US and Israel push Arab allies for joint defense pact amid Iranian tensions

By Aziz El Yaakoubi, Andrew Mills and Matt Spetalnick

Riyadh – The United States and Israel are seeking to lay the groundwork for a security alliance with Arab states that would connect air defense systems to counter Iranian drone and missile attacks in the Middle East, four sources close to them said plan.

The idea, which would use Israeli technology, could gain momentum during President Joe Biden’s stops in Israel, the Palestinian territories and Saudi Arabia on a July 13-16 trip, two of the sources said. informed of the plans.

As regional tensions have grown over Tehran’s disputed nuclear program, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and parts of Iraq have fallen under UAVs or missile strikes claimed or attributed to Iran-backed militias.

The talks are still in their early stages and have already faced resistance from several Arab countries that refuse to do business with Israel, the four sources said.

But Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said last month that an emerging US-sponsored air defense alliance was “up and running” and could be bolstered by Biden’s visit. The aircraft has already thwarted attempted Iranian attacks, he added.

Speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, an Israeli official said partner nations were synchronizing their respective air defense systems through remote electronic communication, rather than using the same physical facilities.

In recent years, Israel has offered defense cooperation to US-aligned Arab states that share its concerns about Iran, although the US assessment is that Gantz appears to have exaggerated the state of advancement of this security cooperation.

For their part, the Arabs of the Gulf have been publicly reluctant to the idea.

A person in Washington familiar with the matter said that while Biden will discuss broader regional security coordination, including with his close ally Israel, at a Saudi-led Gulf Arab summit next week, no announcement of a formal pact is expected.

The plan would be to build a network of radars, sensors and interceptors between Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt, with the using Israeli technology and US military bases, three of which the sources said.

ISOLATEIRAN

This would allow those countries, in particular Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emiratesto detect aerial threats before they cross their borders.

Israeli officials presented the idea of ​​a regional defense system at a US Central Command meeting attended by military officials from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Egypt in Sharm el-Sheikh in March, one of the sources said.

“The proposal is for a joint detection system, where each country that signs up notifies the others of a detected attack,” added one of the sources, who declined to be identified.

A senior Israeli official in Washington warning of Biden’s trip described efforts to form an alliance as “a goal that is set.”

“There’s a long way to go, and the United States supports it.”

Washington hopes that greater cooperation would help further integrate Israel into the region and isolate arch-enemy Iran.

The regional defense plan coincides with months of deadlock in talks over reviving a 2015 deal that limits Iran’s nuclear activities. Washington says Iran’s uranium enrichment, a potential path to nuclear weapons, has made alarming progress. Iran denies seeking atomic weapons.

Israel’s concerns about the outcome of nuclear talks – and its threats to take unilateral military action against Iran – carry weight in Western capitals.

Iran, armed with one of the largest missile systems in the region, said the joint military activities of Israel and some Gulf Arab countries are carried out “out of desperation”.

ARABRESISTANCE

But US push for anti-Iran cooperation is also meeting resistance from some Arab states such as Iraq, Qatar and Kuwait.

“There are different views in different capitals,” a senior Biden administration official said on condition of anonymity.

“We’re not trying to create a top-down structure. We try to build on the relationships that exist, some of them above the edge, some below the surface,” the official said.

Iraq is an excellent example of the difficulties of adhesion of certain Arab countries to an alliance. Iran has great influence in the country through Shia militias and politicians and would certainly block any attempt to join a security pact.

In May, the Iraqi parliament approved a law banning the normalization of relations with Israel, at a time when several Arab countries have established formal ties.

Iraq has never recognized the State of Israel since its creation in 1948 and Iraqi citizens and businesses cannot visit Israel, but the new law goes further, specifically criminalizing any attempt to normalize relations with Israel.

A senior Iraqi security adviser said no official plan has been presented to Baghdad to strike a pact that includes Israel and opposes Iran, so the alliance is out of the question.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are also moving cautiously, to preserve budding relations with Tehran, the sources said.

TRUSTPROBLEMS

The United Arab Emirates The government said it was not party to any regional military alliance against any specific country and was not aware of any official discussions. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan did not respond to requests for comment.

Washington hopes greater regional security cooperation could pave the way for more normalization deals with Israel, which has established ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in 2020.

Israel’s top prize would be Saudi Arabia, which says normalizing its own ties with Israel would require the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. US officials say Saudi-Israeli normalization is a long way off.

Saudi-Israeli cooperation could also help mend US-Saudi relations, strained by the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the war in Yemen and high oil prices.

In an ideal world for Israel, an alliance would lead to sales of missile defenses in the Gulf, including its Iron Dome and David’s Sling systems that could run off the US Patriot missile batteries long used by Gulf states, according to reports. experts.

Jeremy Binnie, a Middle East defense specialist at Janes, said radars on the Gulf Coast would give Israel additional early warning of an attack, likely making it the biggest beneficiary of any alliance.

In Israel, Biden will travel to Palmachim Air Base to inspect defense systems including Arrow, David’s Sling, Iron Dome and a laser interceptor weapon, Israel’s Defense Ministry said.

Yasmine Farouk, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the idea of ​​integrated missile defense dates back years and that successive US administrations have tried to overcome mistrust between Gulf states in intelligence sharing.

She said growing threats from Iran and its Yemeni Houthi allies could now take precedence over “trust issues” between Gulf Arab states.

“But it’s a work in progress,” she added.

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