The best antidote to surging Mideast violence and Iranian extremism? Regional versions of NATO and the EU

By Frederick Kempe

As President Dwight Eisenhower is famously quoted as saying, “If you cannot solve a problem as it is, enlarge it.” For today’s Middle East, it’s worth applying that advice to enlarging the solution for perhaps the world’s most intractably troubled region.

There is an immediate need for moderate, modernizing Arab countries and Israel to quietly begin laying the groundwork for a NATO-like collective security organization and a European Union (EU)-like economic body. These institutions would unlock the region’s potential by countering its relentless cycles of violence.

Amid the horrors of Hamas’s terrorist attack of October 7 and Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza, such notions may sound like a naïve fantasy. However, some senior officials in the Middle East are already thinking in these terms, arguing to me that such an approach would be the most effective way to counter Iran’s proxy warfare and ideological extremism, without which the Hamas attacks don’t happen.

These officials, who requested anonymity to speak most candidly, point to Europe as their example. The continent had been wracked by centuries of inter-state and religious violence culminating in two catastrophic world wars. The EU and NATO have succeeded in bringing a period of unprecedented peace to the region. The only major European wars since their creation have occurred in countries outside these institutions—Ukraine, Georgia, and Yugoslavia.

Given the Middle East’s historical and geographic peculiarities, whatever its countries conjure up would evolve differently. Where the European lesson applies is that it’s best to begin with a small core of committed countries, and then expand from there. NATO was born in 1949 with just a dozen countries, including the United States and Canada from outside of Europe, and it now includes thirty-one members. The European Coal and Steel Community was founded in 1952 with six countries, serving as the precursor to the EU’s now twenty-seven members.

As was the case in Europe, moderate Arab states and Israel should begin with collective security, including the United States, Canada, and perhaps also India and select and willing European countries. One senior Arab official told me that the Abraham Accords countries plus Egypt and Jordan—all countries that have normalized relations with Israel with the support of the United States—would be the most obvious candidates in the first stage.

“I would be one of the first people that would endorse a Middle East NATO,” said Jordan’s King Abdullah II in a 2022 interview with CNBC. Jordan already works closely with NATO and has fought “shoulder-to-shoulder” with Alliance forces for decades, the king noted. While the current conflict makes such views sound remote, the danger of escalation makes the concept all the more urgently necessary.

One can only hope that it won’t take the expansion of the current conflict into a world war-like level of death and destruction, as it did in Europe, to galvanize common cause behind such an initiative. First and foremost, another senior Arab leader tells me, it will require Israel to recognize that it is “playing into Iran’s hands” through the nature of its Gaza invasion. “We all need to play the long game,” he said.

Israel has no choice but to conduct the war against Hamas and seek to destroy its ability to govern Gaza and conduct another 10/7 attack. That said, even if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is able to “eradicate” Hamas’s military threat, that won’t address the source of regional instability: Iran, its extremist ideology, and its support for proxies—Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and the Houthis in Yemen.

Without a lasting solution with the Palestinians, including the potential establishment of a Palestinian state, either Hamas will regenerate, or a similarly disruptive group will emerge. What’s needed isn’t just a smarter day-after approach toward and with responsible Palestinians, however, but also a day-after approach for the region.

Iran’s despotic rulers, with their goal of destroying Israel and defeating the United States and its like-minded partners, thrive in the chaos and violence that Hamas’s terrorist attacks and their aftermath have produced. It is in that atmosphere that Iranian rulers can best control their population and continue to build upon their greatly expanded influence across the Middle East, which over time has been born out of conflicts in Lebanon, in Yemen, in Syria, and between Palestinians and Israel.

The best way to counter this Iran-induced instability would be if the moderate Arab states of the Gulf and the region, building upon the Abraham Accords, deepen their security cooperation while simultaneously expanding their security, technological, economic, and investment cooperation to produce more stability, prosperity, and hope for their own people.

The outcome of increased regional cooperation over the next decade, the second Arab official says, would echo what happened in Europe. Iran’s rulers would confront the growing dissatisfaction of citizens paying attention to the progress of neighboring countries, much as the citizens of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries were while confronting NATO and the EU during the Cold War.

To win this struggle, eradicating Hamas is necessary but insufficient, when the real need is to defeat Iran, which neither Israel, moderate Arab states, nor the United States is prepared to do militarily. When one looks at all the alternatives for countering Iran and building a modern, sustainable, prosperous Middle East, the option of constructing common security and economic architecture is the most attractive of them.

What that would require is a recognition by the parties involved that Iran has achieved its current standing in the region through their complacency and unwillingness to counter its revolutionary leadership at each stage of its expanded influence. Arab officials privately praise the Trump administration’s strike on one of the most heinous of Iran’s revolutionary masterminds, Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani, in 2020. If the strike had been followed by a more resolute US approach to Tehran, then it would have shown Iran the limits to its efforts at stoking regional mayhem, even as Tehran works to develop nuclear weapons.

The notion of a closer regional security system, working with the United States, isn’t an entirely new one. Efforts include Arab League members’ interventions in Yemen, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and the Middle East Strategic Alliance of 2017. Operation Desert Storm, which liberated Kuwait in 1991, was the most successful instance of security collaboration and involved thirty-five states, among them seven Arab countries. There have also been efforts at greater economic integration through the GCC. Though it went largely unnoticed in the aftermath of October 7, the GCC recently announced a unified tourist visa that would allow travelers easy movement between Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Yet all these measures and institutions have lacked sufficient ambition to bring about permanent change in the region that also embraced Israel. As difficult as it will be to create sufficient trust between Israel and Arab states, particularly now, previous efforts have also stumbled on distrust among Arab states. The process of building these new institutions and gaining agreement to their aims could help address this trust deficit in a more permanent, institutional, and treaty-bound manner.

Saudi officials still hope to find their way back to a normalization process with Israel, involving security guarantees from the United States, which had been far advanced before October 7. Such a step would be far more meaningful and lasting if it was embedded in a larger regional effort at security and economic integration.

For now, the ball is in Israel’s court to manage its war with Hamas in a manner that does not close the door to these possibilities. As soon as possible, Israeli leaders need to get back to working with the Arab states with whom they had so greatly improved relations. Only in this way can Israel turn the horrors of Hamas’s terrorist attacks into a more lasting peace that even a complete defeat of Hamas cannot deliver.

If Israel and moderate Arab states can ultimately leverage this crisis for generational good, they could put their region on a more positive and sustainable glide path. If the region fails to seize this opportunity, expect the ideological extremism and violence to spread, perhaps endangering the moderate Arab states themselves.

Though this may not seem the right time for this long-term thinking, it’s worth remembering that Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter in August 1941, with World War II raging.

With the stakes this high and the dangers this extreme in the Middle East today, the vision needs to be commensurate to the historic moment.

Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @FredKempe.

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