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Trump intensifies ‘Arab NATO’ talks after Iran strike

The Donald Trump administration is working to push forward with a military alliance of Middle Eastern states as the international community looks to respond to a suspected Iranian attack on a Saudi oil facility.
U.S. President Donald Trump sits down to a meeting with of Gulf Cooperation Council leaders, including Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R), during their summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 21, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RC19B4965AE0

Even as the Donald Trump administration has struggled to rally the international community to respond to a series of alleged Iranian attacks in the Gulf that culminated in this month’s strike against a Saudi oil facility, the US is making another effort to forge a military alliance of Middle Eastern states.

Over the past several weeks, the State and Defense Departments have gathered a bloc of Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, despite an ongoing blockade of Doha. Egypt exited the alliance last year.

In Washington last week, the Pentagon’s top Middle East policy official, Mick Mulroy, hosted the Middle East Strategic Alliance countries in an effort to organize the group’s security element, urging “whole of government cooperation across economic, security, energy and political spheres” in the wake of the Sept. 14 attacks on Saudi facilities at Abqaiq.

But after President Trump refused to retaliate against Iran after the Abqaiq strikes and the shootdown of a US drone, former US officials say that Gulf nations are becoming more wary of relying on the Pentagon for protection.

“No sign that GCC can function as a coherent security organization,” said Adam Ereli, a former US ambassador to Bahrain, using an abbreviaton for the Gulf Cooperation Council, which fractured after the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar began in 2017. “Trump’s fecklessness in the face of Iranian aggression has dealt a serious blow to Arab confidence in US as a protecting power.”

Ereli described the recent meetings as “very low-level” and said the US administration may hope to enhance ballistic missile defense, cyber and maritime forces in the region. But Trump’s calls to get European and Arab allies to respond to Iranian provocations have been met with a tepid response.

Al-Monitor recently reported that European nations mostly opted to work with a coalition of EU states to secure oil traffic in the Gulf instead of the American-backed International Maritime Security Construct in an attempt to steer clear of any semblance of involvement in Washington’s so-called "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran.

Even the UAE, which has called the Abqaiq strikes that temporarily knocked out more than half of Saudi oil supply a threat to the global economy, opted to attribute May attacks on an Emirati tanker to an unidentified “state actor.” The US directly called out Iran for the attacks. Among the Gulf states, only Bahrain, the host of the US 5th Fleet, has joined the maritime initiative that the United States rebranded earlier this summer after Britain reportedly balked at the “Operation Sentinel” moniker.

But the United States has struggled to try to get an "Arab NATO" bloc of sorts together for the past two decades. This was first envisioned by former US Central Command Chief Gen. Anthony Zinni as an invasion force in a possible war with Iran supported by American firepower. Zinni, a close ally of former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, left the Trump administration as envoy to the Middle East Strategic Alliance last year.

While former US officials stress that a Gulf military pact would not have the same features as the real world NATO, such as a mutual defense treaty, unity among the Middle Eastern countries could help deter Iran’s military actions that have gotten more aggressive since the Trump administration reimposed sanctions on importers of Tehran’s oil in May. 

“It would be very difficult in my view to get to an Article 5 that we have in the NATO alliance with the GCC,” said John Miller, a retired three-star admiral who led US naval forces in the Gulf until 2015. “But there is value in trying to move toward mutual agreement because it does provide that deterring effect in the gulf vis-a-vis Iran. That’s what will suppress their appetite for the sort of malevolent behavior that has become their stock and trade.”

In the wake of the Abqaiq attacks, officials from the Saudi Ministry of Interior visited Washington for an annual program review, a former US official familiar with the matter told Al-Monitor, though the ministry — which oversees the Saudi Aramco facility — did not request additional air defenses. On Thursday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the Pentagon would deploy a Patriot missile defense battery, four Sentinel radars and 200 support troops to Saudi Arabia.

But with Egypt, the largest standing army in the region, still outside of the bloc, the remaining Gulf nations would face manpower shortages for an alliance and scrutiny from a skeptical US Congress that has pushed to end American involvement in Yemen.

“It’s not their capability, it’s the manpower issue,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute. “Where are you going to get troops?”

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