Trump’s ‘Arab NATO’ plan to counter Iran is doomed to fail

What the region needs is not an ‘Arab NATO’ but a Marshall Plan.

Salman and Trump Reuters
US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, US March 20, 2018 [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

With the stated aim of bringing it back to the table of negotiation in order to clinch a “better” deal than the one signed by its predecessor, the Trump administration reimposed the first round of economic sanctions on Iran. The second and more painful one, which targets Iran’s vital oil sector, will come into effect in early November. Iran’s economy is already feeling the heat. The currency is falling, European companies are leaving, and oil customers are looking for supplies elsewhere. But this is not the whole story. President Trump knows that economic sanctions alone, especially in the absence of international consensus, would not produce the intended effects – to force Iran to negotiate and accept US terms. Sanctions, according to several studies, have only a 35 percent success rate when they are unaccompanied by other means of coercion. Hence, the idea of establishing a so-called “Arab NATO”.

The proposed security and political alliance tentatively known as the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) would bring together the six GCC countries, Egypt and Jordan to confront Iran. It might well be announced at a summit provisionally scheduled for Washington on October 12. Indeed, one is tempted to think that the main driver of the idea is President Donald Trump’s blatant desire to see friends and allies shoulder more of the financial burden in confronting regional security threats. Notwithstanding the importance of money for the calculus of the US president, there are much deeper implications of the proposed plan that will also affect the chances of its success.

In fact, what President Trump is primarily suggesting is a collective security formula composed of countries from the region to deal with threats emanating from within the region, be that by states like Iran, or by non-state actors, like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other radical groups. This is something unseen since the early years of the Cold War, when foreign powers had often tried to erect regional security alliances to confront threats, protect their interests and those of their regional allies. But these security systems have rarely worked.

Past experiences

Right after the end of World War II, both Britain and the US tried to establish regional security alliances with the aim of confronting the Soviet Union and containing communist penetration into the strategically important region of the Gulf and the Middle East. The Arab-Israeli conflict and Arab struggle against European colonialism, made it difficult, however, to include Israel in any collective security arrangement for the Middle East. The US opted, as a result, towards establishing a “Northern Tier,” referring to the line of countries that formed a border between the Soviet Union and the Middle East. According to the Archive of the US Department of State, “The idea was to conclude an alliance that would link the southernmost member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Turkey, with the westernmost member of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), Pakistan”. Other attempts were made to establish a “Middle East Command”, a British idea, to encircle the Soviet Union. The plan was abandoned in favour of another scheme: “Middle East Defense Organization”. Later efforts resulted in the establishment of the “Baghdad Pact”, which included Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and the UK. The US did not join the Pact, preferring instead to sign individual agreements with the member states. All of these collective security alliances have failed, however, in achieving their primary objective: containing the Soviet Union and confronting communism. Despite all the efforts, Moscow succeeded in penetrating the region and establishing close ties with Syria and Egypt. To add insult to injury, a key member in the Baghdad Pact (Iraq) became Moscow’s closest regional ally after the 1958 revolution, which overthrew the monarchy.

The key reason for the failure of all these security arrangements was an intrinsic lack of understanding by the architect, the US in this case, and its inability to appreciate the centrality of the Palestinian cause in the collective awareness of the Arab people. For most Arabs, at that time, Israel was far more imminent threat than the Soviet Union. Today, there are more reasons to expect the failure of the US-sponsored Arab NATO.


Needless to say that the founding pillar of any collective security organisation is that all of its members must share the same threat perception. Otherwise, it cannot be called collective security. This is lacking in the case of the Arab NATO on two levels: on the inter-state level and on the state-society level. For some member states, the threat comes from within the proposed security alliance as much as it comes from without. In the light of the news that former US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, had intervened to stop Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates from invading Qatar last year, one would wonder what type of security alliance Mr Trump is promoting here. The underlying principle of collective security is “One for all and all for one”. Aggression or war against a member of a collective security system is a war against all members. But here war and the threat of war is originating from the very organisation that is supposed to provide protection and enhance one’s security!

On the state-society level, there is even a larger gap between the threat perceptions of the rulers and those of the ruled. Indeed, many Arabs see Iran as a grave threat, given its destabilising activities in the region and its interference in the internal affairs of the Arab world. Yet, a greater number of Arabs believe that Israel and the US present a far greater threat to Arab security than Iran. According to the Arab index, Iran ranks first among the most threating countries to Arab security only in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. For the rest of the Arab world, it lags far behind Israel and the US. In addition, a great number of Arabs believe that the most pressing problem for them is the lack of good governance and the absence of sound public policies to tackle poverty, unemployment, and social inequality.

Indeed, Iran’s meddling in Arab affairs must stop and its behaviour must change, but President Trump’s Arab NATO venture will not help achieve that. It will just be another failed attempt in a series of failures to bring security to a region that is still very much preoccupied with the balance of power concept and realpolitik approach. President Trump will do us more favour if he helps both Arabs and Iranians rebuild their failed state institutions. A Marshall Plan for the Middle East is what we need to provide stability and security to all countries in the region. Inclusive security arrangements will lead to prosperity and prosperity will help establish true democracy in Iran and the Arab world. A democratic peace could then prevail as it did in post-WWII Europe.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.