A Middle-Eastern NATO Is Highly Unlikely

By Simeone Miller

Secretary Kerry Stands With Fellow Foreign Ministers Following Meeting of Gulf Cooperation Council in Saudi Arabia
Image: Flickr/U.S. Department of State

Since President Joe Biden’s recent visit to the Middle East, there has been renewed discussion on the possibility of a regional security partnership with the United States similar to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This proposal for a Middle Eastern NATO—a NATO-esque alliance of Middle Eastern states—has been floated as far back as 1955 but was vastly ineffective in its implementation. It was also previously proposed by the Trump Administration in 2018 to counter malign Iranian activity. These efforts to form a collective security alliance in the region, however,  have yet to produce substantive results. While such an alliance theoretically sounds good and could serve U.S. interests, it is still important to examine critically why such an alliance is unlikely to happen.  

The Palestinian Question

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Arab leaders have realized the power and influence of mass uprisings in response to government policies and that they are at times uncontrollable, even with the familiar brutal tactics of repression. In this case, most of them do not feel comfortable publicly engaging in diplomatic or military cooperation with Israel, which is still largely unpopular among local Arab populations. To recognize and support Israel, a state that most Arabs view as an oppressive force of the Palestinian people, would be politically costly.

These efforts to create a new security dynamic in the region have remained complicated by the United States’ lopsided efforts to resolve the conflict. The United States may claim that it is committed to a two-state solution in numerous State Department press releases, and Biden may reiterate this, but it does not mean that a solution is close. Especially given that recent diplomatic efforts for a resolution to the conflict, such as the Trump Administration’s “Deal of the Century,” side-stepped the question of Palestinian statehood and favored the Israeli government over the Palestinian Authority, despite comments by then-Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett that his government did not support a two-state solution. 

With such a reality in place, it is reasonable for Arab leaders to feel discomfort at proposals to cooperate with Israel, as the United States has pressed for in recent years. That is particularly the case within the Gulf, where President Biden was unable to secure a commitment from Arab leaders during his July 2022 visit to Saudi Arabia—the head of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). 

This lack of commitment from Arab leaders who have repeatedly indicated that their security is tied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reminds U.S. foreign policymakers to consider Arab states’ perspectives better. If the United States is genuinely interested in removing roadblocks to a Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) as part of its strategy to contain Iran, it must become more serious about tending to not just Israeli needs and interests (as has often been the case) but also those of the Arabs, which it has yet to do sincerely.

Entanglement

While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an obstacle to an alliance in the region, it is not the only one. The other challenge is America’s involvement in its formation and the possibility that MESA member states may require the United States to agree to security guarantees, which the United Arab Emirates unsuccessfully requested from the United States last year. If the United States were to issue such guarantees during a summit to form MESA, it would only serve to create additional challenges for its foreign policy interests.

When a significant number of members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have called for a more restraint-friendly foreign policy, it is unlikely the body would approve something they fear could bring the United States into another armed conflict. The Republican-majority Senate demonstrated this restraint orientation when it passed joint resolutions that disapproved of proposed proposed arms sales and transfers to numerous Middle Eastern states, including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan.  

While the White House vetoed the resolutions, it still indicates that Congress has become more concerned about the support it provides allies that could bring the United States into a conflict with Iran. This concern is not exclusive to indirect support for Middle Eastern countries, but it is more encompassing, demonstrated by the bipartisan vote to repeal the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Additionally, most Americans share Congress’s belief that U.S. military actions in the Middle East are no longer within the national interest and that America should be less militarily engaged worldwide. If the United States were to grant these guarantees despite their domestic unpopularity, it would only reaffirm American’s lack of trust in their government. This distrust, in combination with the already intense political polarization, would only serve the interests of America’s adversaries and erode the strength of American democracy, negatively impacting its foreign policy. 

Differing Interests and Perceptions

In its previous efforts to improve security cooperation in the Middle East, the United States has often attempted to coalesce states around security concerns of Iranian aggression. A consensus around a shared security threat can serve as a strong foundation for cooperation. However, it is not feasible from a regional perspective, given not every Middle Eastern state agrees on the assessment that Iran is dangerous, nor have they illustrated that they could be convinced of this point by either Israel, the United States, or Saudi Arabia, who all have hostile relations with Iran. 

This divide in threat perception and interests is evident in North Africa, the Levant, and the Gulf. The Omanis, who served as a facilitator during the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) talks between Washington and Tehran, have a supportive position of Iran. Others, such as the Qataris, would prefer to strategically hedge relations with Tehran and do not perceive it as the most immediate threat because of its minority Shi’a population. In contrast, countries like Bahrain fear that their growing Shi’a populations could engage in an Iran-backed revolt like the one they experienced in 2011.

The Kuwaitis have similarly engaged in hedging diplomatic ties and are instead focused more on stability and counter-terrorism in Iraq. Even the Egyptians and Jordanians have recently opposed discussions of MESA by privately assuring the Iranians that they would not enter a military alliance against them, despite being major American and Israeli security partners. The Emiratis have likewise resisted these calls for a partnership and indicated that they are more interested in diplomatic ties with Tehran as they focus on the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision. Lebanon has a significant Shi’a population and has generally gravitated more towards Iran. The Iraqis have in the past signed agreements for security cooperation with Iran to counter the Islamic State and could grow closer due to their larger Shi’a population.

In sum, the idea of a NATO-style alliance in the Middle East is a proposition that could benefit U.S.’ security interests. However, there are just too many roadblocks to making it happen, and the United States or Middle Eastern states have taken little action to clear those roadblocks. How could they be in a region where relations are shaped primarily by self-interest and self-preservation?

Simeone Miller is an incoming graduate student at California State University, San Bernardino. He graduated from California State University, San Bernardino with a BA in Political Science and a minor in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies.

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