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Jordanian National Security and the Future of Middle East Stability

Authored by Dr. W. Andrew Terrill. | January 2008

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One of the most important and longstanding strategic relationships for the United States within the Arab World has been with Jordan. The value of this relationship has increased significantly since 2003 as the result of ongoing U.S. difficulties in Iraq and the wider Middle East. Jordan?s longstanding ties with the West, ongoing counterterrorism efforts, and moderate policies toward Iraq and Israel suggest that it may become a central target of violent extremism in coming years. Moreover, Jordan?s strategic location within the Middle East (bordering Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the Palestinian West Bank territory) make it an especially attractive target for any revolutionary group with region-wide aspirations.

Jordan strongly advised the United States against its 2003 invasion of Iraq but has, nevertheless, sought to find ways to help stabilize Iraqi society after Saddam Hussein?s ouster from power. Amman has made these efforts (including a program to train Iraqi police) in partnership with the United States. Jordan?s fortunes have often been linked to events in Iraq, its larger and more populous neighbor, and the current instability in that country is of special concern to Amman. The best possible Iraqi outcome for Jordan would be the eventual emergence of a stable, pro-Western, pro-Jordanian state, which effectively integrates Iraq?s Sunni Arabs into the emerging political system. The realization of this goal does not appear likely for the foreseeable future, but the Jordanians can be expected to support any reasonable efforts to contain and minimize Iraqi internal warfare which impacts on them through such issues as refugee flow from Iraq and increases in cross border terrorism and crime. Currently, there are at least 750,000 Iraqi refugees in Jordan.

Ongoing setbacks in Iraq?s political reconciliation process suggest that stability there may remain problematic for some time, and that professional terrorists tempered in the crucible of Iraqi fighting may prove a region-wide menace. The Jordanians are concerned about this process and have defined terrorism as the greatest threat that their country is facing. They have also intensified efforts at fighting terrorists including Iraq-based radicals such as the now deceased Jordanian criminal turned al Qaeda leader, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who was hunted down and killed by U.S. military forces with the aid of Jordanian intelligence. Jordan is also seeking to battle terrorism outside of its own borders and can be an important U.S. ally in containing and resisting radicalism throughout large parts of the region. In this regard, the Jordanian monarchy has often depended upon its highly professional military and intelligence services to help protect the government from both internal and external adversaries. The Jordanian government has for decades encouraged friendly Arab countries to send officers and soldiers to take advantage of training opportunities in Jordan. The new U.S.-funded King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Center builds on this tradition, and is an important tool in the struggle against terrorist extremism.

The Jordanians remain deeply suspicious of Iran and view the post-2003 expansion of Iranian political influence with great concern. Iranian influence in Iraq is a particularly troublesome concern. The Jordanians are also opposed to the development of an Iranian nuclear weapons option, but publicly oppose an Israeli or U.S. military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Amman assumes that the Tehran leadership is rational and deterrable, and the Jordanians are willing to make that judgment despite the fact that an Israeli-Iranian nuclear exchange could have catastrophic consequences for Jordan. The Jordanian leadership also continues to stress that its primary regional concern is finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation through ongoing interaction with both parties. Jordan has worked closely with Palestinian Authority President Mohammad Abbas, but remains deeply suspicious and watchful regarding the activities of the Hamas organization which it views as inclined to unproductive meddling in Jordanian politics.

The value of the U.S.-Jordanian relationship can also be expected to grow in importance as the United States moves to withdraw eventually from Iraq. Under these circumstances, Jordan will continue to seek ways to address any cross border problems resulting from the ongoing conflict in Iraq. Likewise, Jordan will continue to use its excellent intelligence and military services to wage an unrelenting war on al Qaeda and help train friendly Arab forces to do the same. The United States must, therefore, continuously seek to aid Jordan in coping with terrorism and other dangers as part of a Middle East policy that aids moderation and hopes to provide the region with a viable future.


The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is central to the geopolitics of the Middle East region and borders on Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Palestinian West Bank. This geography also places the Jordanians adjacent to two major centers of actual and potential conflict: (1) the Israel-Palestine theater and (2) the Iraq/Gulf theater. Although it has an important geographical position, Jordan is also a relatively small country (about the size of Indiana) with only around 6 million citizens. It has limited natural resources and no oil, leaving the Jordanians with uncertain leverage to influence regional events. To the extent possible, Amman has sought to remain engaged with all of its neighbors and head off any potential problems before they can develop into a crisis. Hostile neighbors can be particularly problematic for a small country like Jordan, and when considering policy options, the Jordanians often draw from their unpleasant experience of severe regional isolation at some key times in the region?s history. Additionally, throughout its existence, Jordan has depended heavily on foreign aid to support its often fragile economy. In recent years, such aid has been provided by a diversity of donors including Arab states, the European Union, and especially the United States.4

The United States and Jordan have maintained a mutually-supportive and positive relationship for decades as a result of shared interests in a moderate, prosperous, and stable Middle East. This bilateral relationship has often been of considerable value to both nations despite obvious disparities between the two in size and power. The relationship has also been able to survive and overcome various periods of disagreement and division such as occurred in 1990-91 when Amman was unwilling to join the U.S.-sponsored United Nation?s coalition to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. In the turbulent post-Saddam era, the future of Jordan can be expected to relate directly to the future stability of that region, as well as to the possibilities for meaningful U.S.-Arab collaboration. A prosperous and stable Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan clearly remains strongly in U.S. national interests.

Jordan?s fortunes have often been linked to events in its larger and more populous neighbor, Iraq, and the current instability in that country is correspondingly of special concern to Amman. The best possible Iraqi outcome for Jordan would be the eventual emergence of a stable, pro-Western, pro-Jordanian state, which effectively integrates Iraq?s Sunni Arabs into the emerging political system. Reaching such a goal does not appear likely for the foreseeable future, but the Jordanians can be expected to support any reasonable efforts to contain and minimize Iraqi internal warfare which affects them through such issues as refugee flow out of Iraq and increases in cross border terrorism and crime. Conversely, a full-scale Lebanese-style civil war in Iraq would be a nightmare for Jordan, and the Jordanians will need tremendous help in coping with the consequences should such a catastrophe occur. Under these circumstances, Jordan can either be a helpless conduit for radical influence coming out of Iraq or it can be a wall of resistance halting and perhaps helping to roll back radical advances depending, at least to some extent, on the support it receives from the United States and other allies.

Other challenges that Amman must address include problems with terrorism, the dangers posed by an empowered Iran, and ongoing Israeli-Palestinian and intra-Palestinian difficulties. Terrorism is not a new concern for the Jordanians, but new and more virulent strains will provide a different kind of threat. Additionally, relations between Jordan and Iran have been marked by suspicion since the 1979 revolution and may become even more problematic as the Iranians extend their influence into Iraq. Moreover, problems in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process always have a ripple effort for Jordan. Correspondingly, the Jordanian monarchy will have to be especially adept at addressing a number of challenges that will require wise statesmanship to be combined with reasonable efforts at political modernization and reform.

As the United States copes with ongoing challenges in Iraq and throughout the region, it cannot afford to neglect the interests of its allies along Iraq?s borders including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan. Of these states, Kuwait and Jordan have often been most directly influenced by Iraqi events in previous historical eras.5 Jordanian leaders usually display a keen understanding of Iraqi political dynamics because of a history of economic and other ties between the two states and because Jordan?s survival has often depended heavily on the efficiency of its intelligence service in assessing and countering threats to regime survival. Jordanian views on Iraq are often informed by a solid understanding of Iraqi issues based on a longstanding interest in Baghdad?s political and economic actions and are therefore always worthy of serious consideration. The continuing overlap between a number of U.S. and Jordanian goals for Iraq and the region often present a useful backdrop for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.


1. Peter Mansfield, The Arab World: A Comprehensive History, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1976, p. 433.

2. Alan George, Jordan: Living in the Crossfire, London and New York: Zed Books, 2005, p. 62.

3. ?Jordanian Facility to Train Regional and International Forces,? National Defense, August 2006, p. 22.

4. Sufyan Alissa, Rethinking Economic Reform in Jordan: Confronting Socioeconomic Realities, Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 2007, p. 7.

5.The author has previously published a study analyzing the implications for Kuwait of continuing unrest in Iraq. See W. Andrew Terrill, Kuwaiti National Security and the U.S.-Kuwaiti Strategic Relationship After Saddam, Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute August 2007.