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Pentagon, State Department officials in Saudi Arabia to talk Iran strategy

Like its predecessors, the Biden administration wants Gulf Cooperation Council states to share air defense intel to defuse potential attacks by Iran, but will they work together?
US special envoy to Iran Robert Malley.

WASHINGTON – Senior Biden administration officials kicked off a week of meetings in Riyadh on Monday to discuss the next steps Arab Gulf states can take to build an effective defensive bulwark against Iran.

US special envoy for Iran Robert Malley, the Pentagon’s Middle East policy chief Dana Stroul and the State Department’s acting director for counterterrorism Christopher Landberg are leading working groups with officials and military generals from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman.

Other US officials from the White House National Security Council, State Department and Pentagon are also participating in the meetings, which will focus on the Biden administration’s next steps vis-a-vis Iran, building regional integrated air and missile defense, maritime security cooperation and counterterrorism.

“There will be talk about concrete action that everyone needs to take; not just what the United States is going to do — but what our partners are also willing to put into the game,” a senior US defense official told reporters ahead of the meetings.

Communication lines: Biden administration officials say they aren’t taking eyes off of their two biggest goals in the Middle East: restraining Iran’s nuclear enrichment via diplomacy and furthering Arab normalization with Israel.

But amid no clear recent progress toward either, those priorities won't be topping the agenda in Riyadh this week, the senior defense official said.

Instead, the Iran working group led by Rob Malley will lay out to GCC counterparts “exactly where we move forward in the next step” regarding Tehran, the official said without elaborating.

Meanwhile, officials from CENTCOM, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Joint Staff and the Defense Security Cooperation Agency will focus on how GCC countries can take steps toward integrating their air and missile defenses and contribute to US-led naval task forces.

Integrated air defense: Biden administration officials are hoping the meetings will encourage Gulf states to reach agreements on sharing intelligence and radar data with their neighbors so that they can shoot down incoming Iranian projectiles together.

It’s a tall order — and one that at least the last five US CENTCOM commanders have been unable to achieve. But US defense officials say the recent years’ increase in attacks and threats by Iran have helped put regional military officials from Rabat to Cairo to Abu Dhabi on the same page.

There are no plans to upend the current model, whereby GCC countries share their radar data with the US military via the Combined Air Operations Center at Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, the senior defense official said. But Pentagon officials say a shared sight picture for regional air defenses would better neutralize threats from Iran and its proxies.

“A big part of our focus is modernizing the data-sharing agreements,” commander of US air forces in the Middle East Lt. Gen. Alex Grynkewich told an audience in Washington on Monday.

“Once those agreements are in place … Then you can build that information-technology infrastructure,” Grynkewich said.

New urgency: The meetings come as White House and Pentagon officials warn of a budding defense collaboration between Iran and Russia — one that officials say is almost certain to increase Iran’s ability to pose threats to its neighbors.

Senior Iranian IRGC officials have discussed joint production with Russia of a faster, more efficient version of the Shahed-136 one-way attack drone, The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month.

“The Iranians are getting great practice on their lethal equipment in Ukraine that will only come back to make the threats in the Middle East more acute,” the senior US defense official said.

“We should be sharing lessons, and we should be planning now for how we're going to address that in the region.”

Enhanced Iranian drone capabilities are also likely to pose additional danger to US troops in Syria, Grynkewich told reporters Monday at the Center for New American Security, a Washington-based think tank. Iran’s goal of expelling US military forces from the region remains unchanged, defense officials say.

“We see them continue to contemplate attacks on the maritime domain; we also see them continue to contemplate attacks on oil infrastructure in the region, whether that’s in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere. At some point they will act on that,” Grynkewich said.

“At any given time, there are three or four active threat streams that we are monitoring. It’s not a question of if, but when.”

Political headwinds: Pentagon officials are projecting optimism about the potential for real progress toward regional security alignment, a goal shared by at least four US presidential administrations.

“There has been no other moment in time in which the prospect for meaningful integration is more real than today,” the Pentagon's top Middle East policy official, Dana Stroul, told reporters via teleconferece from Riyadh on Monday.

US defense officials say military ties with Gulf countries remain unaffected by political whims, and combined military exercises and meetings between key US and Saudi military officials behind closed doors have continued apace, as Al-Monitor has previously reported.

But this week's GCC working group meetings, which were originally scheduled for October, had been postponed by the Biden administration amid a rare public dispute with Saudi Arabia over the OPEC+ decision to slash oil production.

And as the Biden administration leans on the Pentagon as it runs out of options to rein in Iran's nuclear enrichment via negotiations, willingness among Arab states to be seen as part of a US- and Israeli-led military bulwark appears, at least publicly, tepid at best.

“For every partner in the region, the timing is going to be different for steps to integrate into a regional security architecture with Israel,” the senior defense official said.

“Our partners have very real defensive requirements,” the official acknowledged. “If there are times where the Israelis can respond to those requirements faster than we can, then we think that's a positive area and we would we would encourage it.”

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