Stability in the Middle East hinges on containing threats emanating from Iran and minimizing hostile outside influences. The more unstable the region becomes, the more it will be open to Chinese and Russian influence.
President Joe Biden’s recent Middle East trip did little to advance regional stability. But progress was being made through quiet Arab-Israeli security cooperation well before Air Force 1 headed East, and with leadership from the White House, an effective regional air defense system is possible.
Biden’s sweep through the Middle East last week produced some memorable photos, but no major accomplishments. Much of the trip was an exercise in repairing damaged ties to longtime Arab partners, in which the president was forced to walk back some of his own policies.
After declaring that he would treat Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a “pariah,” Biden arrived in Saudi Arabia, hat in hand, and fist-bumped the crown prince. In return, he received vague assurances of future Saudi oil production increases, but nothing concrete.
Biden also was compelled to recognize the importance of the Abraham Accords, the bilateral normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco. Initially, the Administration had downplayed the importance of those agreements (brokered by the Trump administration in 2020) and trumpeted its commitment to a “two state solution” which would create a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
While visiting Israel and the West Bank, however, the president acknowledged the reality that the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating track is not likely to yield meaningful progress anytime soon.
He and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid issued the Jerusalem Declaration, which recognized the importance of “deepening and broadening the historic Abraham Accords” and reaffirmed the “unshakeable U.S. commitment to Israel’s security.” A key passage asserted:
The United States stresses that integral to this pledge is the commitment never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that it is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome. The United States further affirms the commitment to work together with other partners to confront Iran’s aggression and destabilizing activities, whether advanced directly or through proxies and terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Yet, despite the diplomatic effort to project U.S.-Israeli unity in the face of Iranian aggression, there was palpable disagreement on how to handle the Iranian nuclear challenge. Biden reiterated his commitment to reviving the flawed 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, but Lapid warned: “Words will not stop them, Mr. President. Diplomacy will not stop them. The only thing that will stop Iran is knowing that if they continue to develop their nuclear program, the free world will use force.”
Although Biden did commit to using force “as a last resort” to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, Israeli officials stressed the broader goal of stopping Iran’s nuclear program. This difference in emphasis reflects a greater Israeli sense of urgency about the threat posed by Iran, which also is shared by Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries targeted by Iranian aggression.
This common concern about Iran was a major motivation for negotiating the Abraham Accords and encouraging improved relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Although Biden failed to gain any tangible energy commitments from Saudi Arabia, his seemingly fruitless trip to Riyadh might yet be considered a long-term success if it yields greater security cooperation between Israel and the Arab states threatened by Iran.
Air Defense Opportunities
Perhaps the best news for Middle East stability came a month before Biden’s visit, when Israeli Defense Minister Ganz made a little-noticed announcement that Israel had joined with several Arab countries to form a new U.S.-led air defense network, known as the Middle East Air Defense Alliance (MEAD). Israeli officials have not publicly released the details or identified which countries will be involved, but the new defense coalition could evolve into a major gamechanger.
Gantz revealed that some aspects of the program already have been stood up: “This program is already operative and has already enabled the successful interception of Iranian attempts to attack Israel and other countries.” Israeli officials disclosed that Israeli F-35 stealth fighters shot down two Iranian drones last year with the assistance of real-time intelligence and data collected outside of Israel.
The escalating drone threat posed by Iran and its proxies provided the impetus for greater Arab-Israeli security cooperation. Israel long has been targeted by thousands of Iranian-supplied rockets, missiles, and drones launched by Hezbollah from southern Lebanon or by Hamas from Gaza. More recently, salvoes of Iranian-made drones launched by Iran-supported Houthi rebels in Yemen have prompted the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to quietly seek to buy Israeli-made missile defense systems, including the Iron Dome.
The nascent defense alliance is developing a communication network that will allow each partner to warn others in real time about incoming drones and missiles launched by Iran and its proxies.
The U.S. has played a significant role in facilitating the growth of this defense cooperation. In March 2022, the U.S. convened a secret meeting of senior military officers from Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Jordan and Qatar to discuss how they could cooperate to defeat Iran’s growing missile and drone capabilities.
Washington for decades has sought to build an integrated air defense network that would link radars, satellites, and other sensors to boost the security of Middle East allies. Those efforts have been hampered by a reluctance to share sensitive data and fears that Saudi Arabia would dominate its smaller gulf allies. That distrust is still an obstacle, but it can be mitigated if the U.S. asserts leadership and offsets fears of Saudi dominance.
The Jerusalem Post reported that Israeli radars will be deployed in the United Arab Emirates to detect Iranian missiles and drones, as part of the regional defense network. If that network of sensors were expanded to include Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Qatar, it would provide overlapping radar coverage of the entire region. When combined with modern air defense systems, that integrated air defense network could thwart Iran and its proxy’s ability to threaten deployed U.S. forces and our regional allies with drones or missiles.
While there are technical issues that must be overcome to build a seamless MEAD, the biggest challenges are the longstanding political fissures in the Gulf. The one nation capable of resolving them all is the United States. The Biden administration must move now to lead MEAD to fruition.
This piece originally appeared in RealClear Defense