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US push for a 'Middle East Nato' failed to emerge during Iran strikes

Exclusive: US scrambled Jet Fighters from Qatar and Saudi Arabia to fend off Iranian attack, but Arab Gulf states unwilling to jeopardise reconciliation with Iran
A man walks past a banner depicting missiles launching from a representation of the map of Iran coloured with the Iranian flag, in central Tehran, on 15 April 2024 (Atta Kenare/AFP)

The Islamic Republic’s Saturday attack on Israel was a made-for social media moment. It was also the ultimate test of US efforts to cobble together a coalition of Arab states and Israel in a so-called Middle East Nato, to jointly defend an attack from Tehran.

Israel, the US, France, the UK, and Jordan managed to intercept around 99 percent of the drones, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles fired at Israel by Iran in retaliation for an attack on its embassy in Damascus, Syria.

Radar and early warning systems that the US maintains at its military bases across the Gulf were instrumental in tracking the slow-moving armada of missiles and drones, current and former US, Israeli and Arab officials told MEE, adding that the US was able to scramble jet fighters from Saudi Arabia and Qatar at the last minute to particpate in the operation. 

But in the end,  the oil-rich Gulf states downplayed any involvement and left the heavy lifting of fighting off Iran’s attack to the US, its western allies and Jordan, the resource-poor Hashemite Kingdom dependent on US financial assistance.

For its part, Jordan cast its role actively downing Iranian drones as self-defence and not related to protecting Israel. 

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“There was unprecedented cooperation between Israel, the US and the Jordanians,” Michael Milshtein, a former Israeli military intelligence officer, told Middle East Eye. “But calling this a coalition is an illusion.”

Middle East Eye reported on Friday that the Gulf monarchies were shutting down US options to launch strikes against Iran in the event Washington felt the need to retaliate against Tehran’s attack on Israel. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, and Kuwait all scrutinised their basing agreements with Washington to do the bare minimum that was required and avoid being involved in direct strikes on Iranian targets. 

'Most of the Arab states promoted reconciliation with Iran because they couldn’t rely on Biden’s administration'

- Michael Milshtein, former Israeli military intelligence officer

Bilal Saab, a former US Department of Defence official, now at Chatham House, told MEE that the Gulf states’ calibrated actions underscored the limits of the Biden administration's push for a Middle East Nato.

“When we start seeing authorisations to use Gulf airspace to launch strikes on Iranian targets, then we can start talking about a Middle East Nato. Right now, it's the exact opposite,” he said.

“I think what we saw from Saturday’s attack pumps the breaks on any idea of an Arab and Israeli Nato.”

Propaganda war

As the dust from Saturday’s attack settles, the way regional states responded in the lead-up to the assault is becoming a new battleground between Tehran on one hand, and the US and Israel on the other - that has little to do with the Palestinians but rather the bigger question of who calls the shots in the Middle East.

The Biden administration and Israel are keen to cast Israel’s successful defence as the byproduct of a united front of allies, including Arab states. Israeli war cabinet minister Benny Gatz praised the “regional cooperation” that allowed Israel to defend itself.

Succesful coordination with Arab states would allow Israel to present Saturday as a strategic win, which could help reduce tensions by lessening the need for a more forceful Israeli response, according to analysts.

“What this weekend demonstrated is that Israel did not have to and does not have to defend itself alone when it is the victim of an aggression, the victim of an attack," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Monday.

'Saturday’s attack pumps the breaks on any idea of an Arab and Israeli Nato'

- Bilal Saab, Chatham House

For its part, the Islamic Republic’s goal is to isolate Israel, preventing any cooperation between them and Gulf states.

“It’s a total propaganda war right now,” Aziz Alghashian, a Saudi analyst and expert on ties between Israel and Gulf states told MEE.

Tehran and Washington are already sparring over whether advance notice of the attack on Israel was given.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said that Tehran gave the US about 72 hours prior notice of the attack through “our friends and neighbours”. On Monday, the Wall Street Journal appeared to confirm that claim, reporting that Iran briefed officials from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states on its attack. Turkish officials also told MEE that Turkey, a member of Nato, was briefed on the attack days in advance.

The US, however, denied it was given a days-long heads up before the assault. 

Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told MEE that an Iranian leak to Gulf states would logically be passed on to the US because Arab rulers are afraid a deadly Iranian strike on Israel could spark a wider war, which Iran hoped to avoid. 

“Jordan and the Arab Gulf states are first and foremost concerned about preventing regional escalation," he told MEE. 

“I don’t see this as Gulf states doubling down on a strategic alignment with Israel. They are going to keep talking with Iran to prevent an unravelling that they fear will suck them all in.”

'Provoking Iran' 

To be sure, the Arab Gulf states are linked more closely with Israel today than any time in history, and Israel’s war on Gaza has not led the UAE or Bahrain to rip up the 2020 Abraham Accords which saw them normalise ties with Tel Aviv.

As part of that agreement, Israel was also absorbed into Centcom, the US’s overall central command in the Middle East. Israeli military officials were even dispatched to Qatar’s Al Udeid Air Base, MEE previously reported, but it's not clear if those officials are still in the country.

But Saturday’s attack on Israel underscored the US’s limited success in fostering closer security cooperation between Israel and the Gulf states, Milshtein, the former Israeli military intelligence officer, told MEE.

'The strategic value of restoring ties with Tehran is paying dividends'

- Aziz Alghashian, Saudi analyst

Gulf states have no love lost for Iran, but are wary of what they believe to be the US’s waning influence in the region and limited appetite to come to their defence, as Washington did for Israel. The US did not retaliate to the 2019 attack on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil facilities that was blamed to have been backed by Iran.

The Gulf states' frustration with the US only grew when the Biden administration took office. Biden and members of his party criticised Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over human rights issues. Saudi Arabia and the UAE also viewed the administration’s response to Houthi missile and drone attacks as tepid.

In response, they moved to patch up ties with Tehran. In April 2023, the UAE appointed its first new ambassador to the Islamic Republic after seven years. Saudi Arabia and Tehran normalised ties in a deal brokered by China.

"Most of the Arab states promoted reconciliation with Iran because they couldn’t rely on Biden’s administration,” Milshtein said. “They preferred to deal with Iran and not the Americans”

Saab, at Chatham House, said to achieve true regional coordination between Israel and the Gulf states, Washington would need to provide concrete security guarantees. Saudi Arabia has requested such support, along with new weapons systems, as part of a deal to normalise ties with Israel, but those talks are stalled as Israel pounds the Gaza Strip.

“The last thing the Gulf is going to do is provoke Iran and not have the backing of the Americans,” Saab said.

Alghashian said Saturday’s attack on Israel likely reaffirmed Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s decision to restore ties with Tehran. He said Riyadh’s goal is to “stay out of the way” of tensions between Israel and Iran as it pursues its economic development.

“The strategic value of restoring ties with Tehran is paying dividends,” he said.

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