 2017 that put additional pressure on the kingdom. They included worsening relations with Israel, a perception that traditional Gulf allies are negotiating secretly with Israel to pass President Donald Trump’s so-called “ultimate deal” at the expense of both Jordan and the Palestinians, and most recently the fallout from Trump’s unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Despite tough warnings from the United States, Jordan — which has led an intensive diplomatic campaign to counterbalance Trump’s proclamation — voted in favor of the UN General Assembly resolution Dec. 21, which described any change to the status of Jerusalem as null and void and was seen as a rebuke to the White House. Still, Jordanians worry that the United States might retaliate by slashing an estimated $1.2 billion in annual economic and military aid. Worse still, they fear that the historically firm alliance with the United States might suffer under the current administration.

King Abdullah had hoped to build a strong relationship with Trump. He was the only Arab leader to meet him three times last year. The king is a familiar visitor to Capitol Hill and enjoys excellent ties with key lawmakers. As such, it will be difficult for the Trump administration to take punitive measures against Amman without facing objections from Congress.

Still, there is a feeling of growing isolation and perhaps even marginalization by Jordan in light of shifting alliances and new geopolitical realities in the region. As such, pundits have called on the leadership to react to such realities and open channels with perceived foes, including Iran.

Historically, Jordan’s foreign policy has been pragmatic and cautious. Abdullah has followed in his father’s footsteps in navigating tough foreign policy challenges. Abdullah was the first to warn of a “Shiite crescent” extending from Tehran to Beirut as far back as 2004. Relations between Amman and Tehran have been tepid for decades — reaching their lowest point during the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s — although there was a willingness by Jordan to improve ties after the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president in 2013. When Iranian protesters attacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran in January 2016, Jordan did not sever ties with Iran but recalled its ambassador instead.

There is little doubt here that Trump’s move on Jerusalem has dealt a fatal blow to the two-state solution — a cornerstone of Jordan’s national security. The Israeli far-right government is perceived as hostile to Jordan’s interests, and its adoption of unilateral measures to consolidate its hold over the West Bank will give credence to radical Jewish voices that claim a Palestinian state already exists — in Jordan. Added to this is the growing suspicion that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates may be willing to bypass Jordan in order to normalize ties with Israel.

Amid such solemn developments, calls for Jordan to respond by improving ties with Tehran have been made by a number of influential pundits. Writing in the Addustour daily Dec. 26, political analyst Oraib al-Rantawi called on the government to emulate the UAE example. “Trade between Iran and the UAE, two countries that are at odds politically, is more than $17 billion annually, and yet Abu Dhabi heads the anti-Iran campaign,” he wrote.

Rantawi added, “We have no dispute with Tehran, and we don’t have to be in the forefront of countries opposing it. We should normalize relations and return our ambassador immediately.”

Writing in the daily Al-Ghad on Dec. 26, political commentator Mohammad Abu Rumman also called on the government to open up to Iran “especially now that Tehran is the gateway to Iraq with its vast market and standing offer to provide us with cheap oil.”

But, he added, “Such a move should not mean that we must change our alliances but to give us the chance to protect our national interests.” Abu Rumman said, “We should be aware that we are politically isolated and that we have deep differences with our traditional allies.”

The editor of Al-Ghad, Jumana Ghuneimat, also called on Jordan to “review its traditional alliances at a time when Tehran is sending positive messages to Jordan.” Writing on Dec. 19, she said, “We have to open the door for new players, especially those who stand with us. … Iran is offering us economic partnership and we should accept.”

In an interview with Al-Monitor published Dec. 19, Iranian Ambassador to Jordan Mojtaba Ferdosipour said, “When the doors to promote and consolidate economic relations open between Iran and Jordan, the Jordanian side will benefit the most. The Iranian market consists of 80 million people, while the Jordanian market is comprised of about 9 million people.”

He added, “In 2015, Iran and Jordan agreed to form joint economic committees, but after Saudi-Iranian ties went up in flames, the Saudi Embassy in Tehran was shut down and the Jordanian ambassador to Tehran was summoned in 2016, the committees suspended their work.”

So far the Jordanian government has not shown any signs that it is ready to alter the state of its alliances or improve relations with Tehran. Certainly, any normalization between Jordan and Iran at this sensitive juncture will not be welcomed by the kingdom’s Gulf allies or by Washington. Since its inception as a kingdom in 1946, Jordan has managed to overcome numerous existential challenges both regionally and domestically. It now appears that 2018 will usher in one of these challenges.

Osama Al Sharif is a veteran journalist and political commentator based in Amman who specializes in Middle East issues. He can be reached at On Twitter: @plato010

January 3, 2018 | Comments »

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