The first round of what U.S. President Donald Trump called “the most biting sanctions ever imposed” against Tehran went into effect on August 7. “Anyone doing business with Iran will NOT be doing business with the United States,” Trump continued, in a tweet posted that morning. An even more damaging second round of U.S. sanctions against the Islamic Republic, reinstated after Washington pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, is expected to take effect in November.
Yet economic pressure is not the only tool the United States and its allies are using to counter Iran. In recent months, the Trump administration has been quietly working to forge a new security alliance, with the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman – as well as Egypt and Jordan, to counter what it views as aggressive Iranian expansion in the region. Tentatively known as the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) – but already nicknamed “Arab NATO” by the international press – U.S. and Arab officials say the coalition is being planned in an effort to expand cooperation on counterterrorism, missile defense and military training, partly to address the security challenges posed by Iran and its proxies.
The basic concept of an Arab NATO, however, is structurally flawed, and stands little chance of success.
Unlike the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which was established on the basis of shared interests and a more or less common “strategic culture,” in the face of a shared Soviet threat, the Sunni-led countries that the Trump administration expects to join the new alliance disagree on fundamental matters, including the crucial question of how best to conduct relations with Iran. While Saudi Arabia and the UAE view Tehran as their greatest enemy and are fighting a protracted war against Iran-aligned Houthis in Yemen, Kuwait and, especially, Oman have historically enjoyed peace, and periods of close cooperation, with Iran. While Muscat facilitated the secret negotiations between Iranian and American officials that ultimately produced the historic nuclear deal, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain have consistently opposed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the accord is formally known.
An even greater obstacle to the formation and effective functioning of an Arab NATO is the schism pitting the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain against Qatar. That crisis began in June 2017, when Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Manama decided to ostracize their tiny neighbor, cutting trade and diplomatic ties with Doha over its alleged support for terrorism and relationship with Iran. Qatar, notably, is home to the largest U.S. air base in the region, while Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest buyer of American weaponry; the crisis, therefore, put the United States in an awkward position vis-à-vis two of its most important Middle Eastern allies.
Officially floated for the first time by Trump during his 2017 trip to Riyadh, the idea of forging an Arab NATO seems to be an attempt at what has come to be known, in international relations, as “buck-passing.” In other words, by pursuing an “America First” foreign policy the Trump administration is trying to shift the responsibility for taking on Iran to its Arab allies. The administration appears to be intent on using the plan as a catalyst for profitable arms sales to those countries; hours after the U.S. president landed in Riyadh last year, he and Saudi King Salman signed a number of agreements, including an arms deal worth about $110 billion, effective immediately, plus another $350 billion over the coming decade.
But buck-passing is exactly what America’s Arab allies want, too, when it comes to countering Tehran. Unwilling or unable to engage with Iran directly, its Sunni rivals hope to persuade the United States and even Israel to do the heavy lifting for them. As one analyst pointedly put it, Saudi Arabia seeks to fight Iran “to the last American,” by luring it into a war with the Islamic Republic. This fundamental clash of perceptions and expectations at the heart of the concept does not bode well for the successful launch of an Arab NATO – especially given the irony that these plans are being mooted at the same time Trump has threatened to break with the original NATO if other allies don’t increase their military spending.
Lastly, is it far from clear how such an organization would go about confronting Iran in practice. A successful alliance might manage (as Israel has emphasized recently) to prevent Tehran from establishing a long-term military presence in Syria as well as defeat Shi’ite Houthis in Yemen and restore the ousted Saudi-allied President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi to power or, more concretely, to set up a missile defense shield covering the wider Middle East.
But unless internal rifts between potential members are resolved and a political consensus on burden-sharing is achieved, the Trump administration’s plans for passing the buck to an Arab NATO are unlikely to become reality.
Maysam Behravesh is a multimedia journalist at the TV channel, Iran International. He is also a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science and an affiliated researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University, Sweden. @behmash