As the Middle East slides ever deeper into murderous chaos, the Trump administration is quietly advocating a new regional military alliance to bring together local allies and lay the foundation for restoring order. In a push for closer security cooperation, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Jordan are in talks to create what has been dubbed an “Arab NATO” to counter common security threats. The proposed alliance includes a NATO-style mutual defense pact and intelligence support from the U.S. and (critically) Israel. If it succeeds, the pact could help defeat ISIS and help put out the Middle East’s raging fires.
Considering ISIS has decried the Saudi monarchy as apostates and poses an expanding danger to the GCC at large, one of the alliance’s objectives will be the terror group’s destruction. Of course, as the Syrian war drags into its sixth year and powers inside and outside the region scheme to shift the balance of power to their own benefit, one threatens all of these countries with as much determination and far more firepower than ISIS: Iran.
As it turns out, Obama’s nuclear deal with Tehran did not turn the Ayatollah Khamenei’s regime into a responsible member of the international community. Instead, it showed that Washington could no longer be relied on as an ally against the ayatollahs. The policy change exacerbated the Sunni sense of peril because the deal and its lifting of sanctions increased Iran’s room for strategic maneuvering. Following the agreement, the German-initiated “scramble for Iran” to fill Iran’s investment void provided even more money and technology to the formerly isolated nation, and with it tacit cover for Iran’s activities.
While Iran and Saudi Arabia have been at odds since the Islamic Republic’s founding in 1979, no conflict has been a source of greater friction between Iran and the Arab nations than the civil war in Syria. Tehran has boosted its influence by underwriting the Assad regime, while the Arab states tried desperately to make up for the Obama administration’s shortfalls by bolstering the opposition fighters seeking to end Assad’s reign. As the primary military power in the GCC, Saudi Arabia is particularly concerned about how Iran’s involvement has fostered sectarianism and poured gasoline on the radical jihadist movement that now threatens them all. Jordan and Egypt have been less outspoken than their partners in the Gulf, but Iran’s blatant interference in multiple Arab countries has pushed them closer to their onetime rivals and made both Amman and Cairo see the need for a united front.
With November’s election, America’s Arab partners got a reprieve from Washington. Unlike his predecessor, President Trump appears eager to confront Iran head-on. Nor is he alone: Britain’s Prime Minster Theresa May has joined him in warning of Iran’s “malign influence” and in making containing Iran “a priority for the U.K.” while opening a new Royal Navy Base in Bahrain that will help fight ISIS but also counter Iran’s aggressive moves in the Persian Gulf. In doing so, she is signaling that Great Britain is determined to stand by its Middle Eastern allies in a way Obama could never bring himself to do.
Alongside its military support, the British are expanding their economic relationship with Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries as part of May’s hunt for new business relationships. The Gulf economies offer May a bargaining chip to prove to the European Union and her own constituents Britain will still have major trade partners after Brexit. The Prime Minister’s commitment to the region was underlined in December, when she became the first British PM to attend the annual GCC summit and used the opportunity to talk trade with the Saudi leadership and other counterparts. With the Saudis in the middle of a reform program that includes privatizing state-run companies and reaching out to foreign investors, she has made clear she wants Britain to be a part of it.
Neither the Arabs nor the Americans will have a bad word to say about Britain’s re-engagement in the Middle East, but involving Israel will put the Arab allies in a tough spot of their own making. For all their long-standing tensions, Israel and the Arab states are united by common enmity with Iran. Both view Teheran as the greatest threat to their security, and quiet cooperation and intelligence-sharing is already underway. Given this established mutual support, it is high time Israel’s new Gulf Arab allies shift their public stances against Israel and accept it as an important regional player whose support they need. Egypt and Jordan already did this long ago.
If they manage to work together and coordinate successfully (something the Arab world has been trying and failing to do for more than a century), an “Arab NATO” backed by the Americans, British, and Israelis should have the wherewithal to stand up to Iran’s Middle Eastern power play. Ultimately, it is up to them to decide whether Khamenei’s empire-building project will succeed.