Mesa: a historic moment very much in the making

Establishing the Middle East Strategic Alliance will entail big choices, but it could also herald a new era of co-operation

Mike Pompeo, U.S. secretary of state, listens during a United Nations Security Council briefing in New York, U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. Pompeo met North Korea's foreign minister in New York Wednesday and agreed to travel to Pyongyang next month as the two sides continue to prepare for a second summit between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un. Photographer: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg
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When America offered the countries of western Europe its security umbrella by the establishment of Nato, the need was clear-cut. Ravaged by the Second World War, they were threatened by communism. As Winston Churchill remarked, an iron curtain had descended over Europe and thus Nato ring-fenced the western side.

As the US explores the advantages of Mesa (the Middle East Strategic Alliance), the historic importance of such a development appears equally immense. The choices to be made for the nations involved will now be outlined, discussed and considered.

Potentially far-reaching, the implications are worthy of close examination. Washington’s point men on the US approach to regional security have certainly taken on a very ambitious project.

For a start, Mesa and Nato are unlikely to adhere to the same blueprint. The Brussels-based military alliance has decades worth of institutional heft, not only co-ordinating activity across a range of areas, but also planning the response to external attack.

The potential Mesa partners are at the early stages of exploring an alliance to address the particular security concerns of the region. To be a strong institution, Mesa needs to have a clear purpose and an operational infrastructure. It will be up to the members if it becomes a platform for military co-operation, intelligence sharing, threat assessment and joint operations among other things.

The annual United Nations General Assembly meeting has witnessed the project coming into the light, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meeting the GCC plus two nations − Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman, along with Egypt and Jordan − on the topic on Friday.

It is telling that Iran has decided that the alliance would represent a challenge to its interests, despite those involved in the discussions making no such noises.

Iran has for years peddled a straw man in regional diplomacy. It has repeatedly called for a regional security architecture. It is a well-worn tactic to propose a framework that has no practical or feasible purpose, while pursuing an individual agenda. It has made this empty demand while using proxies in a range of regional states to destabilise those countries and expand its own influence.

What Tehran now faces is the pressure that closer alliances across the region would put it under. Iran would almost certainly see its aggression checked if the countries under threat co-ordinated more closely.

Moreover, there is an obvious place for a bulwark against revolutionary actors that promote chaos. That is certainly true of Iran and its allies in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq, but also underground Muslim Brotherhood entities and associated factions.

Last year, at the UN General Assembly, General David Petraeus, the former US commander in Iraq, identified how Iran was capitalising on the destruction of ISIS to establish land corridors that would allow it to reinforce its positions in Syria. Those corridors have also brought a new twist in Iran’s use of proxies in Iraq to use violence to shore up its political position.

The current UNGA session has given new definition to the Iran threat. Tehran has manoeuvred into position to use its platform in one country to make cross-border attacks on others. Anyone one who has followed the 197 missile attacks from Yemen on Saudi Arabia will appreciate that these tactics are now well-established.

In fact, this has now been elevated into a strategy. It is not just Yemen where Iran is projecting beyond borders. Syria and Iraq are also joining the list of what could be called Iran’s unsinkable aircraft carriers in the region.

Faced with an increasingly coherent front orchestrated by Iran, an entity such as Mesa could be part of the antidote. It would need internal consensus consistent with the scale of the challenge and the means of tackling it.

Certainly, the US has made curtailment and containment of Iran the centrepiece of its foreign policy. The squeeze on Iranian oil sales is at the heart of a campaign of economic pressure.

The US goals are twofold. One is to ensure that there is a permanent framework put in place to eradicate Iran’s nuclear programme. The second is a regime in Tehran that is prepared to abandon its cross-border aggression and normalise its position. As Mr Pompeo said during the week, the regime needs to choose between operating as a revolutionary power or a state.

Of course an alliance entails big choices, as Nato demonstrated during the Cold War. Mesa would no doubt be dedicated to protecting vital international shipping routes in the Gulf and elsewhere.

But what are the bigger examples of knock-on consequences? While bilateral ties beyond the core group would stand alone, America’s China agenda and Chinese naval expansion will not be compatible with its overall aims.

One thing is clear, though: the US administration is intent on renewing America’s strategic and security relationships throughout the world, and nowhere more so than in the Middle East.