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July 26, 2022 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1645

Failed Initiative To Establish Middle East NATO – Arab Countries Clarify: There Will Be No Regional Military Alliance Against Iran; We Seek To Improve Our Relations With It

July 26, 2022 | By H. Varulkar, Y. Yehoshua, and Z. Harel*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1645

In the weeks preceding the visit of U.S. President Joe Biden to Saudi Arabia for the July 16, 2022 Jeddah Security and Development Summit, Arab and international media published numerous reports claiming that one of the main topics slated to be discussed at the summit – attended by Biden and the leaders of the nine Arab countries – was the establishment of a regional military alliance against Iran. According to the reports, this alliance was to include Israel alongside the moderate Arab countries, among them Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and Jordan. Many were referring to this initiative as the establishment of a "regional NATO."[1] Remarks by Jordan's King Abdullah II in a June 24 interview with an American channel, that he would be the first to join a regional NATO, intensified the debate around this issue even further, and the Arab and international press published numerous items about it.

However, as the Jeddah summit approached, Arab countries began to clarify – either officially and explicitly or via articles in the press – that they had no intention of joining a regional military alliance against Iran.  For example, before he left for the summit, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi said that Iraq "is not party to any alliance or coalition in the region," and that it "maintains a balanced policy toward its neighbors and its surroundings."[2] Anwar Gargash, an advisor to the UAE president, explained that his country would not join such an alliance and that it was in fact considering sending an ambassador to Iran. Reports indicate that in the days leading up to the Jeddah summit, Egypt and Jordan also conveyed secret messages of reassurance to Iran, via Iraq and Oman, in which they stressed that they would not join a regional alliance against it and that they were not interested in escalating the conflict with it.

Eventually, the Jeddah summit indeed concluded with no mention of a regional alliance, either with or without Israel. Moreover, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan declared at the close of the summit that "dialogue and diplomacy are the only way to deal with the Iranian nuclear [program]" and that Saudi Arabia extends its hand to Iran.


U.S. President Biden and Arab heads of state at Jeddah summit (Source: Al-Jazirah, Saudi Arabia, June 17, 2022)

It appears that, even if at some point several Arab countries had considered forming a regional alliance against Iran, a series of considerations and insights led them to discard the idea and to stress that they do not seek a military confrontation with this country. The main consideration is their understanding that the Biden administration is committed to achieving a nuclear agreement with Iran and that it views diplomacy as the best option, if not the only  option, for contending with Iran’s nuclear program. Therefore, these countries assess that they cannot depend on the U.S. to protect them from Iran, and fear that the U.S. will not come to their aid in the event of a military confrontation with it, just as it did not come to the aid of Ukraine when it was attacked by Russia.

Moreover, Arab countries apparently fear that the U.S. will sign a new nuclear agreement with Iran which will not address their concerns regarding the conduct of Iran and its militias in the region, and have therefore deemed it prudent to open a direct channel of communication with Iran, rather than move toward military escalation with it. It appears that these countries have taken a strategic decision to maintain calm relations with Iran and  seek dialogue with it. In fact, in recent months five rounds of talks, mediated by Iraq and Oman, have been held between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The UAE is likewise maintaining contacts and dialogue with this country, and, as mentioned, Egypt and Jordan have done the same in the recent weeks.

An editorial in the London-based Qatari Al-Quds Al-Arabi daily, titled "Did the 'Arab NATO' Initiative Fail?", concluded that the initiative had “stopped in its tracks."[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat columnist Suleiman Jawda wrote, in a similar vein, that the idea of establishing an Arab NATO against Iran had been "stillborn." According to him, it failed because it was a American initiative, and was therefore like a plant that had been “uprooted and replanted in foreign soil, so that it withered and died.” The Arab countries, he added, believe that the only way to deal with Iran is via dialogue, not confrontation, so Biden was forced to take his idea of an Arab NATO back to Washington with him.[4]

This report reviews Arab countries' messages of reassurance to Iran prior to and following the Jeddah summit, as well as their statements that they will not join an alliance against Iran.  

UAE: We Won't Be Part Of Any Alliance Against Iran; We Are Working To Improve Relations With It

The UAE no doubt still views Iran as a significant threat, as evident from statements by senior Emirati officials and from articles in the country’s press. At the same time, in the recent months it seems to be maintaining calm relations with Iran and even a steady dialogue with it. As stated, this appears to be the result of a strategic decision taken by the UAE in light of the Biden Administration’s ongoing pursuit of a nuclear agreement with Iran and rejection of a military confrontation with it, a position that could leave the UAE exposed to Iranian threat. The Emirati position was reflected in a June 19 telephone call between UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed and his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, during which the two diplomats emphasized the shared interests of their countries and the mutual desire to develop the relations and continue the dialogue between them. The Iranian foreign minister even invited his Emirati counterpart to visit Iran.[5]

As Biden’s visit and the Jeddah summit drew near, and as reports about the possibility of an Arab NATO proliferated, Emirati officials began voicing reservations about the idea. For example, on June 26, after the Wall Street Journal reported about a secret meeting, initiated by the U.S., that had been held in March in Sharm Al-Sheikh between high-ranking military commanders from Israel and Arab countries, including the UAE, to discuss cooperation against areal threats from Iran, the UAE  issued a clarification. It stated that “The UAE is not party to any regional military alliance or cooperation targeting any specific country… nor is it aware of any formal discussions relating to any such regional military alliance.”[6]

In the two weeks leading up to Biden’s visit, the London-based Emirati daily Al-Arab published a series of reports and articles that, while acknowledging the regional threat posed by Iran, came out against the idea of a regional military alliance against it. For example,  on July 11 the daily’s editor, Haitham Al-Zubaidi, published an article titled “An Arab NATO Will Cause More Problems than It Will Solve,” and columnist ‘Ali Al-Sarraf wrote that “the call to establish an Arab NATO against Iran should now be buried.”[7]  

On July 15, one day before the Jeddah summit, Anwar Gargash, a diplomatic advisor to the Emirati president, explicitly addressed this issue, telling reporters that his country opposed any regional military alliance against Iran and was working to reestablish relations with it. He added: "Our conversation [with Iran] is ongoing... We are in the process of sending an ambassador to Tehran. All these areas of rebuilding bridges are ongoing… We must reduce the escalation, find solutions and employ economic cooperation in all spheres.” He  noted that the UAE still had concerns about Iran’s regional activities but wanted to make efforts towards finding diplomatic solutions. Asked about the option of an alliance against Iran, he replied an Arab NATO was a "theoretical" concept and confrontation was not an option for his country, and added: "We are open to cooperation, but not cooperation targeting any other country in the region and I specifically mention Iran. The UAE is not going to be a party to any group of countries that sees confrontation as a direction.” He clarified that the UAE could be part of anything that protects it from drones and missiles as long as it did not target a third country.[8]

Articles published in the UAE press after the Jeddah summit stressed that the UAE had informed the U.S. that joining alliances and axes targeting specific countries was contrary to its strategic policy, which seeks to maintain open channels of communication and diplomacy vis-à-vis Iran, end the tensions in the Middle East and complete the peace process.[9]

Egypt In Reassuring Message To Iran Ahead Of Biden Visit: We Will Join No Regional Alliances; We Do Not Seek Confrontation

Egypt conveyed reassuring messages to Iran even before Biden’s visit, during President ‘Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi’s visit to Oman on June 27, 2022. According to reports in a Qatari daily, during Al-Sisi's visit a meeting was held between senior Egyptian and Iranian officials, at which the Egyptians conveyed that Egypt opposes regional alliances and seeks to improve its relations with Iran. The report also claimed, citing Egyptian sources, that the opposition within Egypt to the notion of an Arab-Israeli alliance against Iran was led by figures in the Egyptian army and General Intelligence Directorate. The sources assessed that the rapprochement with Iran was meant to prevent it from forming ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, which opposes Al-Sisi's regime.[10]

In a July 17, 2022 article in the Egyptian Al-Masri Al-Yawm daily, journalist Mohammed Amin explained that "Egypt’s refusal to join an Arab military alliance does not stem from any willingness to leave the security of the Gulf open to threats, but is based on a consistent position dating back to [the days of] the Baghdad Pact.”[11] He added: “So far, the threats against the Gulf have been merely verbal, so [Egypt] has no intention of joining any pact sponsored by the West!...”

"This,” he explained, “does not mean that Egypt is leaning toward Iran. Iran knows that the security of the Gulf is a red line in Egyptian politics. But the important point, as I see it, is that Egypt does not follow the herd… and its decision-making is independent and cannot be bought or sold… Egypt also refrained from joining the coalition [fighting] in Yemen. It does not fight for anyone and does not fight beyond its borders. These have been Egypt's principles for generations. The participation of the [Egyptian] army in the [1990-1991] Gulf War was an exception. The objective [back then] was to liberate an independent Arab country, i.e. Kuwait, from the Iraqi invasion, and that was part of [ensuring] the security of the Gulf…

"There is no cause for alarm. There is no disaster or any suspicious behavior, at least on Egypt's part. Every country has the right to determine its own interests as it pleases. Certain countries had an interest in a military alliance, but Egypt explained that an Arab NATO was contrary to its principles. These countries, as well as America, understood that Egypt would not do this and that no one could force it to join [such an] alliance."[12]

Jordan In Messages To Iran Ahead Of Jeddah Summit: There Will Be No Military Alliance With Israel; Despite Threats On Our Borders, We Want Normal Relations With You

As for Jordan, the days and weeks leading up to the Jeddah summit saw a notable shift in its declared policy towards Iran. Only two months ago, in a May 18, 2022 interview with the Hoover Institution public policy think tank at Stanford University, King Abdullah II restated his concern about the Iranian presence on the Syria-Jordan border.[13]  Nor was this the first time that these concerns – which were also expressed in the Jordanian media over the past weeks[14] – have been voiced. For many years now King Abdullah has been warning about Iran’s attempts to expand its presence in the region and to form a geographical continuum from its own territory to Lebanon through Iraq and Syria, a continuum he referred to in 2004 as “the Shi’ite Crescent.” Following the civil war in Syria and the Iranian penetration of this country, Jordan’s concerns about the Iran and about the presence of the pro-Iran militias on the Syria-Jordan border grew even further. The Jordanians have clarified on more than one occasion that they view this Iranian-Shi’ite presence on their border as a strategic threat.[15] In fact, in the recent weeks the Jordanians reported thwarting a series of attempts to smuggle drugs, weapons, and ammunition into Jordan via the border with Syria, in which Iran-backed militias in southern Syria had been involved.[16] These concerns may have been the motivation for King Abdullah’s statement in a June 24, 2022 interview on the American CNBC network, that he “would be one of the first people that would endorse a Middle East NATO.” [17]

Although he did not explicitly mention either Israel or Iran, the King’s statements in this interview were understood as an official expression of Jordan’s willingness to join a military alliance against Iran that would include Israel. Hence, the remarks sparked an uproar in the Arab world and prompted Jordan to qualify them. Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Al-Safadi, sent to clarify the king’s position, told Al-Jazeera on June 28 that “there has been no discussion of a military alliance of which Israel is a part, and we have heard no such proposal to date.”[18] Reports subsequently published in the Jordanian press also expressed reservations about entering an alliance with Israel against Iran.[19]

The Al-Quds Al-Arabi daily speculated that Al-Safadi had conveyed these reassurances to Iran  due to Jordan’s fear of a harsh Iranian response that would threaten its interests, and also due to Jordan’s realization that other Arab countries were not interested in joining such an alliance or in launching a military confrontation with Iran. The daily stated that Jordan had decided to convey a message to Iran  that it was not interested in confrontation with it.[20]

Furthermore, reports in the Arab press indicate that, in the days leading up to the Jeddah summit, indirect dialogue took place between Jordan and Iran, mediated by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi and his associates, with the aim of reducing the tension between the countries. According to these reports, the exchange of messages resulted in general understandings. The online daily Raialyoum.com stated that Iran had urged Jordan to refrain from taking an extreme position towards Iran under the influence of America, Israel or the Gulf states, while clarifying that it was not interested in a crisis with Jordan and that it respected its security and sovereignty. Jordan, for its part, expressed its growing concern about the involvement of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and of the Iran-backed militias in the smuggling of drugs and weapons from Syria into Jordan, and received assurances from Iran that it would not allow this and would keep the militias 40 km away from the Jordanian border.[21] 

This dialogue, and the understandings it yielded, led Jordanian officials to make surprising and very conciliatory statements on the eve of the Jeddah summit. Prime Minister Bisher Al-Khasawneh and Foreign Minister Ayman Al-Safadi said that Jordan was open to normal relations with Iran.[22] Al-Khasawneh even added, “we have never regarded Iran as a threat to our national security.”[23]

The Jordanian press also published several articles calling for rapprochement with Iran. In a July 6 column in Al-Dustour, Journalist Fares Al-Habashneh called for dialogue between the two countries, for improving their relations, and for establishing a new political-economic axis comprising Jordan, Iran and Iraq, in light of the shifting power-balances and the “interest-driven” American policy in the region.[24]

On July 18 journalist Hussein Rawashdeh, a columnist for Al-Ghad, addressed the Jordanian prime minister’s conciliatory statements about Iran, writing: “Amman understands that Iran does not pose any direct threat to Jordan’s national security, and that it is time to heed the messages it has conveyed more than once about improving and warming the relations, [especially considering] the inclination of Arabs, and in particular of the Gulf, to calm [the situation vis-a-vis] Tehran… Jordan has an interest in softening its attitude towards Tehran, whether in order to secure its northern border with southern Syria, where several pro-Iranian militias are deployed – especially now that clashes with drug dealers have increased – or  in order to facilitate Jordan’s diplomatic efforts in Iraq, where several pro-Iranian Iraqi politicians and religious authorities have prevented the Iraqi government from [promoting] economic openness towards Jordan… It appears that the option of mutual understandings between the Arabs, including Jordan, and Iran are now clearly the need of the hour, not just in order to adjust to the shifting power balances but because the region cannot become stable unless the historical neighbors reach mutual understandings based on common ground that will allow them to coexist in security and stability…”[25]

However, despite this exchange of reassuring messages and these conciliatory press articles, following the Jeddah summit King Abdullah reiterated that Jordan still felt threatened by Iran, and especially by the pro-Iranian militias deployed near Jordan’s border with Syria, which are involved in smuggling drugs and weapons into the kingdom. He expressed these concerns in a July 20 meeting with tribal leaders in norther Jordan near the Syrian border, and in a July 24 interview with the Jordanian state daily Al-Rai.[26]   

Saudi Foreign Minister Following Jeddah Summit: Iran Is Still A Source Of Concern; No Arab NATO Or Military Cooperation With Israel

Statements against an Arab NATO and against military cooperation with Israel were also heard from Saudi Arabia at the conclusion of the Jeddah summit. The kingdom expressed that, although Iran was still a source of concern, Saudi Arabia preferred finding a diplomatic solution to the conflict with it. At a press conference at the close of the summit, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan said that "dialogue and diplomacy are the only solutions to [the issue of] Iran's nuclear program."[27]

Addressing the issue of a military alliance against Iran that would include Israel, the Saudi foreign minister denied any intention of forming one. He said that "no kind of military or technical cooperation with Israel was suggested" at the Jeddah summit, and added, "There is no such thing as an Arab NATO, and the issue is not on the agenda." Bin Farhan mentioned that, five years ago, Saudi Arabia had proposed establishing a joint Arab defense mechanism to raise the level of security coordination, but said that this plan, too, had not been discussed at the summit.

Regarding the relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran he said that Saudi Arabia’s hand was extended to Iran in a bid to attain normal relations, and explained: "We seek to find a path to conduct normal relations with our neighbor Iran, which involves reaching understandings that will address the concern regarding the Iranian activity. This concern is felt not only by Saudi Arabia but  by all countries of the region." Reiterating his country’s commitment  to the dialogue taking place between Saudi Arabia and Iran with Iraqi mediation, he expressed hope that it "will yield positive developments and that the Iranian neighbors will move in that direction as well." Bin Farhan leveled criticism at Iran in the context of the crisis in Yemen, saying that "the Iranian weapons are part of the reason for the continuation of the conflict” in that country. He also said that Saudi Arabia was making earnest efforts "to bring about a comprehensive and final ceasefire" in Yemen and added, hinting at Iran, that "the Houthis must understand that the welfare of Yemen lies in peace and dialogue, and not in regional agendas."[28]

A pithy expression of the Saudi position, and of the Arab position at large, was provided by Egyptian journalist Suleiman Goda in his column in the Al-Sharq Al-Awsat daily. He wrote  that the idea of forming a regional NATO against Iran, which many thought would be declared during Biden’s visit to the region, was “stillborn.” The initiative, he elaborated, was essentially an American one that started circulating among the countries in the region, but it gradually became apparent that none of them was willing to endorse it. “Official Arab declarations politely declining the idea came one after the other, despite the tempting proposals that had accompanied it,” he said. “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…”

Goda added: “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 their rational approach to their relations with Iran and that they expected it to take a similar approach…” He concluded: “This is why the Arab NATO idea never stood a chance in the region. If the Biden administration floated it as a trial balloon  ahead of his visit, the master of the White House no doubt ended up taking it back with him on his plane to Washington!...”[29]    

Iran In Response: Egypt’s Position Is Commendable; We Welcome Saudi Arabia’s Openness

Iran, for its part, welcomed the conciliatory tone of the Arab officials’ statements. Mohammad Hossein Soltanifard, the head of Iran's Interests Section in Egypt, thanked Egypt for its position, tweeting: “The position of Egypt, which voiced opposition to America’s ludicrous fantasy of forming an alliance against Iran, while other countries participating in the Jeddah summit kept silent, is commendable and understandable. This plan, just like the ‘Greater Middle East’ plan and ‘the Deal of the Century,’ will be stillborn, Allah willing.”[30]

In an interview on Qatar’s Al-Jazeera, Kamal Kharazi, the head of Iran’s Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, welcomed Saudi Arabia’s statements about extending a hand to Iran, and said that Iran was ready to talk and to renew its relations with the kingdom. Iran and Saudi Arabia are important regional countries, he said, and resolving the disagreements between them will bring about change throughout the region. He added that a Middle East NATO was a superficial idea and that Saudi Arabia had emphasized that it had not even come up in the Jeddah summit.[31]

 

* H. Varulkar is Director of Research at MEMRI; Y. Yehoshua is Vice President for Research and Director of MEMRI Israel; H. Harel is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 

[1] For example, on June 26, 2022, The Wall Street Journal reported that in March 2022 the U.S. had organized a secret meeting in Sharm Al-Sheikh, Egypt, attended by officers from the IDF and Arab armies, to discuss the threat posed by Iranian drones and rockets. According to the report, the meeting included IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi; Saudi Chief of Staff  Fayyad bin Hamed Al-Ruwaili; then-CENTCOM commander Kenneth McKenzie, and senior figures from the armies of Egypt, Jordan, the UAE and Qatar. It was also reported that the participants had reached an agreement in principle for rapid notification when aerial threats are detected. Wsj.com, June 26, 2022.

[2] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), July 15, 2022.

[3 Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), July 17, 2022.

[4] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 21, 2022.

[5] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), isna.ir, June 19, 2022.

[6] Wsj.com, June 26, 2022. The journal stated that Israel and the Arab states had declined its request to respond to the report, with the exception of the UAE, which issued the clarification quoted above.

[7] Al-Arab (UAE), July 6, 11, 14, 2022.

[8] Arabic.cnn.com, reuters.com, June 15, 2022.

[9] See e.g., Al-Ittihad (UAE), July 19, 2022.

[10] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid, (London) June 28, 2022, July 6, 2022.

[11] The Baghdad Pact was a political and military alliance between Britain, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan and Iran between 1955 and 1979.  Initiated by the U.S., it was meant to form a barrier along the Soviet Union’s southwestern frontier and prevent Soviet expansion into the Middle East. The U.S. urged and even pressured the Arab countries to join it while promising them economic benefits, but most of them declined. In fact, the U.S. itself never officially joined the pact, which is considered to be one of the less successful alliances of the Cold War era.

[12] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), July 17, 2022.

[13] Raialyou,com, May 18, 2022; Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), May 19, 2022.

[14] See e.g., ammonnews.net. May 22, 2022; Al-Dustour, Al-Ghad (Jordan), June 27, 2022; Al-Rai (Jordan), June 29, 2022.

[16] See e.g., alarabiya.net, May 22, 2022; Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), May 23, 2022; Al-Rai (Jordan), June 16, 2022; almamlakatv.com, May 23, 2022.

[17] Cnbc.com, June 24, 2022.

[18] Aljazeera.net, June 29, 2022.

[20] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), July 4, 2022.

[21] Raialyoum.com, July 16, 2022. Jordanian officials did not conform the existence of this indirect, Iraqi-brokered exchange of messages, but  Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein confirmed the reports in a June 30, 2022 interview on Al-Arabiya. Former Jordanian information minister Samih Al-Ma’aytah likewise addressed this issue in a July 14 article, claiming that the communication between Jordan and Iran was meant to calm the situation on the Jordan-Syria border and put an end to the smuggling of drugs into the kingdom over this border. Ammonnews.net, July 14, 2022.  

[22] Raialyoum.com, July 11, 2022; Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), July 15, 2022.

[23] Raialyoum.com, July 11, 2022. Despite these remarks from the prime minister, a senior Jordanian source said it was early to speak of appointing a Jordanian ambassador to Iran and that this issue was not yet on the agenda. Raialyoum.com, July 18, 2022.

[24] Al-Dustour (Jordan), July 6, 2022.

[25] Al-Ghad (Jordan), July 18, 2022.

[26]  Al-Ghad (Jordan), July 21, 2022; Al-Rai (Jordan), July 24, 2022.

[27] Arabnews.com, July 16, 2022.

[28] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 17, 2022.

[29] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 21, 2022.

[30] Irna.ir, July 14, 2022.

[31] Aljazeera.net, July 17, 2022.

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