As Arab states the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco began establishing ties with Israel over the past few years and warmed towards their old adversary, many saw it as the beginning of a new era. And in some ways, it was: trade could now openly flow between the nations in the region and the Arab world could further benefit from Israeli technology and spyware.
Except things have not gone entirely to Israel’s plan. Weeks prior to US President Joe Biden’s visit to the Middle East earlier this month, Israel’s defence minister announced the formation of a regional alliance with Arab states, in what would purportedly become the “Middle East’s NATO”. Under that banner, the new allies would coordinate to defend each other against Iranian influence and aggression, leading the counterattack.
Contrary to Tel Aviv’s hopes of a unified Arab-Israeli axis against Iran, however, the cracks in the budding alliance have begun to emerge and prove to the Israeli leadership and its Western allies that the issue is not so black and white.
This month, a number of Arab states made declarations or moves to signal that they are not directly opposed to Iran, with Jordan denying that Tehran poses a national security threat and the UAE’s presidential adviser Anwar Gargash stating that the Emirates will send an ambassador to the country and that it is against an anti-Iran axis. That is despite Amman battling Iranian-backed drug traffickers along its border with Syria, and Abu Dhabi’s admitted concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme.
Oman, too, has maintained its relations with Iran and sought to expand them, and Egyptian and Iranian officials held secret talks in the Omani capital Muscat last month. Even Saudi Arabia, the primary long-time nemesis of Iran, continues to indulge in talks with its neighbour across the Gulf. The countries in the region which are under Iranian influence – Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon – do not, of course, have any aspirations to oppose Tehran either.
There is no doubt that most of the Arab world is concerned with Iran on some level, particularly regarding its alleged nuclear ambitions, but they all perceive the country and its leadership differently through the lens of their own individual foreign policy perspectives or goals. While some view Tehran with caution and enmity, others either view it with opportunity or with neutrality.
For Israel and the US to believe that they would all be willing to unquestioningly commit to an entirely new regional military structure dedicated to combating the Iranian foe was a gross generalisation and misjudgement from the start.
The Arab nations’ view of – or desire for – Iran could perhaps best be summed up by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s address to Tehran at the opening of the Jeddah Security and Development Summit last week. He called on Iran “as a neighbouring country, with which we share religious and cultural ties, to cooperate with the countries of the region to be part of this vision, by adhering to the principles of international legitimacy, non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and fulfilling its obligations in this regard.”
Arab countries in the region are sceptical of the idea of a Middle Eastern NATO or Arab-Israeli military alliance for the obvious reason that such a project would represent a dangerous level of escalation at a time when it is unnecessary and uncalled for. It lacks practicality in the context of the current situation, in which there is no pressing need for Arab states – and especially the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries (GCC) – to conduct any attack or defence against Iran, as they are under no urgent and existential threat from it despite ongoing regional tensions.
As the Egyptian journalist Suleiman Guoda stated in his column in the Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat this month, the idea of the project was primarily an Israeli one backed by the US, with their own agendas which did not wholly converge with the interests of the Arab states. “This idea, in all of its stages, was like a plant that someone uprooted and tried to plant in foreign soil, and every time it withered and died,” Gouda wrote.
He clarified that “The countries that openly declared their rejection of the Arab NATO [initiative] did not do so out of a desire to express support for Iran, God forbid, but out of a belief that the [Iranian] problem can only be resolved via dialogue, not through war or confrontation. By openly rejecting this initiative, they conveyed to the government of Iran’s [Supreme] Leader that it should take note of their rational approach to their relations with Iran and that they expected it to take a similar approach.”
The proposal for a regional NATO-like alliance against Iran, therefore, became “stillborn”.
There is also the possibility that the Arab states – both those which recognise Israel and those which are thought to be on the verge of doing so – may not yet fully trust Tel Aviv and Washington’s backing enough to risk any serious escalation or confrontation with Tehran.
Above all, if one truly wanted to compare the prospects and effectiveness of that Middle Eastern alliance with that of NATO, the greatest difference is that the latter is largely unified in its vision while the former is not. All NATO member states view Russia as the common enemy, or at least troublesome adversary, whereas not all Arab states are unified against the ‘Iranian threat’.
That is without taking into consideration the numerous moving parts that make up the Middle East’s complex political situation and converging alliances, in contrast to the overall lack of that in Europe.
Israel and the US will soon realise that the Arab states’ warming ties towards Tel Aviv do not necessarily translate to a will to confront Tehran, and that the occupation state’s new allies operate on a level of pragmatism – albeit often misplaced – which drew them to establishing ties with it in the first place.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.