Arab NATO Plan Could Backfire, Driving Tehran Toward Moscow, Beijing

Steven Ward
Former Senior Analyst, CIA

Iran’s leaders probably view the idea of an Arab NATO to confront Tehran as a U.S.-directed and Israeli-supported Sunni Muslim alliance against Shia Iran.  

Yet the Islamic Republic’s leaders most likely will be thinking, “So what else is new?” And their next thought probably will be, “Why should we care or change?”

As far as Iran is concerned, the plots mounted by Washington and its allies against Iran have all failed. The Iranians well remember U.S., Western, and Arab support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war 1980 and1988. They also recall the Gulf Arabs’ assistance to an expanded U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf region as part of Washington’s dual containment policy of the 1990s.

During the decade preceding the signing of the Iran nuclear deal – officially, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which blocks and monitors Iran’s pathways to acquiring a nuclear bomb – Iranian leaders heard constant threats, egged on by Riyadh, of Israeli and U.S. military attacks. Yet in its enemies’ own words, the Islamic Republic is credited with virtually unconstrained power and influence across the region.

Tehran, meanwhile, has blamed the region’s security challenges, whether from the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) or rising Sunni-Shia sectarian tensions, on the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. On the eve of Trump’s visit to the Saudi kingdom last month, Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan charged the “U.S. and the Zionist and al-Saud regimes” with hatching “dangerous plots to continue crisis, war and bloodshed… within the framework of an Arab NATO.” Iranian officials attacked Sunni Arab leaders who made anti-Iranian speeches while in Saudi Arabia as reactionaries succumbing to U.S. and Israeli schemes to divide and weaken the Muslim world. Iran’s Foreign Ministry sarcastically questioned how Washington will prevent Riyadh’s fundamentalist Wahabbi version of Islam from continuing to fuel violent extremism and attacks on the West.

Iran’s perception of a threat from “reactionary” Arabs assumes, of course, that the new Arab NATO will get off the ground. Tehran may be wise enough, especially in the aftermath of the reelection of pragmatic conservative President Hassan Rouhani, to hold off on any immediate responses. The Iranians almost certainly know that, given past failed attempts to form effective Arab alliances, an anti-Iranian coalition, even with U.S. support, is far from a sure bet. Tehran also is undoubtedly aware that the Arab nations’ various differences complicate cooperation.  Most of the Gulf Arabs, for example, probably want to focus on Yemen, while Egypt and other North African members seek to give priority to Libya’s turmoil. 

Iran might even welcome the planned Arab defense cooperation if it facilitates regional peacekeeping, humanitarian relief, and anti-piracy operations. Collaboration to counter terrorist threats within member states – many of the Arab NATO’s potential members, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, face such domestic danger – would contribute to regional security by putting additional pressure on Sunni extremists and their supporters. Tehran might even see the alliance’s anti-Iran focus as a potential advantage if that concentration diverts the Arab states’ efforts from addressing the political, economic, and social flaws in their own systems that are the primary sources of regional instability. In such a scenario, Iranian policy-makers might anticipate the creation of more opportunities that they, their partners, and proxies can exploit.

An Arab NATO’s targeting of Tehran, however, is most likely to aggravate ongoing instability and regional insecurity by provoking Iranian countermeasures.  Iran’s hardliners, through Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, control Iranian security policies, especially in regional conflicts. They will continue to advocate “resistance” – a hardliner theme during the recent presidential election – as the proper response to such foreign pressure.

When Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister, claimed last month that the Saudis would not sit and wait for war but would “work so that it becomes a battle… in Iran,” Dehqan mocked him. He described the Crown Prince’s rhetoric as a bluff and derided the Saudi military, saying it had “failed to defeat the empty-handed Yemeni nation.” Iran’s main response will probably be to increase support for its own coalition of Shia militias in Iraq and Syria. Tehran also will continue to support Houthi rebels in Yemen to tie down Saudi and allied Arab forces there, perhaps weakening the Arab NATO’s solidarity at the outset of its operations.

Iran’s hardline military leaders are also likely to be more sensitive to challenges they view as testing Iranian resolve.  These challenges increase the risk of unintended escalation. In late April, 10 Iranian border guards were murdered by Pakistan-based Sunni terrorists – a group Tehran believes, with some reason, is supported by Riyadh. In response to these killings, Iran’s Armed Forces Chief of Staff warned that Tehran would launch strikes against terrorist hideouts in Pakistan if the attacks continued. The Iranians followed up with a mortar attack inside Pakistan that pointedly occurred on the day President Trump was addressing the Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia.

On May 18, on the eve of President Trump’s visit to Riyadh, the U.S. conducted airstrikes near al-Tanf on a Syrian convoy with Iranian-backed Shia militia fighters.  In response, Iran’s Fars News Agency reported that 3,000 Hezbollah fighters would be sent to the region to thwart any U.S. schemes.

The announced, massive U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, accompanying the nascent Arab alliance, will probably reinvigorate Iranian attempts to improve its military capabilities and strengthen partnerships with Russia, China, and others.

Moscow and Beijing, Iran’s two biggest arms suppliers, probably can expect new orders for weapon systems—and attendant influence and leverage—as Tehran seeks to offset growing Gulf Arab military capabilities.

Iran also can reasonably expect at least some additional diplomatic support from Beijing, which would view Tehran as an important link in China’s One Belt, One Road project to build infrastructure and networks to boost trade and development across Eurasia. Beijing will be loath to stand by as an Iran-Saudi proxy war in the Baluchistan region upsets its substantial investment in Pakistani infrastructure and the nearby strategic port of Gwadar.

It is significant that Islamabad, always trying to balance relations between Tehran and Riyadh, hosted an Iranian delegation to discuss bolstering bilateral defensive ties while President Trump was in Saudi Arabia.

An Arab NATO probably will not stop the newly reelected Rouhani administration from seeking diplomatic openings to reduce tensions and tamp down sectarian hatred, neither of which serves the pragmatists’ goal of normalizing relations with the West. Tehran has expressed readiness to talk with Saudi Arabia to promote regional peace, despite a statement by Deputy Crown Prince Minister Mohammed bin Salman’s that dialogue was impossible.

As of now, however, the Iranians may look in vain for opportunities to negotiate. The Trump administration seems intent on emboldening Saudi-led efforts to coerce Iran into nothing less than surrendering what it sees as vital interests in Syria and Iraq. Although U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has suggested that talks with Iran are possible “at the right time,” no incentives or win-win compromises are on the table to test Iran’s willingness to help end costly regional conflicts. Rouhani probably does not expect much progress in relations with the Trump Administration over the next four years but appears ready to try.

The shame is that Washington’s all-in commitment to Riyadh’s—and Israel’s—anti-Iranian agenda limits the consideration of options to negotiate with Iran to stabilize this tormented region.

The Author is Steven Ward

Steven R. Ward is a retired CIA intelligence analyst who specializes in Iran and the Middle East. He was a CIA Visiting Professor to the US Naval Academy at Annapolis between 2010 and 2012. From 2005 to 2006 he served as the Deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East on the National Intelligence Council, and he served on the National Security Council from 1998 to 1999. He is also a graduate of West Point and a retired U.S. Army Reserve lieutenant colonel.

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