Biden visit to focus on regional cooperation against Iran

Jul 13, 2022

Executive Summary

A focal point of President Biden’s upcoming visit involves assessed US-led efforts to promote greater security and diplomatic cooperation between Israel and Arab states in the region to counter Iran – a topic extensively discussed since the visit was first announced in May and expected to be addressed during discussions this week.  

Discussed ambitions remain subject to conflicting reports and official rhetoric remains vague, but ranges from intent to coordinate missile defense capabilities, to the more ambitious formalization of a regional “defense alliance” involving Israel and several Arab states in the region. The latter is seen as unlikely, yet Iranian responses have been predictably negative and the rhetoric is likely to generate an increase in regional tensions over the short term.

MEAD initiative and reports of Israeli-Arab “security alliance”

President Joe Biden’s upcoming visit has been preceded by various reports regarding existing US-led initiatives to promote greater security and diplomatic cooperation between Israel and Arab stakeholders in the region to counter Iran. As previously discussed in this report, efforts to consolidate Israeli-Arab collaboration on defense matters accelerated under former President Trump, who in 2017 announced plans for the establishment of the Middle Eastern Strategic Alliance (MESA) – an initiative said to include the GCC countries, Egypt, and Jordan. While the plans never materialized, efforts to enhance security coordination between the GCC and Israel expanded with the 2020 Abraham Accords and have continued under President Biden, with diplomatic and security cooperation between UAE, Bahrain and Israel visibly increasing in recent years as a result.

Current efforts are reported to involve steps to expand Israeli engagement with other Arab states in the region, and – more importantly – to formalize the nature of cooperation to establish a regional deterrent posture against Iran. In a press briefing ahead of Biden’s visit, spokesperson for the National Security Council John Kirby confirmed that one of the aims of the visit is to “encourage Arab nations to strengthen security ties and overall relations with Israel.” Speaking ahead of the visit in June, Defence Minister Benny Gantz also said that the “Middle East Air Defence” (MEAD) – a US-led initiative to enhance air defense cooperation between Israel and Arab states – is “already operative” and already enabled a “successful intervention” of Iranian attempts to attack Israel and other countries.

Details remain vague but the MEAD initiative reportedly aims to counter Iranian missile capabilities through the synchronization of air defense systems through remote electronic communication and intelligence sharing to enhance the early detection of aerial threats. According to Reuters, a similar initiative was reportedly discussed in March this year during a meeting held under US initiative between high-ranking military officials from various countries, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Citing anonymous security officials, the report mentioned Oman, Iraq, and Kuwait as prospective participants in the initiative as well.

These developments have fueled reports of a more ambitious initiative to establish a regional defense “alliance”, with Israeli officials reportedly hoping that a more formalized arrangement will be announced during the visit. Officials are also reported to expect Saudi Arabia to make a significant gesture towards Israel in terms of furthering the normalization process which would significantly boost efforts to consolidate regional defense cooperation between Israel and the Gulf States.

The prospects for a significant breakthrough may however fall short of Israeli expectations and the rhetoric employed by Israeli and other officials differ. US officials have not publicly discussed the establishment of an “alliance” and current administration officials, including Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, have previously warned (during the Trump administration) that a “Sunni-Israeli” alliance against Iran would increase regional tensions. US officials cited anonymously by US media outlets have also downplayed talk of an ”Israeli-Arab NATO” (a term circulating in some reporting), noting that current efforts merely aim to increase coordination between US allies. In his remarks last week, spokesperson Kirby confirmed that the US is working on “integrated air defence capabilities and frameworks across the region” to confront the Iranian ballistic missile threat, but unlike Defence Minister Gantz, stopped short of proclaiming the existence of MEAD.

Deeper cooperation hampered by state disagreements

Disagreements amongst Arab states – which formed a key obstacle to the Trump administration’s MESA initiative – linger as well. Qatar and Saudi Arabia thus far oppose normalization with Israel, as do Kuwait and Oman, citing a lack of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and commitment to the Arab Peace Initiative which conditions normalization on the establishment of a Palestinian state. Qatar retains close relations with Hamas and, like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Oman, remains wary of the anticipated popular backlash against normalization.

Moreover, Qatar and Oman both enjoy cordial relations with Iran, and remain committed to a regional policy of non-alignment based on principles of neutrality and mediation which complicates any unanimous GCC endorsement of more formal defense cooperation with Israel. According to various reports, Iraq, Qatar, and Kuwait were reportedly resistant to the idea of joint detection mechanisms using Israeli technology, and the recent expansion of laws criminalizing relations with Israel in Iraq will almost certainly block any participation in Baghdad.

These considerations will likely remain a significant obstacle to the sort of collective defense arrangement said to be envisioned by Israel but are not assessed to prevent a further deepening of cooperation between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel. Nor will it necessarily prevent tacit forms of cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel to continue on issues of converging interests in countering Iran. Both sides have already participated in joint military exercises, and during a visit to the CENTCOM HQ in Florida this year, Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman reportedly enquired about coordinating regional air defense capabilities with other US allies, implicating a degree of interest in Riyadh for the discussed initiative.

Iranian responses predicably negative

Regardless of the assessed feasibility of enhanced regional cooperation, Iranian reactions have been predictably negative. Addressing reports of an Israeli-Arab “defense alliance” during a press briefing, the Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Nasser Kanaani called the proposal “provocative” and said Iran views the remarks as a “threat to national and regional security.” Kanaani further attributed the plan to US and “zionist” efforts to cause discord and “spreading Iranophobia among regional countries.” On 11 July, the head of the Political Bureau of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Yadollah Javani also criticized reported plans for an “Arab NATO” saying US and Israeli efforts to confront the “resistance front” would inevitably fail.

Thus far, more militant responses have not been observed but this cannot be discounted given existing tensions over the coming days. In general, an increase in threat posturing is anticipated over the course of the visit and in the days after, especially in the event of more significant announcements that may generate or provoke Iranian responses. Statement type attacks involving rocket and UAV strikes against sites affiliated with US presence remain a consideration in Iraq and eastern Syria over the coming days as a result, however, a more significant escalation is preliminarily assessed as unlikely. Iran-linked accusations of KRG-Israeli cooperation – an assessed motive behind recent attacks against KRG interests – form an additional consideration over the near term as the reporting spotlight shifts towards the Israeli-US partnership.

In the wider region, the potential for similar responses in the Gulf states cannot be discounted in connection with Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia. This would most likely include long-range UAV strikes targeting the Saudi mainland or, less likely, the UAE based on established attack trends and capabilities. That said, the ongoing truce in Yemen forms a mitigating factor that has significantly reduced Houthi-linked cross-border strikes since the agreement came into effect in April. With both sides recently reiterating their commitment to the truce, any significant violations are preliminarily assessed as unlikely but should not be excluded in connection with the visit.

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