BY: LAWRENCE SOLOMON
National Post, March 27, 2017 - Donald Trump’s Middle East policy is emerging. Apart from supporting Israel, he wants to eradicate ISIL and other Islamic jihadists, he wants to deter Iran and its dream of hegemony over the entire Middle East, and he wants the Arab countries to bear the burden of their own defense.
His answer: an Arab NATO, funded by its Arab members and aided by the military and intelligence assets of Israel and the United States.
The idea of a military alliance among the Arab nations first came from Egypt’s President Abdel al-Sisi two years ago in February, 2015, when he went on national television to warn about radical jihadis across the Middle East. The Arab League at its summit the following month endorsed the concept, and military heads from 11 Arab countries (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Sudan, Libya and Jordan) then met to work out the details.
But al-Sisi’s plans soon went into a deep freeze, despite a push by Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who argued in June 2015 testimony to two Congressional subcommittees that the U.S. should “fully support, help organize, and assist those regional partners create an ‘Arab NATO-like’ structure and framework. Build an Arab Army that is able to secure their regional responsibilities.” Flynn was especially focused on deterring a Russia-backed Iran, which poses a nuclear threat to the United States as well as to the countries of the Middle East — not just Israel, about which Iran is most vocal, but also the Sunni Arab states and Sunni Turkey, a NATO ally of the U.S.
Upon becoming president, Trump immediately revived the al-Sisi-Flynn plan. Rather than accepting America’s outsized military burden in the Middle East, he pressed the Arab NATO plan with Arab diplomats in Washington through Flynn, who had become his national security advisor, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Trump personally took the issue up with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was immediately receptive.
“I believe that the great opportunity for peace comes from a regional approach from involving our newfound Arab partners,” Netanyahu stated at a joint press conference with Trump when in Washington in February. Elaborated Trump: “It is something that is very different, hasn’t been discussed before. And it’s actually a much bigger deal — much more important deal in a sense. It would take in many, many countries and would cover a very large territory.”
The “much bigger deal” involves something for all the Sunni Arab states in the region. Saudi Arabia needs help fighting the Iranian-backed Houtis in Yemen, Egypt needs help countering threats from Libya, all are at risk from ISIL. As a down payment on the deal, the Trump administration launched a commando raid into Yemen. To seal the deal, Trump must overcome Arab fears of being accused of entering an alliance with Israel. Arab leaders have asked Trump to hold off moving his embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and to prevent Israel from building new settlements, requests with which Trump is complying.
In short order, Trump has begun to realign the Arab armies, at the same time indicating he has their back against a nuclear-powered Iran bent on hegemony over the Middle East. Judging by the reaction of Iran, Trump’s approach is working.
After Iran’s long-range missile launch on Jan. 29, shortly after Trump’s inauguration, it was menacingly “put on notice” by the Trump administration, and to immediate effect. Iran soon cancelled a follow-up launch of a long-range missile that had been planned, and even cancelled a non-military launch of a satellite, for fear of rousing Trump’s ire. According to Iran’s Tasnin News Agency, a frustrated Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force, bitterly complained that Iran had been deterred “because of America’s angry tone … How much longer will we be blackmailed and forced to compromise? If we do not change our strategy, and continue to operate according to orders from officials who are stuck in the mud, our situation will deteriorate daily.”
The deterrence went further. Iran has stopped provoking U.S. navy vessels on the water, all but stopped its public threats to sink them, all but stopped burning the American flag, all but stopped its “Death to America” calls. Iran’s reticence to provoke the U.S. has continued despite criticism. As put in one Iranian article earlier this month, “when Trump was elected, (government officials) said that Trump was unpredictable and makes unconsidered decisions – and that is why it is better for us to refrain from saying anything to offend him…” Adding to Iran’s angst is a fear that Russia has abandoned it, after being wooed into an alliance with the U.S. that will see Iran squeezed out of Syria.
Iran is now on its back foot, concluded an analysis by the Middle East Media Research Institute, saying “These developments have given rise in Tehran to a sense that it is besieged and under an emerging existential threat, in light of the crystallization of a comprehensive U.S.-Russia-Arab (including Israel) front against the Iranian revolutionary regime.”
Trump, in contrast, is leaning forward, his assertive Middle East diplomacy, two months into his presidency, showing astonishingly promising results.
Lawrence Solomon is a policy analyst with Toronto-based